Money as Pain Relief

I’ve been thinking about four ideas related to money lately, and about why I am generally uncomfortable framing life goals in financial terms.

  1. The classic idea in sales that people buy only two things: happiness and solutions to problems
  2. The idea that “money is a problem to be solved” (I don’t know the source of this idea)
  3. The idea that only central banks can make money, and that everybody else should think in terms of taking money from someone else (this one is due to Dorian Taylor)
  4. The piece of folk wisdom that says (contrary to the first idea) that money cannot buy happiness

When you put the four together, you get quite a nice little theory about why most people find it hard to make take enough money for their needs. And you end up with the interesting conclusion that all money is pain relief.

Money as Symbol and Solution

The sales heuristic, in my experience, is true. Let’s table the question of happiness and start with the market for “solutions to problems.”

This matches up quite neatly with the second idea if you interpret it as “the money I think I want represents a problem I want solved.”

Some of these problems we recognize consciously and correctly judge to be problems for which money itself is the best solution, rather than just a symbol.

There are probably clever ways to get yourself gas for your car without using money, and interesting lifestyles to explore where you do without a car (redefining the problem), but chances are pretty good that if you are paying money for gas, that’s the best solution for your immediate problem. You might shop around a bit for the best price, or use coupons, but basically, money is the solution to the problem it represents.

So in this case $40 in my neighborhood represents and solves the problem “get a tank of gas.” If I don’t have $40, but do need the tank of gas, getting $40 becomes the new problem. For somebody with cash-flow problems who can only buy a gallon at a time, gas might be a $4 problem.

This is all very pedestrian and mundane, and does not evoke strong emotions except for people in very desperate straits. The symbolizing amount and solution amount are the same.

These mundane problems are not the interesting ones at the individual level (though they might be at larger scales). Money gets interesting when it gets emotional.

Money gets emotional and interesting when the amount of money that represents a problem is not the same as the amount of money that solves the problem.  The latter might even be no money at all.

Throwing Money at Problems

In many cases, when we think we need money, we are really refusing to face up to a problem or deeper aversion.

Quite often this is whatever counts as “drag work” in your life. This is stuff that you find draining to do, stuff that gives you no feelings of creative, productive well-being. Stuff you don’t know how to mindfully engage. Stuff that causes active pain.

For me, this category includes paperwork, fussy fiddling around with my websites to get pages to display properly in different browsers, doing my books, annoying but necessary meetings, trying to hard-sell my services.

Which brings me to the third idea: taking versus making money.

Paradoxically, all the activities I am averse to doing are the activities involved in “taking money.” I don’t think this is a coincidence. We feel like “throwing money” at precisely those problems that would help us take money ourselves.

“Throw” is the right verb here. Since there is a strong aversion reaction at work, we want to avoid looking at the problem or analyzing it too deeply. Working it all out and finding the most effective way to get it done is the painful part. So we prefer to hurriedly get a sense of the problem and throw money in what we hope is roughly the right direction. The lament here is the classic one: “I wish I could pay someone to do this for me.” Only our budget and the pain of throwing money itself limit how much we throw.

Because we “throw” hastily and with an averted gaze, rather than aiming precisely, the process is inefficient. Which is why someone else who is standing in the general direction of the solution, with less aversion to your drag work, can “take” money from you. If you aimed too precisely, there would be no attractive profits in it for the other party.

Unlike the gasoline example, where the money you spend precisely is the money you think the solution is worth, “throwing money” works differently. You throw money in proportion to the pain it represents for you. (There is “throwing money” involved in the gasoline market, but generally at the national rather than individual level).

Why Marketing is Hard

This means the problem-solving economy is a “throw money around without looking” economy.  In order to take in more money than you throw out, others have to be throwing money in your general direction. And you have to be throwing a part of it in another direction. It all has to be somewhat inefficient, and people have to be averse to a variety of different things (and conversely, better at conquering different aversions).

This also explains why marketing and sales are so difficult. You are messaging in an aversion zone. You are trying to talk about things that the prospect is trying not to think about.

You want people to throw money in your general direction. The more aversion they have to the problem whose solution you represent, the more inefficient the throwing, and the more profit there is for you. But if they aim too carelessly, they might shower the guy standing next to you, or throw the money places you cannot get to.

