Money on the Mind


“When I was young, my mom told me the dirtiest thing in the world is money” reflects Yuegang Zuo, professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. His latest work reinforces the fact that 90 percent of all paper money circulating in U.S. cities contains traces of cocaine. “Mom is always right,” he asserts.

Money is behind drugs, human trafficking, oil, politics, and war. It also has a part to play in our own happiness, well-being, development, growth, and solidarity.

Money can be “clean” or it can be “dirty.” It is material, yet can contribute to our spiritual growth. To some people, money is simply not important. But that’s rarely the case. From the moment we first minted coins, the human brain has cared about money. For the most part, it desires more. Through the ages, the two have been inseparable. Google “money brain” and most of the results are articles on rewiring your brain to be more financially successful.

Like any other decision we make in life, financial decisions have a neurological root and circuitry determined by our emotions and experiences, just as much a product of these variations as is our favorite breakfast cereal. We’ve all gotten tired of hearing the old cliché that we aren’t working hard enough, or that we aren’t staying motivated to make the money we want, but perhaps there’s a sliver of truth to it.

PET (positron emission tomography) scans have found that motivated, ambitious workers have higher release rates of dopamine — the “happy hormone” — in the brain. This spike in hormones acts much like seduction. It’s an arousal of the mind that empowers us, persuades us to engage in higher risk behavior — even financially — pushing us to make that high stakes real estate investment we might have thrown out as junk mail just a week before.

Whether you happen to have a lot or a little, money is often a chief trigger for emotional conflict and stress. It prompts worry, envy, harassment, bitterness, anxiety, and fear in many of us. We all know the adage that money can’t buy happiness, but can it? Without money, happiness is difficult. Current research explains how the more money we have, the happier we are. And it demystifies old studies that said that when you reach a certain point of wealth, more money doesn’t make you happier — it does!

Analyzing data from 155 countries and over 95 percent of the world’s population, the report conducted by University of Michigan professors Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson shows that it doesn’t matter if you are rich, poor, or somewhere in between, more income always comes with increased life satisfaction.

Having enough economic stability to do what you want is a healthy thing. Yet, should unchecked greed for money be something our brains should aspire to? It appears that the thrill of increased wealth can feed greed and diminish our generosity. Research by Paul Piff from the University of California Berkeley concluded that feelings of compassion and empathy tend to decrease as we accumulate material wealth, while the ideology of self-interest tends to increase. So, let’s check what we truly want and aim at just that. What you want is relative. Some people are happy with a little, others are not happy even if their houses resemble the pages of a Sharper Image catalog. Wealth means different things to different people at different stages of life. It may not buy you happiness on its own, but money will give you more options. And we should think hard about those options. Yet we don’t.

As neuroscience is increasingly proving, we make habitual decisions controlled by stimuli rather than by outcome, and finances are no exception. We’re creatures of habit, affixed to the familiar. Whether we see money as a prize to be won, or as a relief, just enough to get by for the month, it affects our spending habits in the long term. Two of the main narratives are “I would like to make more money and accumulate wealth” vs. “Money and wealth are mundane.” People like artists or social workers show a tendency to fall into the latter. But why deny a chance to channel your creativity into a significant income?

Let’s think of it this way. If someone has no choice but to focus on making it to the end of the month with just enough set aside for groceries and heating bills, that person won’t have much space for asking the big questions, seeking inspiration, or giving to help others. When we are struggling just to make ends meet, it is difficult to find spiritual resonance with the world. The instinct for survival is too dominant.

We often hear “I’m not in it for the money,” and we’ve probably said it too. We’re also quick to write off rising stars as “sell-outs,” willing to trade their dreams for a weekly paycheck. The reason for this is clear, thanks to neuroscience. We want to think of ourselves as acting altruistically while living out our passions. Living it out as we might, bills are still a reality. The best approach might be to determine a precise amount of money we need in order to live comfortably while defining what it is we do best and set a goal, aspiring to that goal and investing our money on that goal. Somewhere between the fear of pain and rejection, and the pursuit of fairness, is the opportunity to engage in doing what we love, or if not, countless opportunities to help others and truly realize ourselves, mentally satisfying our brains and unifying our material and spiritual narratives.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of Brain World Magazine.

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We believe that neuroscience is the next great scientific frontier, and that advances in understanding the nature of the brain, consciousness, behavior, and health will transform human life in this century.

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