How Happy Are the Idle Rich?
Wealth and free time may promise more than they provide.
Posted Jan 20, 2020
Most of us believe that life would be great if we were independently wealthy, with no commitments and a wide-open schedule. We might imagine a breezy life of leisure, lying on the beach, hanging out with friends, traveling the world, relaxing at home.
We’ve all heard the truism that “money can’t buy happiness,” but we tend to believe we’ll be the exception. We’ll be the one to beat the odds, finding deep fulfillment in a financially secure life of ease.
Aaron Walker, who started 14 companies over four decades, expected to find contentment through financial success and early retirement. “I started my first company when I was 18,” Walker told me when we spoke on the Think Act Be podcast. “By the time I was 27, I sold it to a Fortune 500 company and I was actually able to retire.”
At first, Walker couldn’t believe his good fortune. “I thought, Man, this is the American dream,” he said. “That lasted for about 18 months.” The life of a retiree was completely different from the one he had imagined. “I thought I was going to kick back, sit on the beach, and live a life of leisure, but I was so bored out of mind I was getting in bed in the middle of the day. You can only golf so much or fish so much or watch so much Andy Griffith.”
We’re not designed for idleness, and too much downtime can be as bad for us as too much stress. “When you have no one depending on you, and no purpose in your life every day,” said Walker, “and there’s nothing you can add to humanity in any way—it’s crazy how quickly you become bored. It’s okay for a month or two, but the truth is, we’re creator-developers. We have to be moving the ball down the field and seeing progress.”
Thankfully his wife held up a mirror for him and helped him to reorient his life. “Finally my wife said, ‘Listen, this is not what I signed up for. You’re home all day, every day. You’ve gained 50 pounds. This is not what I thought retirement was going to be.’”
But as listless as he felt, he wasn’t sure where to find motivation and direction. We need a compelling Why to get up in the morning and throw ourselves into a task. “I said, ‘Robin, I don’t have any reason to get up,” said Walker. “What am I going to do?’ And she said, ‘I don’t care what you do—go get a job, start another company, but you have to get out of this house and get yourself back in shape.’” So that’s what he did, returning to work and finding his way back to life.
I’ve often been perplexed by how bad we are at predicting what makes us happy. Why do we think that having no responsibilities will be satisfying? I have this false belief myself, especially when I’m exhausted from being an adult and wish I could retreat to a time of dependence on others and minimal responsibilities. But like Walker and countless others, I’ve found that I need consistent engagement to stay well physically, mentally, and spiritually. As tied down as we might feel by our commitments, they also tie us to life.
And it’s not enough simply to work and make money—we need a sense of purpose, which generally comes from knowing that our actions are in some way helpful to others. Dr. Alec Spencer, my mother’s father, emphasized this point during his many decades as a physician in the hills of Morgan County, Kentucky. He urged his children and later his grandkids, “Do something that makes a difference in people’s lives.” (See this previous post that describes my grandfather’s life of service.)
Walker came to realize that he wanted to make a difference in the lives of others. He noted that after his initial success, “My legacy would’ve been, ‘Poor kid from Nashville, Tennessee, makes enough money to retire at age 27 … and nobody cares.’” He wanted his life to mean more than that—more than wanting financial success, he longed for significance. “I wanted my legacy to be that people’s lives were better as a result of having known and interacted with me,” he said.
There are endless ways to be of service to others. Years ago I met with a college mentor as I was seeking career direction. When he asked what I wanted to do, I answered with the earnest good intentions of my 23 years: “I want to help people.”
I’ve always remembered his response: “There are lots of ways to help people. Doctors help people. Chefs and truck drivers help people. What are you drawn to?” I realized I had a very narrow definition of “helping,” limiting it to what we call the “helping professions.” But any action, from the humblest to the noblest, can be done in the spirit of service. (“Good works,” for that matter, can be done selfishly.)
None of this is to say that money is unimportant or doesn’t have some relation to happiness, especially when we’re facing intense financial strain and uncertainty. I’m sure my grandfather appreciated having enough money for himself and his family and being able to help others financially. Walker is candid about the value of having a good income—he said he enjoys not having a mortgage and not worrying about paying his bills. He likes being able to go on vacation with his wife.
But he recognizes the inadequacy of material wealth to bring fulfillment. Now Walker focuses on helping others to meet their goals through his consulting business. “I took the focus off myself and put it on other people,” he said.
The lessons he learned earlier in life have stuck with him. As the people he works with move toward their goals, Walker is moving toward his—to succeed by making a difference.
The full conversation with Aaron Walker is available here: How to Build a Life of Success and Significance.
Walker, A. (2017). View from the top: Living a life of significance. New York: Morgan James Publishing.