Buying Your Way to Eternity

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Why do you put up with the frustrations and indignities of work? I’m guessing that, first and foremost, it’s because you think you need the cash. But let’s say you’ve got enough to put a roof over your head and food in your belly — or could easily get it by putting in fewer hours than you do. Why are you still at your desk? Why do you spend so many hours adding numbers to a bank balance?

The answer might surprise you: because you believe it will make you live forever.

You might not think you believe this — you might even find the idea absurd. You might argue that the extra money will bring you freedom, or security, or expensive toys. If you’re a little more psychologically savvy, you might say a higher salary will earn you social status or self-esteem. But new research out this week shows these are only the start of the story — brightly colored boats pulled along by a deeper current: the pursuit of immortality.

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The unconscious connection between acquiring wealth and living forever has been revealed by a team of American and Polish psychologists in a series of ingenious experiments. For example, one study asked half of the participants to count some money, while the other half were counting numbers on ordinary pieces of paper. All then answered questions about their feelings toward dying. The researchers found that those who had been counting cash reported significantly reduced fear of death. It is as if we believe a wad of bills were a magic wand that could keep the Grim Reaper at bay.

The team from the University of Colorado and the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw believe we ascribe a symbolic and emotional value to money that goes far beyond the value of what it can buy for us. We are not rational decisionmakers when it comes to our finances, dispassionately calculating profit and loss. Instead our judgment is continually distorted by deep-seated associations and anxieties. And the most powerful of these is existential angst, the ever present fear of doom.

Another of their experiments was based on a well-established, if curious, phenomenon: we tend to overestimate the physical size of things we consider to be important. Half of the participants in this study were subtly reminded of their mortality, while the other half were reminded of dental pain (unpleasant, but not life-threatening). All were then asked to estimate the size of some notes and coins. As the researchers predicted, those who had been primed with the prospect of death overestimated the size of the money significantly more than the others — 34% more in the case of the coins and over 50% more in the case of the notes. This shows that the more people are worried about death, the more important money becomes to them.

Of course, cash really can buy you a longer life: it can get you better health care, or a house in a safer neighborhood. But the extent to which we worship the dollar is out of all proportion to the few extra years — if you’re lucky — that a bigger bank balance can bring. Money’s power to assuage our existential anxiety comes not from being able to buy a bulletproof vest. It comes from the layers of extra meaning we ascribe to wealth.

We are so used to reaching for our wallets or purses that we forget how magical the power of money can seem. Producing a few tattered notes can have people running to do your bidding, or bringing you whatever you desire. A little piece of plastic embossed with a cryptic code can work like a talisman, casting a spell on all around. It is this miraculous power to command the world that our unconscious latches onto and extends into the hope that money can command even death itself.

(MORE: Sure, Go Ahead and Invest in Goldman Sachs’ Hedge Fund for Average Joes (Just Don’t Expect to Make Money))

These experiments were inspired by the work of the American anthropologist Ernest Becker, who argued in his Pulitzer Prize–winning 1973 book The Denial of Death that we all need some kind of defense mechanism to protect us from the terror of mortality. For some, this mechanism is religion, for others the pursuit of eternal fame. What this new research shows is that the pursuit of wealth is also such a death-denial mechanism — and the flip side of denying death is pursuing eternal life. Tennessee Williams was right when he wrote in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, “the reason [man] buys everything he can buy is that in the back of his mind he has the crazy hope that one of his purchases will be life-everlasting.”

The researchers point out that those who think we want to get rich in order to boost our status and self-esteem aren’t wrong. It’s just that status and esteem are themselves serving the deeper need to manage our existential terror. Such ego boosts make us feel more substantial, more permanent, more immune to the slings and arrows of fortune. As Becker put it, riches “change one’s natural situation from one of smallness, helplessness, finitude, to one of bigness, control, durability, importance.”

The theory that we are filling our bank accounts in the hope of immortality might sound surprising, but it is affirmed by history. The world is strewn with costly monuments to this yearning: from the original Mausoleum — the huge and wondrous tomb of the Persian King Mausolus — to the tallest building of today, the Khalifa tower, named after the President of the Emirates. And although it is no longer possible to buy your way to the papacy, as Rodrigo Borgia did in 1492, the idea that your eternal prospects are improved by a cash donation is still encouraged by many churches. Meanwhile the Russian multimillionaire Dmitry Itskov is pursuing a more modern version of this dream: spending his fortune on becoming an immortal avatar by 2045.

But history also has another lesson: that the rich end up six feet under just like the rest of us. In exposing this unconscious drive, this research is giving us a warning: no matter why you think you are still at your desk, there is a good chance it is really because of a subliminal urge to beat death. As the researchers point out, this is an important lesson in a time of greed-induced financial crisis. So if you know that money can’t actually buy you eternity, don’t let your subconscious make you a slave to your salary. Perhaps it’s time to take that long vacation.

Cave is a philosopher, writer and author of Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization

6 comments
thinkltank
thinkltank

I think this article has merit to the extent that it highlights mankind's hidden secrets and hopes. Stephen Cave focuses on the wealthy, perhaps because many are obsessed with their wealth and he wanted to investigate the "why" of it, which quite frankly, he's probably right. But don't we all wonder about the same issue in our own way. Some of us are health fanatics trying to look and feel younger with each birthday because we want to believe that we actually will live longer if we're healthy. Here's some recent information that I found that was truly mind-blowing...

