Gates just opened up about his happiness and what he believes holds many people back from peace of mind.
Yesterday, on his seventh Reddit AMA (that’s “Ask Me Anything,” for the uninitiated), Bill Gates took on a simple but profound question: “Are you happy?” You might think the answer is obvious. The man is a billionaire, after all. Why wouldn’t a phenomenally rich guy like Gates be happy?
And indeed, the Microsoft founder answered with a resounding, “Yes!”
But even as Gates celebrated his own contentment, he also made a point of explaining that it isn’t his billions that make him happy. Instead, it’s something much simpler that, unfortunately, is increasingly out of reach for many Americans.
Gates and science agree: Not worrying about money makes you happier
When another Reddit user asked Gates, “Do you think being a billionaire has made you a happier person than if you were just a middle class person?” he offered a forthright “Yes.”
But it isn’t the trampoline room in his house or the fact he frequently flies via private jet that makes the difference. Instead, it’s the freedom to not stress about money. “I don’t have to think about health costs or college costs. Being free from worry about financial things is a real blessing. Of course, you don’t need a billion to get to that point,” he explains.
Gates reads a lot of research so he’s no doubt aware that science is on his side on this point. Study after study shows that making more will increase your happiness about up to the point where you can stop worrying about covering essentials and absorb the shocks and setbacks life inevitably throws your way. After that, having strong relationships and more time are greater predictors of well being.
The trouble with Gates’s happiness advice
So far, Gates’s thoughts on money and happiness seem sensible and straightforward. But there’s one big complication when it comes to the relationship between finances and well being. As Gates acknowledges, getting to that magic point where you can stop worrying about money and cover basics like college and health care is becoming harder and harder for most Americans.
“We do need to reduce the cost growth in these areas so they are accessible to everyone,” he adds in his answer.
Later, he elaborates on the problem of health care costs in America. When a Redditor asks, “Is there something that is incredibly important in your opinion that hasn’t garnered as much interest generally as it should have?” he replies: “In the US I would say getting bipartisan consensus on how to reduce health care costs is a critical issue that doesn’t get enough focus.”
The numbers (as usual) bear him out. The average cost of health insurance, adjusted for inflation, has increased ninefold since the 1960s. Total spending on health care rose from $74.6 billion in 1970 to $3.5 trillion in 2017. Meanwhile, the cost of an undergraduate degree at a public school rose 213 percent just from the late ’80s.
These statistics put a grim spin on Gates’s answer. Sure, you don’t need a billion dollars to be happy. You don’t even need a million dollars. (And no, don’t write me enraged tweets–no one, including Gates, who also writes about his joy in his kids, is saying money is everything when it comes to happiness.) But it is super helpful not to worry that, if your child gets sick, you won’t be able to afford her medicine. And that sadly, is too high a bar for many Americans.
What’s to be done about this? Unfortunately, this isn’t one of those columns where I can offer you an easy takeaway, except maybe to call your congresspeople and express outrage about the situation. Because Gates and a ton of research are right: In America, it’s getting a lot harder to reach the point where money isn’t a drag on happiness.
But laws he believed, could not prevent this hypocrisy. No law, no constitution could save an immoral people. While the Founding Fathers believed in the necessary separation of Church and State, they believed no discussion of morals was possible without an agreed upon philosophy – a philosophy that superseded the logic of men. So Adams concluded that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.”
George Washington also said as much halfway through his Farewell Address of 1796. He stated: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.” He added, “And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Both Adams and Washington are appealing to a morality that was eternal—beyond the customs of man. A morality that didn’t shift on convention.
John Adams wrote to the Massachusetts Militia:
While our country remains untainted with the principles and manners which are now producing desolation in so many parts of the world; while she continues sincere, and incapable of insidious and impious policy, we shall have the strongest reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned us by Providence.
But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation, while it is practising iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candour, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world.
Because we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. Oaths in this country are as yet universally considered as sacred obligations. That which you have taken, and so solemnly repeated on that venerable ground, is an ample pledge of your sincerity and devotion to your country and its government.
James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, believed that the governed were obliged to control itself. Furthermore, it was the responsibility of a virtuous people to select leaders that would reflect that ideal. Leaders that would be capable by virtue of their own character, adapt these eternal morals that Adams often spoke of, to particular circumstances. Madison wrote:
But I go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks–no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea. If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men. So that we do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them.