“Health is more important than wealth.” – English Proverb
There are all kinds of articles written in the personal finance space about the importance of money, building wealth, and financial security. And that is not a bad thing (this is a personal finance blog after all).
But I rarely see anything written with the intent of putting money in its proper place in the balance of our lives. There are many things more important than money, and the old proverb that health is more important than wealth is certainly true.
At some level, I think we know this, but unfortunately it can take a tragedy to make us really believe that it’s true and change how we live.
I’m not an old man yet by any means (unless you ask my kids). But I have experienced enough of life to really start to understand that chasing wealth (or just worrying a lot about money) at the expense of your health is not worth the cost.
When you are young, you can feel invincible – working 80+ hours a week to climb the corporate ladder, or build your own business, living off of caffeine and adrenaline. But sooner or later that lifestyle will catch up with you, and hopefully you are tuned in enough to catch the early warning signs.
What Is Health?
What is health? Seems like a silly question, but it is almost philosophical if you stop and think about it.
We usually think of health in a physical sense. To be healthy is to be strong and free of illness or disease. That is certainly part of it, but there are many more aspects to health.
Psychologists point to many different aspects of health, but some of the main ones are:
As discussed above, physical health refers to the state of the body. Someone who is physically healthy takes care of themselves through exercise, proper nutrition, and sleep. They are able-bodied and free of illness and disease.
Mental health is more than just a lack of mental disorder. It includes the ability to concentrate, think, and reason.
The World Health Organization defines it like this:
“a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
To be emotionally healthy does not mean you are always happy, but that you are aware of your emotions, whether positive or negative. You are and able to deal with and manage your emotions, and cope with everyday situations and stress.
Social health refers to your ability to form meaningful relationships, and involves your interactions with other people one-on-one or in a group. We all have a need for social interaction (even an introvert like me).
While spiritual health includes your religious beliefs, it is more than that. To be spiritually healthy also includes having a sense of purpose, hope, and value to the world.
Holistic Health – More Than Just Diet and Exercise
As you can see from the 5 different aspects of health above, it is about much more than just physical health. Neglecting any of these 5 aspects of health can be detrimental to your overall well-being, and they often work together. For example, ignoring your mental or emotional health, perhaps by living in a constant state of stress, will eventually impact your physical health as well.
Why Health Is More Important Than Wealth
What is your most important asset – your most prized possession? Is it your house? Or your 401(k)? Maybe even your time?
If you really think about it, your most important asset is YOU – and more specifically your health.
To put it another way, your health is the foundation from which you can build any other aspect of your life, including wealth. And all that you accumulate means nothing when your health fails and you can’t enjoy what you’ve built.
I may talk about this more in the future, but I’ve had my own personal battles with ongoing health issues, and I would gladly trade my 401(k) balance to be 100% healthy. Here are a few reasons why.
1. Without Health, You Can’t Build Wealth
Somewhat ironically, wealthy people seem to understand this best. If you look at the habits of successful people, many of them revolve around diet, exercise, meditation, and taking time out for friends and family. They understand that they cannot reach the peak of productivity in their money-making ventures without taking care of their health.
Unless you are starting out with a trust fund, it takes a lot of hard work to build wealth. If you are spending a lot of time and energy managing a chronic illness, or even the effects of stress on your body and mind, you are not able to be fully committed to achieving other goals in life.
In my own experiences, I know I am limited in what I can achieve because of chronic health issues. I can’t be the person who stays up until midnight and wakes up at 5am every day. I need more sleep than most. I’ve learned to manage, and prioritize what I focus my time on. In some ways, it’s allowed me to strip away a lot of the non-essential activities and avoid “shiny object syndrome” because I know my limitations.
And honestly, I think if I never had any health struggles, I would have more easily fallen into the trap of chasing wealth and neglecting my health. So in some ways, it’s a blessing to learn this lesson earlier in life than most. Which leads me to my next point…
2. Wealth Cannot Ultimately Make You Happy
Study after study has shown that having a lot of money does not necessarily make you happy. A recent report showed that an income of $60,000 to $75,000 per year is ideal for emotional well-being.
