Q: My parents migrated to the United States from Bangladesh when I was 10 and now I am in my late 30s. My parents grew up quite poor and always strived to be more financially stable. By the time we left Bangladesh we were pretty well off, and my parents took much pride in their improved financial status. I decided to pick a career in research, which does not usually pay well. But, by dabbling in real estate and getting a good job, I have done quite well for myself. And, although I really enjoy my field and could do much more reading, teaching, and writing, unless it can offer me high financial gain, I find I am not motivated. Also, I love music, gardening, and playing volleyball. But, I am too busy working to have much time to pursue anything. Although I don’t need more money, I find I cannot stop thinking about making more. I forego my other interests for money. I feel stuck in this trap.
A: Yes, this is a trap—one that much of our culture supports—both American and South Asian. Most of us put a lot of value in material wealth, especially if we have had poverty in our background. There is always a fear of losing what we have and having to return to striving and saving. This keeps you working hard and always looking for the next opportunity. Your academic and other interests have probably always been a part of you, but you are now seeing a greater opportunity to enjoy them. Additionally, financial stability and wealth cannot satisfy deeper needs of the arts, learning, or the fun of playing sports.
Notice what it feels like to want money all the time. Is it a feeling of seeking security, power, status, or something else? Some people get an adrenaline rush in thinking about and making money. It lifts them out of boredom, fear, or depression. Take a look at the underlying motivation that keeps you trapped in this incessant quest for more. Then remember what it feels like to be out in the sun playing volleyball with your friends. What happens to your soul when you listen to your favorite music? Now what are you led to pursue?
When we have been taught that financial success is the most important pursuit in life, we even feel guilty in not doing that all the time. There are a lot of riches in the world that don’t take much money—planting flowers and vegetables; breathing mountain fresh air; listening to live music and much more. When you start doing even a bit of it, you will taste the joy and want more. Follow this wanting and more balance will come into your life.
Q: Don’t you think that some of the neurosis we have in the world is due to too much work and not enough enjoyment of simple things?
A: Yes. Whenever there is an imbalance among work, play, intimacy or friendship, contemplation or reflection, and rest, we start feeling unhealthy psychologically, physically, and spiritually. We feel more anxious, empty, dissatisfied, and sad. If this continues we begin to lose meaning in life and wonder why we are even here.
By building a more balanced life, we have a healthier and more whole perspective on ourselves, others, and life in general. Then we are more able and interested in pursuing other interests more vigorously with satisfaction.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in Palo Alto and San Francisco.