Marketing is the problem of getting the prospect to aim carefully enough so that the money falls closer to you than anyone else, but not so carefully that the margins become unattractive.  Marketing is hard because the prospect usually wants to look more or less closely than you want.

In other words, you want to become exactly the right kind of target. Which means you have to either increase or decrease aversion.

Becoming a Target

When people throw money at a problem in response to a deep-rooted aversion that they don’t want to think about, where might they aim?

Chances are, they are going to aim at any sign of reassurance in a direction that they associate with anxieties.

If you radiate reassurance, you might be it. There’s a reason for the might. 

You can fake “radiating reassurance.” But let’s not go there.

They might also not have enough aversion for the reassurance you represent to work, in which case you might need to inflate their aversions through scare tactics. Let’s not go there either.

Let’s talk about marketing without either carrots or sticks.

Chances are, you will radiate reassurance if you are doing something that feels productive and worthwhile to you. You don’t have to talk about their problems, or get them to face up to their anxieties. You just have to represent a source of relief in what is otherwise a relentless, unprocessed, unarticulated source of anxiety for them.

When you do things that feel productive and worthwhile to you, chances are, you are creating wealth. Not money. Wealth. You’re not the Federal Reserve. And chances are, these are things you’d do whether or not they attract money-throwing in your direction. They are behaviors in areas where you have conquered your own aversions and are capable of being mindfully engaged.

Just the mere fact of visibly creating wealth is enough to create happiness in others, because one important kind of happiness is relief from anxiety and pain. Happiness is how others experience wealth you create that relieves pain for them.

Unfortunately, there is a currency problem here. We are not used to thinking of people as pain relievers. People are entities we are naturally inclined to relate to, rather than view as “solutions to problems.”

The natural form in which people reciprocate any form of pain-relief happiness you help them experience is things like trust, gratitude, loyalty and other forms of relationship capital that are valuable but cannot be cashed out, only reinvested. These are the natural currencies of happiness.

Money is not the natural currency of happiness. There is unfortunately no conversion rate from trust or loyalty to dollars.

Externalizing Pain Relief

The way to get people to throw money (rather than, or in addition to, trust, gratitude and so forth) is to partially externalize the relief you represent into an objective form. People throw money at things, not people. So you need to make things that embody the pain relief you personally represent.

So the first and last statements can be reconciled. Money does not buy happiness in the sense of relationship capital. But it does buy happiness externalized in the form of pain pills.

Which means “solutions to problems” and “happiness” (in the form money can buy) are not actually distinct categories.

What about types of happiness (paid for in either dollars or relationship currencies) that don’t seem to be types of “pain relief”? Are you really always paying to avoid some kind of pain? Is every evening hanging out with a friend “relief” from the pain of being alone? Is every ride in a theme park “relief” from the pain of boredom?

What about desire? Can your money throwing actions arise from a desire (pull) rather than an aversion (push)?

This is a subtle question, and I think the answer is: if you are paying money, it is pain.

When you act from a desire that cannot be restated as a pain-aversion in any obvious way (either for yourself, or via empathy for someone else, experienced through a relationship), you will generally find that it can be satisfied entirely without recourse to money.

This is the thought behind the idea that the greatest pleasures in life are free. These are pure pleasures in some sense. Enjoying them does not introduce pain anywhere else, either for you, or for someone else.  So no money needs to circulate to help anyone realize those pleasures.

These pure pleasures are not as common as you might think though. Sunsets might be free, but somebody probably has to endure some pain to get you to a great sunset-viewing spot, so money throwing has to happen somewhere.

Desires and Anxieties

There is an interesting interpretation of money here. In economics, we generally view money as debt. In particular, debt collateralized by hopes for future “growth” (wealth creation).

But if we agree that in some sort of thought experiment world of pure desires and no pain, there would be no need for money, money-as-hope does not make sense.

But money as pain-relief does. If the total money in the economy represents the sum total of all the pain we are trying to avoid, rather than all the wealth we hope will be created in the future, a lot of things suddenly make sense.