The FIRE (financial independence / retire early) community is criticized for a lot of things, but one thing I think they get right overall is trying to define the concept of “enough”. While society is constantly trying to keep up with the proverbial Joneses, learning to be content with what you have can lead to more happiness than earning more money.
And if you’re participating in the consumeristic rat race, there’s always a new bar to measure up to. Unless you’re a Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, there is always another class of people just out of reach that can afford a lifestyle that you cannot – whether you make $30,000 a year or $1,000,000 a year.
Focusing on all the different aspects of health (physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual) has been shown to be much more beneficial to your happiness over the long run than a number in your bank account.
3. Money Can’t Buy Health
While being in good health gives you the time, energy, and drive to make extra money, with few exceptions it doesn’t work the other way around. You can’t neglect your health over a 40 year career and then expect to get it back by throwing money at it.
But strangely enough, that is what we (at least in Western society) seem to try to do. Instead of turning to holistic health practices such as diet, exercise, meditation, or just a night out with friends, in the U.S. there’s a prescription drug for anything that ails you.
According to recent research from Harvard, the U.S. spends $9,400 per capita on healthcare, compared to $5,400 in other high-income countries. Despite the increased spending, our health is certainly no better, and in most cases worse. Life expectancy in the U.S. is 3 years shorter than other high-income countries, and we have much higher rates of preventative diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
In fact, the unrelenting pursuit of wealth, or just trying to keep up with our peers, is a constant source of stress and busyness in our lives. For all the promises that are made to us about how perfect life will be once we finally attain that next level of financial security, we are killing ourselves to get there. And it’s often only if and when we do reach the peak that we desperately realize we would gladly trade our wealth for the holistic health we’d been ignoring for so long.
How to Prioritize Your Health
The good news is it’s never too late to come to the realization that health is more important than wealth.
And in case it wasn’t clear above, being a healthy person is about more than just physical health. For my own health challenges, I have been diligent in pursuing all kinds of treatments, whether medical, nutrition, holistic medicine, etc.
While it has definitely helped me manage and I’m better off than I would be without it, I recognize that health – especially physical health – is not always in your control. By focusing on other aspects of health, you can find still find happiness and joy in life, even without perfect physical health. (But don’t see that as letting you off the hook to work hard toward maintaining your physical health to the best of your ability!)
Here are a few actionable tips to help you prioritize your health:
- Incorporate exercise into your daily routine – You don’t have to spend 2 hours at the gym every day. Just changing your routine to include an active lifestyle (walking more instead of driving, or mowing your yard instead of hiring it out) can help.
- Spend more time eating and preparing food – In the busyness of life, the prevalence of fast food and sugar-laden snacks has risen to all-time highs. Slow down, and carve out time to prepare and eat healthy food. You can still eat healthy while saving money on groceries.
- Schedule dates with family and friends – That means no work, and no cell phone. Forming meaningful connections with people is a huge part of your mental and emotional health.
- Make time for reading – Instead of turning on the TV at night, pick up a book. Whether just for fun or personal development, learning new things is a part of your journey toward holistic health.
- Nurture your spirituality – This may look different for everyone. I am a Christian, and those beliefs inform the very core of what I believe about myself, the world, and even how I spend my money. It provides a sense of hope, community, and a purpose greater than myself. Even for those that would say they are not religious, having meaning and purpose has been proven to contribute to your overall sense of well-being.
Health Is More Important Than Wealth – In Summary
Modern society has conditioned us to chase wealth – whether that be in the form of money, possessions, or status. In the process, most of us neglect the most important asset we have – our health.
More than just being physically fit, health incorporates almost every aspect of our lives – mental, emotional, physical, social, and spiritual. Each plays a role in our overall sense of well-being, happiness, and purpose in life.
While money is also an important part of life, and necessary to meet many of our daily needs, money is not the most important thing. Too much focus on it can be detrimental to our health. And as the saying goes, nobody on their deathbed every wished they had worked more hours or accumulated more money. NOW is the time to find a balance in your life and spend time on what really matters to you.