Healthy, Wealthy and Discontent

Apr 15, 2010 |Heather Koerner

Feel like there's never enough time or money? Some experts say we're whiners. Some say we're robots. But Paul says something different.  

The other afternoon was quite the circus.

I was preparing dinner, had a government official on the phone trying to work out my property tax, was emptying the dishwasher and waiting for Wi-Fi to connect — all at the same time.

Some call this multi-tasking. Well, it's tasking, that's for sure.

That's when the TV caught my ear.

I turned my attention momentarily from property tax lady to hear the reporter bemoan how Americans are so stressed today. We don't have enough money, so we work harder, leaving us with no time for family, friends or fun.

I nodded my head vigorously. You preach it, brother!

I knew it was ironic to take time from my "You're charging me too much money" phone call in my "I don't have any time" day to listen to a TV tell me I didn't have enough time or money. Still ... misery loves company.

But is it really true? Are we really lacking time and money?

It feels true — at least it did to me that afternoon. But recently, I've been challenged.

Stop Kvetching!

As I've researched America's current fixation on our "time and money crunch," it seems that two prevailing, and very different, attitudes are emerging. The first attitude acknowledges that Americans have a lot of time and money stress — or at least we think we do. This is the "get over yourself" school of thought.

John Stossel reported in his ABC special, Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity, that we actually have a lot more time than we used to. When compared with Americans in 1965, we have gained almost an hour more free time every day.

So why doesn't it feel like it?

Economist Dr. Daniel Hamermesh, a professor at the University of Texas, has co-authored a study that draws a rather interesting conclusion: We feel more stress simply because we have more money.

After surveying data from several countries, Hamermesh concluded we feel "time stress" because we have more money, and, therefore, want more time to spend it. It's our money that allows us to fill our schedules with book clubs, golf, tanning appointments, gym time and assorted lessons for our kids — leading Hamermesh to recommend that those of us complaining simply get over ourselves.

"This notion of time crunch is not one that should occupy public attention," Hamermesh said. "They're clearly better off with more money and with the stress for time than they would be with less money and less time stress.... Nobody is forcing them to do more."

Hamermesh calls this obsession with our time crunch a "yuppy kvetch." I got the yuppy part, but had to look up "kvetch." It's Yiddish for a constant, whining complainer.

Keeping It Simple

The second prevailing attitude also accepts money as the root cause of our time stress, but has a markedly different solution. This is the "get over your stuff" school of thought.

Where Hamermesh and Stossel would simply tell us to stop complaining and enjoy our wealth, many in this group (who often refer to themselves as the "voluntary simplicity" movement) would tell us that only by shedding our wealth — and its shackling stuff — can we be truly happy.

"This movement asks you to consider the consequences of your actions on your well-being and the environment," Cecile Andrews, the author of The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life, told Stanford Magazine.

Andrews went on to tell the magazine that simplicity can mean different things for different people. Some might quit their jobs, sell their cars and raise their own food. Others might cut back work hours to spend more time with family. And still others are just more deliberate about their choices: Is this plasma TV really worth it to me?

The movement emphasizes individual choice and questioning. But one theme echoes through quite a bit of the literature: our stuff.

"Have you ever noticed how much junk there is in your life?" writes John L. White on a web site for the Simple Living Network. "When I look in our closets at all the clothes we have, what will most of them be in 10 years? Junk. Junk that I spent my precious time earning money to pay for."

Not only are we running the rat race for our junk, but we also have to clean, sort, store and maintain it. This movement has a simple message: Take back your time by spending less and, thus, having less stress trying to earn more.

So Which Is Right?

By nature, I lean more toward the first way of thinking. Whining drives me up the wall. So the thought that much of my stress is really just disguised middle-class whining makes me queasy.

After reading Hamermesh's study, I took a hard look at my day and realized that much of my time crunch is by my choice and made possible by money: cleaning my nice house, getting my hair done, picking up the dry cleaning, doing Pilates and on and on. These are not things I have to do; they're what I get to do.

On the other side, the simplicity movement is a little more of a stretch. I'm not granola and never have been. We do have a garden out back, but that's more a reflection of my husband's rural roots than my commitment to organic eating.

Still, something about what they say rings true. My Wi-Fi was supposed to make my life easier, writing from wherever I wanted in the house. Instead, my husband has spent well over 20 hours trying to convince our server to cooperate with us.

But as I read Philippians the other day — specifically chapter four — the inadequacies of both these approaches started to become clear.

I had never really thought about this chapter containing financial wisdom. To me, it was just about the power verse — Philippians 4:13. As I read the verse in its context, however, I was floored.

Here's what Paul says: "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.... I can do everything through Him who gives me strength" (Phil. 4:11b-13).

What I had always considered a powerful verse (and still do) has everything to do with money and contentment.

That first approach to our "crunch" tells us to quit griping and be content with what we've got. The second tells us we can never be content when we have so much. But they're both wrong because we can't be content with — or without — things.

When we concentrate on the things — whether we relish them or purge them — we're missing the point. The point, as Paul tells us, is Christ. There may be times in our lives when we have little. There may be times when we have plenty. But it's not whether we have little or much that will make us content in our lives.

There is nothing inherently better, or more righteous, or more worthy about having more or having less. Both are just temporary, and Paul found contentment in both by realizing exactly that. He put his trust in the eternal, and by doing so, gained real contentment.

To be sure, what we do with our money is important to God. He calls us to be excellent stewards of the resources we are given, no matter how much we are given. But I can only be an excellent steward when I consult the Master for how He wants His resources spent. My focus has to be on Him, not the money.

In the end, I found pieces of eternal truth in both Hamermesh and the simplicity folks. I do need to be thankful and "do everything without complaining or arguing" (Phil. 2:14). I also need to remember that my stuff will not make me happy.

But I found the ultimate solution in Philippians. Whether I have a lot or have a little, I will praise the Lord. Because, in both situations, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Copyright 2006 Heather Koerner. All rights reserved.

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