We print enough money to represent the pain we are collectively experiencing. If we could find a god-like alien who could credibly reassure us that it could solve all our pain problems, we’d throw all our money in its direction instead of round and round at each other.

But there is also hope here. Aversion and pain tend to inflate. So if the national debt in America today (16 trillion dollars or something I believe) is interpreted as the Net National Pain, if we can tame our aversions a bit and aim more accurately all around, we can probably deflate the debt.

This generally means doing wealth-creating things that allow others to aim more accurately, and through a real sense of relief rather than false hope or manufactured fears.

You can of course, focus on expanding the zone of your own conquered aversions, which is a way of slowly retreating from the money economy (or pain economy). Call it a low-cash financial diet. It works very similarly to the low-carb diet, in that it replaces sugar highs and lows that result from emotional eating (i.e. food as pain relief) with food as a source of nutrition and purer pleasures that aren’t varieties of pain relief.

But there is a degree of selfishness there, and also a certain pattern of inefficiency. I may be better at conquering certain aversions and pains than you, and vice versa. We’ll probably both be better off if we focus on areas where we are strong, and throw money at each other for the rest. The money economy does not just represent the pain economy. It also represents the collectively efficient  approach to addressing individual pains.

When we do that well, wealth gets turned into money and begets more wealth, and we all need less money over time.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I am not sure I believe that money is always and only used as a pain-relief mechanism. Are there not pleasures to be had in true luxury goods (rather than status-based ones): superb meals, beautiful fabrics, perfectly-tailored clothes? My pain is alleviated by cooking a good meal at home, but my pleasure is augmented by getting a 12-course tasting menu composed by one of the world’s top chefs, or sipping a glass of La Tâche ’42.

    • Wouldn’t you agree that others have to be engaged in pain-relief activities to supply you with those things? Waiters, tailors, and so forth?

      • The basic frame of money as pain-relief is spot on, and I agree that pain-relief is inevitably an element of the transaction at nearly all points in the value chain. It sounded to me from the above that your model implied that *all* points in the monetary value chain experience transactions as pain relief mechanisms, and that ‘pure’ pleasures are only those that can exist outside of the transaction. I’m suggesting that some purchase or even production behaviors can offer pleasures excluded from the model of monetary transactions as pain relief .

        I wonder that this doesn’t also break down for those who have enough money that the expenditure itself causes them no pain — though they’d have to experience desire in a rather stoic way — not to fill a lack, but to add to pleasure.

        • Though there is a (Lacanian?) notion that I’ve misstated the way desire actually works, that desire itself functions only as the creation/fulfillment of a lack. Restate ‘lack’ as ‘pain’ and maybe you’ve got it right — the pure pleasure is rare indeed.

  2. Alexander Boland says

    The question I have to address your last paragraph is “how much of our current pain is of our own making?”

    To put it more concretely, I’m thinking back to your article “What’s Good For Facebook is What’s Good For America”, where you make the case that Facebook (in a very indirect way) lowers the cost basis for the American way of life.

    A lot of pain comes from seeing someone with a fancier car, or comparing your own body to that of people on the covers of magazines, having a high stress job that then drives you to need sleeping pills, etc. On a more collective level we have your example of the average American kid having a zillion different toys–which causes a ton of energy expenditure on society’s part but does nothing to relieve any pain other than “that kid has more toys than me” (or more likely: “that hot-shot parent is providing more for her kid than I am, I need to buy my son more toys!”). I know, all cliches so far, but…

    Once we start expending more energy to relieve our collective pains than we gain from having created those pains in the first place, then it’s something like a tumor. At this point, deflating the pain makes sense; the economy needs to go back to some stable state where our efforts relieve more pain than they create.

    Maybe this adds up to a simple way of understanding a whether to inflate or deflate:

    Are our actions of exchange/production creating more pain they relieve, or vice versa?

  3. Heheh, nice, I hadn’t thought about the make-money thing in a while. It was a thought experiment in the same theme as this paper, that it isn’t in our interest to make money, because at best we’re inflating the monetary base (by inducing people to borrow—the other way to make money), or otherwise borrowing it ourselves. The unenlightened actor wants to make money because he doesn’t especially care how he gets it. Consequently, the verb I use is earn, because it imports the notion of parity of exchange—which we want, by the way, and not for the moralistic argument around free riders, but rather because asymmetric transfers accumulate into actual resources bunching up in odd places, entailing a raft of consequences.

