Lately, I’ve been contemplating two forms of wealth. Only one type is available to all of us and only one type can produce contentment without requiring the other.

We’ve all seen the commercials…

GMC’s take on the popular Christmas car surprise. Shouldn’t there be giant bows on the vehicles?

A sweater-donning Ken and blindfolded Barbie step out of the front entrance to their 6,000 square foot custom cabin home where two luxury SUVs await with giant ribbons on them. What a surprise, his and hers new vehicles! Barbie can pick her favorite and Ken will be happy to settle for the other.

As the comments on a Reddit conversation about this far-fetched GMC ad reveal, what’s being sold is aspirational. GMC wants to be perceived as a luxury brand item.

Something in the back of my mind is saying, “Once I achieve more success and wealth, I will have arrived…”

Maybe we’ll never have the trophy spouse and mountain retreat, but we might be able to get a loan for one of their vehicles. If we can get our hands on a GMC or a Cadillac, we’ll have status — even contentment.

Measuring material wealth: the conformist’s wealth

Counting dollars and collecting objects is the popular way of measuring wealth — it’s also the well-trained consumer’s metric. Material wealth gives us means, and there’s nothing wrong with being able to afford what we need and then some. This is the kind of wealth marketers love appealing to.

Material wealth is also a dangerous metric because more is better, and when we get more it doesn’t feel like enough. Many well-to-do people are finding material possessions to be a burden as evidenced by trends like minimalism and tiny houses.

I’ve never owned a mountain retreat, but I did see my girls holding hands on a fall walk through a public park. The moment was priceless and this photo is worth more to me than any SUV.

In reality, Most of us won’t accrue the amount of paper rectangles necessary to own a home in Resort Town, USA or purchase two new vehicles as a surprise (who does this anyway?). Plenty of us have a hard time securing enough money to afford food, shelter, clothing, education, transportation, and healthcare.

Material wealth is a dangerous metric because more is better, and when we get more it doesn’t feel like enough.

Resort Town marketing works. Something in the back of my mind is saying, “Once I achieve more success and wealth, I will have arrived — and can then relax and focus on what’s really important: relationships, health, hobbies, etc.” This feels like a recipe for perpetual discontent.

One of the characters in Pixar’s movie Soul shared a parable about the blindness of perpetual discontent and all-consuming ambition:

I heard this story about a fish, he swims up to an older fish and says: “I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.” “The ocean?” the older fish says, “that’s what you’re in right now.” “This”, says the young fish, “this is water. What I want is the ocean!”

If the fish can’t appreciate swimming in water (his life) which shares an essence with his goal (desired destination, the ocean), he’s unlikely to find contentment when he achieves the goal — if he ever does.

To be clear, this isn’t an argument against material wealth but a caution (mostly to myself) against using material wealth as a measure of fulfillment. Material wealth, carefully understood and applied can contribute to the second, more fulfilling type of wealth: self-actualizing wealth. Material wealth alone is a recipe for discontent because meaning is absent.

For a few moments in time and space, this elk mother and baby crossed my path. This encounter made me contemplate the beauty of their relationship against the simultaneously nurturing and savage wilderness. I’ll never see these two again.

Material wealth alone is a recipe for discontent because meaning is absent.

Measuring self-actualizing wealth: the independent’s wealth

Lately, I’ve been contemplating a second type wealth in the form of self-actualization.

According to Positive Psychology, “Self-actualization can generally be thought of as the full realization of one’s creative, intellectual, and social potential through internal drive (versus for external rewards like money, status, or power).”

Think of “internal drive” as biological and psychical experiences we can’t own. How many more do we have left? How can we invest in having more?

A sunset fire with family, hot dog roast, and dip at a lake — more valuable than any shiny rock in the ear or on the hand.

In his book Walking Home: A Traveler in the Alaskan Wilderness, a Journey into the Human Heart, photographer and author Lynn Schooler contemplates an experiential wealth while solo backpacking a wild section of Alaskan coastline:

The moon drifting above the violent, hammering waves was beautiful in its serenity, and I tried for a moment to calculate how many more times in my life I would have an opportunity to see such a thing … my chances of ever being on a beach again at just such a moment, with powerful surf rolling ashore as the moon was going down, drove the odds into the single digits.

Lynn Schooler, Walking Home: A Traveler in the Alaskan Wilderness, a Journey into the Human Heart

Lynn’s thoughts made me consider an alternative model for measuring wealth, measure self-actualizing experiences: sunsets watched, play times shared with children, books read, conversations had, art made, walks in the woods, meals shared, symphonies listened to …

When I think of the life experiences which feel actually fulfilling, I realize how accessible many of them are right now. Let’s consider five forms of self-actualizing wealth we can all pursue right now: nature, art, learning, exercise, and consciousness (there are certainly more).

Nature as wealth

Paradise on Earth

Since we are all part of nature, it’s the ultimate benefactor.

Let’s do a thought experiment: humankind sends a probe deep into outer space, a journey of many years culminating in an anxious landing on a previously unexplored planet. The intrepid probe begins to transmit a stream of images and videos back from the alien planet.

