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.

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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