We asked whether Seattle's phenomenal rise in wealth the past two decades has resulted in happiness, and invited readers to "talk money."
Back on Jan. 6, we at Pacific Northwest magazine asked whether Seattle’s phenomenal rise in wealth the past two decades has resulted in happiness, and invited readers to “talk money.”
You gave us an earful.
True, we didn’t hear much from the “greed is good” crowd. This is Seattle, after all, and winner-take-all wealth is reticent.
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Those of you trapped in debt tended to be shy, too.
Nor did we get much challenge to the assumption that “the pursuit of happiness” is the logical purpose of job and career — even though through the ages many people have sacrificed happiness in this life in preparation for the next one. Or, sacrificed happiness for patriotism, social causes, achievement in the arts and sciences, or philosophic contemplation.
Hey, this is America. Party on!
But Joanna Fullner of Seattle did gently make that point. “I would agree that all of the things that were mentioned — aging, family, friends, jobs, good health, etc. — are important sources for happiness,” she e-mailed. “But they can all be lost in an instant, except perhaps a challenge or sense of purpose. I was surprised that ‘a faith in God’ or ‘religious belief’ was not mentioned . . . It is our faith that is the source of happiness or contentment.”
We also received a tremendous amount of wisdom about frugality, investment, happiness and — ahem, the need for, and curse of, money.
“To me, money is a very important aspect of life,” one reader wrote anonymously. “I’m single with no dependents. Every month I can just barely pay my bills. I owe MasterCard around $1,300. I also have medical bills totaling around $1,500. I’m having a hard time paying both off. I also have a car payment, rent and miscellaneous expenses. My income is about $20,000 per year. Money may not guarantee happiness, but it sure helps to make the struggle of life a lot easier. You find me a rich person who says, ‘Boy, I wish I were middle class or poor.’ “
So far we haven’t. And even the well-off sometimes don’t feel all that well-off.
“Technically, we’re millionaires — barely — but these days that doesn’t mean much,” wrote Angela (she declined to give her last name) of Bainbridge Island. “Rich definitely doesn’t mean the same thing it used to. With the run-up in home values, it just doesn’t seem real. We’re happy, but cautious. Are we lucky to be here? Sure, but our ferries and bridges are shot, and we’re all just one big earthquake away from disaster. Not to mention anything on the scale of 9/11 again. The more we have, the harder we fall. It seems contrary, but that’s how I feel. The safety cushion feels like it needs to be bigger and bigger.”
“Money is an issue that is poisoning our relationships and making life here more polarized,” wrote Jim Sinclair of Sammamish. “The average income may be $63,000 here, but that number neither comes close to qualifying for the average house nor can it afford to pay $1,500 in rent plus food, car payments, etc. for a family of four. They work hard and don’t understand why life is so difficult.”
Another millionaire couple, who asked to remain anonymous, live frugally and preach it to their children, but said Seattle’s wealth isn’t buying some important things. “We don’t really consider ourselves rich, just lucky and hardworking. Having money is a double-edged sword. The security is nice, but it can be a burden and a huge responsibility. Even though we live in this concentrated area of wealth, it doesn’t make our kids’ class size any smaller or improve global warming, and I still can’t hop the mass-transit system to go downtown.”
SOME OF YOU say the economic growth we trumpet is making things worse, not better.
“Dream house on hold?” responded Nora Norminton of Seattle. “Not on hold, impossible. I earn a generous salary, yet am completely priced out . . . will likely relocate in the future. Not being able to buy a home (I’m single) is no longer acceptable.”
“I feel you left out a very important point,” said Mary Ann Henderson. “The increase in population is driving the high cost of living in Seattle. There is only so much land, and it’s hip to live here . . . Whatever happened to Zero Population Growth? Don’t know how anyone can be environmentally conscious and not practice ZPG.”
Some feared our individual success is threatening our collective well-being by straining the environment. “Very few of my society’s key opinion and decision makers have developed an understanding of looming industrial unsustainability,” wrote Richard Pelto. “Limits to growth have remained too long in too abstract a framework. I love my family, while wondering how carrying capacity and adherence to ideological cant involving unlimited growth potential is a problem accelerating us (to) resource depletion and ecological degradation.”
Helga Teske of Olympia put it more plainly. “High-fallutin’, ever-newer technological gadgets are setting ourselves up for environmental disaster at the rate we are going,” she warned.
