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Opinion: Money talks, but what are we saying?

Eyes & Ears

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“Money, it’s a gas.”

There’s irony in starting this column with a line from the famous 1973 song “Money” by Pink Floyd. The lyric might be lost on some of the very people who are influencing society’s view on cash.

I’m talking about millennials, a generation from which I am not far removed.  

Don’t get me wrong, I recognize money has long been highly coveted. So this is not another angle at beating up on millennials. But there is a noteworthy shift in views on money.

Think of money, and we’ve often thought of the notions of opportunity and success, travel and fame, upward mobility and legacy, freedom and happiness.

Wait, scratch that last one. That’s right, money doesn’t necessarily correlate with being happy – at least not as much as we would think.

I’ve asked the people at Harvard University. They know a thing or two about things. Actually, I reviewed results of a study they’ve been conducting for 80 years. It’s called the Harvard Study of Adult Development. It’s a very substantial piece of ongoing research asking Americans how they report their own happiness.

They’re finding the answer is in strong, close relationships. OK, no biggie, maybe that’s not a surprise.

But here’s the kicker: When asked what they’re pursuing to make them happy, the majority of people say money or fame. They believe that to be true. And it’s led by the younger generation, study results says.

The Harvard study’s current director, Robert Waldinger, addresses this aspect in a TED Talk.

He says in the talk a survey of millennials asking their major life goals found 80 percent said “to become rich” and another 50 percent said “to be famous.”

“We’re constantly told to lean in to work, to push harder and achieve more. We’re given the impression that these are the things that we need to go after in order to have a good life,” Waldinger said.

Enter the Harvard study.

There might be something to learn from these elders. The study began by tracking the health of 268 Harvard sophomores in 1938 during the Great Depression. Among the recruits were eventual President John F. Kennedy and well known Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. Less than 20 of the originals are still alive.

But over the years, Harvard scientists grew the study pool with the participants’ offspring, wives and several hundred boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. The control group now numbers over 2,000 people who have and are being interviewed, submitting health data and answering wide-ranging questionnaires on physical and mental competencies, marital quality, and career and retirement enjoyment.

“What have we learned?” asks Waldinger, the study’s fourth director, in the TED Talk. “The lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. It’s this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier, period.”

Summarizing tens of thousands of pages of Harvard research data, he points to three takeaways: social connections beat loneliness every time; quality of relationships matter; and good relationships protect our bodies and brains.

“The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 50,” he said of a study finding.

Money is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. It’s good to work to earn it, and we should strive to be wise in spending and saving it. It’s a gift to steward, to be sure.

Money’s just not the ultimate thing, at least in pursuit of happiness and personal satisfaction. And don’t forget about health.

“If you were going to invest now in your future best self, where would you put your time and your energy?” Waldinger asks in his TED Talk. He later answers: “It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.”

I think that’s part of what Roger Waters of Pink Floyd was saying a few decades ago. Money isn’t the end-all.

Hey millennials, ask an old-timer to cue up a 45 vinyl record with the “Money” song.

Never mind, just YouTube it.

Springfield Business Journal Editorial Director Eric Olson can be reached at


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