More To That

An illustrated, long-form blog that delves deeper into the things that make us who we are.

The Survival Instinct of Money

Money often evokes fear because it triggers our sense of survival. Since it’s correlated with the ability to put food in our stomachs and to keep a roof over our heads, the lack of it will feel like our very lives are in jeopardy.

But most likely, this isn’t the shade of survival you feel threatened by. You feel secure about where your next meal will come from, and find comfort in knowing that you’ll have a place to stay tonight. In other words, survival as a form of biological upkeep isn’t what worries you. Rather, it’s the psychological projections of survival that may keep you on edge.

If your basic necessities are covered, how is it that money can still trigger a survival instinct that is indistinguishable from that biological fear? Why is it that having enough money doesn’t just alleviate this fear, but often has the opposite effect of strengthening it?

There are many angles I can take to address these questions, but for today’s reflection, I’ll keep it to just two things:

(1) Our attachment to preservation, and

(2) Our tendency to use growth as a proxy for survival.

Let’s start with #1.

The tricky thing about survival lies in its subjectivity. The anxiety that results from a middle-class salaryman losing his job could be biologically indistinguishable from a billionaire having to write off a valuable investment. The scales of wealth appear to hold no weight when it comes to the triggering of one’s survival instinct.

That’s why I rarely view our relationship with money through the lens of statistics or mathematics. A number – no matter how small or large – is something we familiarize ourselves with over time. What seems to evade acclimation, however, is the power of the story we tell ourselves about what that number enables us to do.

And when it comes to money, the narrative that drives us is one of preserving what we already have.

It’s well-known that we are far more impacted by loss than gain, but I’m still surprised at just how wide that emotional gap is. Someone who wins a million dollars will be ecstatic and quickly acclimate to it, whereas someone who loses a million dollars will be troubled and proceed to never forget about it. This asymmetry highlights the fact that survival is less of an accumulation game, and more of a preservation one.

Life familiarizes us with its contents, and anything that threatens this familiarity kicks in the survival instinct. And herein lies the conundrum: The more money you have, the more you have to preserve. And the more you have to preserve, the more fear that surrounds its potential loss.

If you are attached to a certain lifestyle, the primary role of money is to ensure that you don’t lose it. This keeps you anchored to whatever identity you embody to ensure the regular influx of money, be it your current job or career. Even if you dislike it, you’ll feel like there’s no choice but to carry on because any change may threaten your ability to keep what you have. And it is this adherence to identity that can lead to an existential crisis when you begin to wonder if all this preservation was important in the first place.

The other thing to address is our tendency to use growth as a proxy for survival.

There is nothing more empowering than a belief in progress. The reason why annual reviews are so popular is that they allow us to take inventory of our past accomplishments and failures, and to use them as lessons to drive a fruitful future. We want to feel like every subsequent year is an improvement over the last, and want this trend to continue forward until existence draws to an inevitable close.

However, we often use growth as a barometer for how we gauge our self-worth, and this is particularly pertinent with money.

Due to its ubiquity, money is tied in with so many things that are independent of the goods and services it could buy. It acts as a signal for one’s reputation, one’s social status, and the commanding of one’s respect. It not only shifts the social dynamics we share with others, but it can also shift the perceptions we have of ourselves.

In our minds, if growth implies progress, then stagnation implies reversion. And since reversion is a form of loss, that can trigger the same survival instinct we talked about in our earlier point. In a culture where growth is hailed as the universal symbol of success, any trend telling a different story can make you feel like a failure.

And it’s that word – failure – that is perhaps most tied in with one’s emotional survival needs.

The avoidance of failure is just as powerful as our will to preserve. That’s because failure is deeply connected with our sense of self, and how we believe others also perceive that self. And since money is measurable and trackable, it’s easy to use it as a proxy for whether you’re growing or stagnating. But of course, the mistake we often make is to associate it with individual progress as a whole.

The survival instinct of money is largely a projection of your current attachments, and is used to signify growth or reversion. If you can’t imagine a life other than what you have now, then any change in your fiscal situation will introduce a storm of anxiety. And similarly, if you’re addicted to growth, then the measurability of money will ensure that a negative trajectory will introduce feelings of failure.

The key to equanimity is to reframe your sense of survival to a more objective viewpoint. By making a career change, you won’t be penniless. By missing out on the latest speculative fad, you’re not going to be frowned upon (at least by those who matter).

If you can regularly decouple psychological angst from the reality of your biological safety, then that will go a long way in managing the survival instinct of money.

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For three more stories of this nature:

The Nothingness of Money

The Many Worlds of Enough

How Money Forever Changed Us

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