Many of you wrote about the need for good money management, including controlling unnecessary wants, shopping carefully and investing wisely. A few suggested Seattle’s wealth is helping educate all of us into being more money smart.
“For me, the best financial benefit about living in Seattle was getting involved with the local volunteers from Better Investing,” said Georgi Krom. She and other women were aided in setting up an investment club in 1988 and, “My husband paid off our house a few years ago, and we can send our kids to college.” Her investment over the years has been modest — about $10,000 — but it has grown to $50,000, despite severe stock market downturns, “because of the power of long-term investing.”
Another strategy was suggested by 70-year-old Mary Beth MacCauley of Seattle: Appreciate what you have. She is divorced and clocks in at only about $12,000 a year, with $200 per month going for health insurance. Yet she calls herself “rich,” even though she knows that selling her house in 2001 to provide income for retirement brought just half what she might have gotten if she’d waited five or six years for the real-estate boom.
“I lived in a village in Turkey for three months, one room with a bare electric light bulb, bathed every two weeks, washed our clothes by hand . . . and was never happier. I am rich as I have a place to live, food to eat, health, family, friends and live in a place of beauty.”
SEVERAL READERS suggest we all struggle with what Melissa Westbrook of Seattle described as a problem of focusing between “needs versus wants — especially young adults.”
Peter Eng sent this from author Charles Dickens: “Annual income 20 pounds, annual expenditure 19 six, result happiness. Annual income 20 pounds, annual expenditure 20 pounds ought and six, result misery.”
“I think it’s not about the money we make. It’s about how much we spend,” wrote Debora Kitzke of Shoreline. “I would need 20 times as much to be a millionaire, but I have a good job, live within walking distance from work, have a beautiful, healthy family and good friends to spend time with. I buy everything I need (not what other people want me to think I need), eat well, have fun and still save one-third of my income. I feel like a billion dollars!”
“Individuals go through life never understanding a crucial economic principle,” said a retired librarian, single, who is a millionaire in net worth after saving and investment. “It is much easier to save a dollar than to earn it. Just $10 a week can be saved any number of ways from a budget. Now try asking your boss for a $10 raise.”
Amazon employee Cade Bodley considers himself to be financially comfortable because he’s frugal. He and his wife “live pretty simply and — possibly more important in terms of happiness — is we agree on (frugality.) Our newest car is a ’98 Subaru station wagon, the other is an ’89 Chevy Celebrity, which is the cause of teasing by more car-aware friends . . . Money is likely not the source of happiness but a source of unhappiness: Either not having enough or disagreeing with your spouse about how much is enough.”
“I am a 24-year-old college graduate and I make right around $40,000 annually,” wrote Matt Abramson of Seattle. “I consider myself not necessarily rich, but very much wealthy. I have broadband Internet, a functioning vehicle, access to music and literature, and if I want to throw down $30 for a few games of darts and a couple of beers it will by no means break the bank. I do not, however, buy $200 sunglasses, pay $5 for a coffee, own leather furniture, drop outrageous sums at casinos, or vacation frequently outside the country . . .
The media has done a lot to twist and distort the reality of how good our lives really are. Every time you flip on the television a deluge of advertising does its best to convince you your life is not good enough . . . The media’s constant feed of money-grubbing, mouth-frothing greed does incredible damage to the adolescent or average sub-literate American mind.”
Financial counselor Stacy Ployhar, who also drives old cars, checks her DVDs out of the library and avoids the high-end grocery stores, said prudent planning allowed her to leave her Microsoft job. She and her husband think ahead of time how any income will be used — “what toward spending, what toward saving, and what toward investing.”
“Who are you comparing yourself to?” she asked. “Why? Is it a comparison that inspires you or is it a comparison that causes envy in you?”
Thomas Piasecki of Edmonds, who with his wife has an income of $135,000 with no kids, said they feel quite comfortable, but noted “our happiness lies in the fact that we are moving more into ‘appreciation’ of what we have rather than an ‘acquisition’ of more stuff. Further, I’d like to think that true wealth is having options. If you have the option to move, change jobs, take a class, pursue a dream, then I’d say that’s wealthy. Conversely, if your options are limited (or nonexistent), so is your true wealth, regardless of your income.”
Adriana Fischetti, whose first five years were in The Netherlands during World War II, suggested that “to feel rich is inside a person, a sense of feeling good about oneself, liking oneself, and to be conscious fully in the moment.”
