Money & Happiness - Happiness Breeds Wealth (and Vice Versa)

Laura Rowley

Last week, I couldn't help noticing a number of news stories that landed squarely at the crossroads of money and happiness.

The people involved -- a turtle expert, a boxer, and a space traveler -- seem to have little in common. But all three got me thinking about what it means to be genuinely wealthy.

Here's what I concluded:

1. Geniuses are willing to persistently follow their passions even when they're not financially rewarding.
As an eight-year-old, David Carroll visited a wetlands area in Pennsylvania for the first time, and was captivated by a spotted turtle. He dedicated his life to the study of turtles and other wetlands creatures, working as an illustrator and author, and advocating better habitat protection. His latest book is Self Portrait with Turtles: A Memoir.

Last week, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Carroll a "genius grant," one of 25 given this year to creative individuals across a variety of fields. The foundation offers the grant "to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations," according to its web site. Winners receive $500,000 each. It was an unexpected windfall for Carroll, 64, who told the Boston Globe that he and his wife, also an artist, raised three children and struggled financially.

They went without health insurance for three decades. The grant, paid out over five years, has no strings attached to the use of the funds, or any reporting requirements. "This is a wonderful thing for any artist ... to be able to see ahead, to have that kind of time to continue their work,"

Carroll told New Hampshire Public Radio.

What will Carroll do with the money? "I will continue my ramblings out there, observing the turtles and wetlands, and the advocacy for that kind of habitat protection, and continue with my artwork and writing," he told NHPR.

In other words, money -- its lack or abundance -- has no effect at all on how David Carroll spends his time. If there's a money-and-happiness lesson here, it's in the answers to these questions: What would you do with your time if money were no object? If it's not the work you do now, why not?

2. Confidence is wealth

The New York Times recently profiled former boxer George Foreman, focusing on his path from riches to near-bankruptcy ("Fortune's Fools: Why the Rich Go Broke," free subscription required). After retiring, Foreman returned to the ring in the late 1980s at age 45 to stave off financial collapse -- having blown through the $5 million he earned earlier in his career.

Foreman told the Times how he defined real wealth: "If you're confident, you're wealthy," he said. "I've seen guys who work on a ship channel and they get to a certain point and they're confident. You can look in their faces, they're longshoremen, and they have this confidence about them."

Foreman said he can detect a longshoreman who has ample home equity and enough cash in the bank to feel secure, and that some people, no matter how much money they have, never achieve that peace of mind. "I've seen a lot of guys with millions and they don't have any confidence," he said. "So they're not wealthy."

Put another way, wealth is what you get when you know what you want, set clear goals (in this case, owning your home and saving for retirement), and never lose sight of them. Wealth is understanding that money is a tool -- not a meter that measures your value as a person -- and knowing how to use that tool to help achieve what's most meaningful to you.

3. All you need is $20 million and a dream

Anousheh Ansari's dream began in Iran, where she gazed at the stars from the balcony of her family home. Last week, she got a closer look. Ansari, 40, and two professional astronauts blasted off in the Russian spacecraft Soyuz from Kazakhstan on Sept. 18 for an eight-day stay at the International Space Station. Ansari is the fourth private citizen to visit the station. Her parents left Iran a few years after the Shah was deposed because, she told CNN, they wanted her to pursue her passion for science to the fullest extent possible. When her family arrived in the U.S. in 1984, the 16-year-old spoke no English, except a few verses of the song "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music.

She went on to earn a bachelor's degree in electronics and computer engineering, and a master's degree in electrical engineering. She met her husband, Hamid Ansari, when both were working at MCI.

In 1993, she convinced him to cash in their stock options, max out their credit cards, and start their own firm, Telecom Technologies, which created patented signal-switching software. They later sold it for hundreds of millions of dollars, and now run a venture capital and technology firm called Prodea Systems.

Her space trip required months of vigorous training; Ansari had to learn Russian, as well as how to operate life support systems on the space station. "I want to reach women and girls in remote parts of the world where women are not encouraged to go into science and technology jobs," Ansari told The New York Times. "They should believe in what they want and pursue it." (Judging from the visitor comments on her blog, she's reaching quite a few.)

Estimates say that Ansari paid $20 million for the tour. She's been interested in space travel for years, and has provided millions of dollars in funding for various ventures to develop suborbital spacecraft. Such vehicles could potentially provide space travel opportunities for others at more affordable prices.

Riches from Within

I've met people like Ansari -- people who never pursued riches but ended up wealthy because they discovered a special gift and invested the time and hard work to develop it.

In his book The Good Life: Where Morality and Spirituality Converge, theology professor Richard Gula writes, "To live the good life, we must be committed to recognizing our gifts, to developing them, and to using them freely in ways that serve the well-being of others and the whole community."

Ansari's lesson? Stop worrying about making money and place a spectacular bet on your own talents. And never take for granted the blessing of living in a country that offers the freedom to make the most of them.

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