Scientist Alex Zhavoronkov, PhD, in his remarkable new book The Ageless Generation, (Amazon and Barnes & Noble) to be released by Palgrave Macmillan, July 2, 2013, has outlined the steep mountain confronting us that won't just disappear if we ignore it like we're prone to believe. The technological advances in biomedicine have seen the same breathtaking leaps forward that we've all witnessed in telecommunications, but we've been wearing our blinders and haven't processed the implications. Just as 4G LTE has made 3G look like a horse and buggy in a few short years, the biomedical equivalent reveals the same bewildering progress.

Simply put, the retirement age must end. There's no place for the 60's Club in this new world of biomedical advancements. Our lifespans have increased 20 years in the past decade, yet we haven't responded to it as a global society. Twenty years is astonishing, but it's nothing compared to 150 year lifespan that's projected as the new reality within the next two decades.

The Ageless Generation, with it's compelling prose, offers the world invaluable solutions that must be discussed. Dr. Zhavoronkov strongly suggests that we execute a longevity revolution that addresses the vital concerns of implementing lifelong learning models along with lifelong career planning, accelerated aging research that will result in comprehensive rejuvenation medicine enabling us to achieve healthy productivity and wealth in our expanded lifespan, and of course, without further adieu, an end to retirement which will prevent the most serious threat against our economy -- the collapse of social security (www.agelessbook.com).

The toughest challenge we face though is that telecommunications technological advancements are made possible through corporate expenditures and profits, whereas biomedical research is funded by the governments of developed nations. Governments are slow to respond to change; governments have vowed austerity measures be administered to budgets. The NIH invests on average $30 billion a year in biomedical research, whereas in 2011 China invested $308 billion to cover five years of biomedical research. The business visionaries of the free markets can run to Wall Street with their bright ideas and secure lucrative deals which seem to instantaneously bring these visions to market. But again, biomedical research has never been funded this way. In light of the numerous issues revealed by Dr. Alex Zhavoronkov in The Ageless Generation, this must be reassessed.

MarkPlus
MarkPlus

>But history also has another lesson: that the rich end up six feet under just like the rest of us.

Some mainstream neuroscientists think that they can turn death from a permanent off-state into a temporary and reversible off-state through brain preservation. Look up the website of the Brain Preservation Foundation. Michael Shermer, the skeptic of pseudoscience, serves as one of this foundation's advisers. 

jeiden
jeiden

A captivating and unusual perspective on the American working habit and economic-driven society. 

To further this finding, maybe the long hours spent at work are not in an attempt to escape death, but rather a subtly different motive: a means of distracting the mind. Specifically, preventing you from allowing the fear of mortality to consume you. Work can provide an alternate reality that takes us away from our mortal existence and focuses our attention on problem solving.

Just a thought...

Amok
Amok

"Why are you still at your desk? Why do you spend so many hours adding numbers to a bank balance?"

The researchers are right. People will never think they have "enough" money. But another reason is because your employer is trying to push productivity to the point that he/she doesn't have to hire another person. Many employers won't give their employees the option of cutting back on hours. Either you do exactly what they demand, or you hit the bricks.

donald432
donald432

As transhumanism catches on, longevity will be bought. More expensive technology exists every day to augment and extend human life, so the thought that money makes you live longer might not be super far-fetched in 2013.

seizeabe
seizeabe

Some articles, such as this, are out of touch with the reality of living the life of an ordinary citizen. It gives the impression that such articles are addressed only for the elite, rich and powerful. Most people work for a living, in the first level. Many among them may be lucky to be doing the work of their personal choice and calling. Often these people are driven by positive youthful idealism, not by the motive of greed or profit. Hoping to pay-up one's education loans, or buy a first car, or first home, or marry, isn't attempting to buy eternity.

Take for instance a nurse, a doctor, a lab-technician, a policeman, a firefighter, a teacher, a researcher, a small business entrepreneur, a contractor, a soldier, a pilot, a sailor, an engineer.... most are invariably working for some organization or institution. To put a number to this context, nearly 90% of citizens work for a living, and in the process hope to reach the small dreams of life. And, most of them have to meet the demands of their work. Some may have incentives tied to the extra work they put in, but most have to put in those extra hours, just be able to keep their job, love it or hate it.

Take the case of a public school teacher. A person who takes up teaching for the love of the subject, the thought of helping young children in their education, for a salary of $35K annual. The day involves preparation, actual instruction, lab-work, student-management, scheduling, preparing tests, making copies, testing, grading, updating records, staff-meetings, supervisor sit-throughs and feedback, and the cycle goes on day after day. Some days there are unexpected superintendent meetings, principal meetings, graduation rehearsals, parent-teacher conferences, and other surprises. Yet, the next day the teacher has to be at the best. Often, a conscientious teacher has to stay late, 2, 3 hours after school is dismissed. And, even take work home. Nobody sees this work. Nobody recognizes this work. Our nation is going through a phase, blaming teachers for all the ills of education. And, like police, firefighters and several other jobs, haven't seen a bonus or a raise for several years. These people have to work, work extra hours and more, just so that they are not fired.

This article is totally out of touch with reality. An article for those who read Time, perhaps! Elite?