Marty Jourard of Kirkland suggests happiness comes from “anticipation, thrusting forward,” and being free, as he was in 1976 as a young, single salesman in Los Angeles making $156 a week. He quotes English author Samuel Johnson that “none are happy but by the anticipation of change: The change itself is nothing, when we have made it, the next wish is to change again.”
Artist Tony Angell said that while his financial success has steadily grown since the 1960s, “I don’t find that my happiness or contentment has been based on selling more of what I produce as much as it has been rooted in the process of producing work. My ‘richness’ is measured more on the successes I have had in expressing not so much what I see, but rather what I feel about my subjects . . . That’s art.”
Wendy McClure of Poulsbo keeps a quote by Peter Hawken, taken from a financial newsletter, on her cabinet door: “Always leave enough time in your life to do something that makes you happy, satisfied, even joyous. That has more of an effect on your economic well-being than any other single factor.”
“I am one of those people who grew up in very humble circumstances and have managed to be pretty successful,” said Donn Harvey, president and CEO of Protingent Staffing of Bellevue. “Does wealth equal happiness? I’m not sure I’m all that happier than when I was a school bus driver, but at least I don’t spend too many nights worrying about money.”
Everett’s Barbara Lippincott said that in the 1980s she heard a radio DJ ask listeners to define “rich,” and she decided she’d feel that way if she could afford to put anything she could into her grocery cart. As a single mother making $25,000 then she couldn’t, but now she can, so, “by my standard, I am rich.”
Some readers have experimented with different lifestyles. Mark Reithmaier of Clearwater, Fla., lived in Lynnwood in the 1990s and recently decided (in January!) to vacation back in the Pacific Northwest “instead of buying more stuff . . . Memories are a very important part of your life . . . Like everything else in life, money is a two-edged sword. (It) depends on how you use it.”
NOBODY WROTE about their material possessions giving them joy, but some wrote about the advantage of shedding them. John and Ruth Owen, in their late 40s and with no children, sold everything they owned and became full-time RV travelers. “People advised that we would regret our decision (but) we only feel relief . . . Less really is more; we found that the ownership and maintenance of many possessions did not improve our life satisfaction, but did increase the stress and cost in our lives.”
Rourke O’Brien of Bellevue said, “The epiphany or ‘aha’ moment came when I began giving money and things away, which required to first figure out what I actually believed in . . . I’ve come to observe that the happiest people on earth are those who give.”
Some suggested we could learn from the more socialized societies of western Europe. “I’ve read that Europeans tend to be happier than Americans and that this is often attributed to living in more egalitarian, less competitive societies with much more extensive welfare systems,” said Chris Nielsen of Shoreline. “A smaller envy and insecurity factor would obviously obtain that way, which would reduce the neuroses. There’s also less crime and general social ugliness. And the food is better.”
“I feel rich because I’m retired and on Medicare,” said Robert Svendsen, who admired the social safety net of relatives in Norway. “Medicare is like a 24-hour tranquilizer.”
Edward Bell of Kirkland had an even simpler solution: Own a pet. That “relieves more stress than anything you mentioned . . . My beagle does it for me.”
Certainly things could be worse. Anna Links said she had a comfortable life in Seattle on a salary of $34,000 while working for a nonprofit, but that $45,000 in New York City doesn’t come near to buying the same lifestyle. “I don’t eat out much anymore . . . I contribute nothing to my retirement plan, my savings are liquidated, I have credit card debt for the first time, and my designated bank savings account is basically overdraft protection. There’s about $25 in it.”
Anna, come back home!
What was encouraging was how clear-eyed and thoughtful so many of you are about money. So who’s really rich? Tom Pozarycki nominates himself, but not for the reason you’d expect.
“After being a widower for 16 years I have fallen in love in a way you only dream about. You read the love stories, listen to the lyrics of love songs and wonder if there are really people out there with that kind of love with a partner. Well, let me confirm that it can happen . . . and it is worth millions, maybe billions (but I can’t count that high). Talk about happiness; I would pay anything for a love partnership like this, but I didn’t have to buy it.”
We’re happy for you, Tom! (And who’s the lucky lady?)
All you need is love, John Lennon sang.
But a paycheck helps, too. So sorry, we’ve got to break this off and get back to work. Interesting stuff, though. Keep the dialogue going.
William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. He can be reached at email@example.com. Tom Reese is a Seattle Times staff photographer.