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Work and money

08/31/07 5:55PM By Allen Gilbert

(HOST) The upcoming Labor Day holiday has prompted commentator Allen Gilbert to think about work and the money we earn.
 
(GILBERT) Why do we work?
 
It’s a good question to think about this week, as we approach Labor Day.
 
The easy answer, of course, is that we work to pay the bills - mortgages, food, electric, kids’ education, car loans....
 
But why do we want money? How do we feel about having it? And why do we sometimes give it away?
 
I started collecting articles around this theme a while ago, when I saw one of those colorful picture-graphs in USA Today. It asked rhetorically, "If I were a rich man...." The wealthiest 1 percent of American families - those earning over $250,000 at the time - were asked to pick the things that they'd most want to have, and how much they’d pay to get them. The choices ranged from beauty to a place in heaven. At the top of the list? A place in heaven. Rich people would pay $640,000 for that. By contrast, they’d pay only $83,000 for great beauty.
 
A few years later, I came across reports from economists studying what made people happy. If people spent more on tangible goods, were they likely to be happier? The economists found that the answer was, "only sort of." More money can make you happier, but only if it puts you ahead of others. When everyone earns more, and everybody has, say, two cars, having two cars doesn’t necessarily make you happy. But if you can easily afford two convertibles and your neighbor can’t, well, that might lift you a bit. Earning more than others is a statement, a way of proving something to the world. That’s what apparently makes you happy - not necessarily the tangible objects that money buys.
 
In recent years, scientists started doing neurological experiments to try to determine connections between money and happiness. A 2004 study at Emory University found that we feel more satisfied earning money than having it given to us. Using simulated computer games and MRI scans, researchers detected satisfying activity in the striatum - the brain’s pleasure center - when the subjects had to work to receive money. Winning a lottery wasn’t as big a turn-on, they found.
 
Earlier this year, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health found that a primitive area of the brain that’s usually responsive to food or sex lit up when test subjects, given a sum of money, decided to donate it to charity rather than keeping it for themselves. Altruism, the study suggested, is hard-wired in the brain, and gives us great pleasure.
 
Finally, last month, a survey by the Associated Press and MTV found that what turned on young people wasn’t necessarily sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, or even some extra cash. Spending time with others - specifically family - was the top choice when people 13-24 were asked, "What makes you happy?" Almost no one chose "money" as their top turn-on.
 
Most of us will be fortunate enough to rest from our labors on Monday. It may be a good time to think about why we work, and what money means to us.
 
Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.
 
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