Images of paradisaical greenery, gurgling streams and lumbering creatures arrive.

Perhaps this thought experiment is wrong, but I believe humanity would be awestruck. Finding life, especially lush and hospitable life, represents a priceless discovery — and we would all know it.

Ironically, we already live in this astonishing ecosystem, but we take it for granted. Nature is our easily dismissed birthright.

However, since we are all part of nature, it’s the ultimate benefactor — an inheritance we all have access to. Even the most desolate, bleak locales have access to nature’s treasures: the fragrance after a rain, staggering sunsets, whimsical creatures, an unexpected flower.

Without nature, we don’t eat. Without nature, we don’t endure. Without nature, our inspiration and wonder are diminished. Nature as wealth sheds new light on environmentalism.

How much is stumbling upon a hidden slot canyon worth?

As inheritors of natural wealth, there is a fundamental poverty happening inside of humans when we visit destruction and chaos upon nature.

When we desecrate and exploit the natural world, we diminish ourselves because we are part of the natural world — a lack of appreciation and respect for our existential framework is a sign of destitution, not progress.

Nature is a form of wealth most humans can draw from at anytime, even if simply appreciating the neighborhood environment.

Art as wealth

Art is creative human self expression in its many forms: music, writing, spoken word, painting, dance, movies, the list goes on.

Consider a masterpiece like Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana which bypasses musical illiteracy (namely: mine), touching on some essence at the core of the listener’s humanity.

Pietro Mascagni: Cavalleria rusticana – Intermezzo

Expressing ourselves and relating to the expressions of others through the arts is a powerful kind of wealth. To wake up in a vast cosmos, craft instruments of expression from the stuff of earth, and then cast melodies, words, and creations to the cosmos — how stunning.

We humans often labels ourselves as inartistic, but expressing ourselves is art and every imperfection like the shake of a hand when drawing a line is truly us — our most honest self-representation. For more encouragement along these lines see Danny Gregory’s The Creative License: Giving Yourself Permission to Be the Artist You Truly Are and How to Draw without Talent.

All of us can create and enjoy art. The world is waiting to see what creativity is hidden inside each of us.

Learning as wealth

Many of us have had our childlike curiosity diminished, perhaps because we were taught rote memorization instead of curiosity and critical thinking. This is a shame, because we have access to troves of insight and inspiration in the form of learning. We can improve our quality of life through increasing understanding which increases our empathy and even employment options.

A public library card is free. Khan Academy is free. The wisdom of ages is ours for free, right from our phones.

Learning is also a gateway to material wealth. Millionaire author MJ DeMarco has many provocative thoughts on learning as a key to financial success. Millionaire Fastlane, despite the infomercial-like title, is a good place to start with DeMarco.

It’s also true: those who are well-informed are more interesting people to be around!

Exercise and health as wealth

Crossfit advocates often mention functional strength. They want to build all-around strength which should allow for a richer and more active lifestyle. One good example is being able to bend over and pick up a box at age 85. Exercise is key to warding off the effects of aging, improving mental well being, and unlocking the door to richer experiences. One of the treasures of the fit is knowing the average person won’t venture more than 2 or 3 miles down a trail, everything after is the domain of the fitness rich.

I personally love how input/output is very predictable with exercise, the rewards consistently positive. The scale is relative, but we all have the capability to perform some form of exercise.

Fitness opens doors to the untrammeled

Consciousness as wealth

As philosopher Thomas Nagel pointed out, it is like something to “be”. It is no small miracle we are and we can think about being.

There is a wealth in being.

The landscape of the mind and consciousness is a rich and perplexing domain. Meditating on the mystery of existence is free to all and the panoply of human thinking and practice surrounding existence is inexhaustible. I’d suggest spirituality has a relationship to contemplation and consciousness.

Lately, I’ve had a yearning to simply sit by a tent with a friend and be. This desire has been incessant enough, I even commissioned friend and artist Michael Beenenga to make a painting for RuinYourKnees.

It’s a vast, cold universe and yet here we are able to contemplate our existence and share the warmth of relationships and a fire with other beings.

Self-Actualizing forms of wealth compound

Self-actualizing wealth builds on itself. For example, I’ve built this website (learning) in which I can contemplate existence (consciousness) and express this contemplation in an article (art). This is similar to material wealth’s compound interest!

Conclusion

Having more money can alleviate suffering and provide the means to many happy and enriching experiences, I’ll take financial wealth as available.

However, if we can’t find enjoyment in the self-actualizing kind of wealth available to us all now then the financial means displayed in mythical car advertisements will still leave us empty, even if acquired.

It’s like the people who believe they’ll be happy if they go and live somewhere else, but who learn it doesn’t work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you. If you see what I mean.

Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

Last night I watched a meteor shower. How many more will these eyes see before they close a final time? How many times more will I get to hold my loved one’s hand?

I’m going to pursue more experiences and less dollars, and I will be rich. If I’m lucky enough to achieve some material wealth I’ll allocate much of it to self-actualizing wealth.