    Your notion of throwing money is interesting, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot as well. What it implies is invariably a dearth of attention. You could almost draw a curve: say, from paying a ransom to allocating a hedge fund. Going from no spare attention whatsoever to devote to the economy of the exchange, to hiring a full-time staff to optimize every dollar.

    The question is: is money truly inextricably linked to a sentiment of I don’t want to deal with this, like you say?

    Debt has some interesting ideas around the inversion of the canon of the maturation of money (credit→cash→barter rather than barter→cash→credit). Also Rushkoff has an interesting account of medieval local currencies in the form of grain coupons, highly inflationary due to the decay rate of the underlying asset, which induced people to play hot potato with it through a fervent exchange of goods and services.

    So the question I have there is, is money iff pain inherent in all money, or just the money we’re used to?

    • That is a good question. I have no idea. If I had to bet, I’d say money iff pain. Painless civilization seems to be some sort of useful asymptotic abstraction rather than a meaningful state. Like absolute zero or zero entropy.

  4. This model resonates with me as a trader in that the place where people usually make inefficient trades is a points of anxiety and they trade in a way that temporarily relieves that anxiety. Since groups of people tend to be anxious at the same time, relieving your anxiety is almost always the wrong thing to do. The more serious and general the anxiety, the more wrong.

  5. Boom. Your finest article to date. Perfect length, perfect pitch, perfect reasoning, and perfect intention to get underneath the skin of the emotionally-volatile and hypocritical/paradoxical-creating entity called money – perhaps the third word after Mummy and Daddy (at least in concept) that virtually every human being learns early in life (God comes fourth). You sound as if you’re in the same place as me – do the thing you love, do it well, and they will come… seems a good plan, if only it worked out that way. Instead, I think I’ll enjoy my existential crisis for a while. My congratulations on a fine piece of writing.

  6. If only we knew how to make money we would be busy making it instead of thinking about it. Applies to other things as well.

  7. Skinner Layne says

    I have many more thoughts on this subject that I will attempt to formulate into a blog post of my own and link back to you here, but one quick observation comes to mind with respect to the make/take characterization of money. In three of the Latin Languages, making money is described using the same verb that means ‘to win,’ Spanish (‘ganar’), Portuguese (‘ganhar’), French (‘gagner’). The Germans (and the Dutch too, I think…), on the other hand use the word ‘verdienen’ which is closest to ‘earn.’ Given my experience with these cultures, I am increasingly of the view that how we describe the making/taking/winning of money affects our work ethic and outlook on work pain tolerance and importantly on corruption/fraud in business.

    My contention is that in the Protestant countries (and especially in Scotland an New England where there was a high concentration of Calvinists), the description of the acquisition of money as being making/earning at once legitimates the acquisition of money as a noble act in and of itself and makes fraud more intolerable, being extractive (taking) rather than creative (making). On the other side, if money acquisition is viewed as besting somebody in a game of some sort, then there is no inherent dishonor in cheating, so long as one does not get caught, and getting caught is usually not punished, or at least not very harshly, since after all the competitor was just trying to win the game and there is a general understanding that everybody else is probably cheating too (think steroids in baseball). This is at least vaguely connected to the highest compliment that can be made about a wealthy person or powerful politician in Spanish, which is to call them ‘clever.’ Not ‘intelligent,’ mind you–it’s a rather important distinction.

    I have witnessed firsthand, living in Latin America for several years now, that employees treat their employers as people to be taken from and jobs generally as exclusively means to ends rather than any sort of self-fulfilling end in and of itself. Whether language is purely a matter of correlation or causation I will not venture a hypothesis, but there is undoubtedly a connection, and a rather fascinating one at that. I would be quite interested in seeing a linguist write extensively on that subject, particularly looking at the differences between Asian languages as well. I would guess one would find some similar dichotomy between say Japanese and Thai.

    • From what I was told a long time ago (by an ex-girlfriend), the Chinese don’t distinguish between win and earn, so collecting your paycheque is conceptually no different from beating the dealer at blackjack.

      But you’re right, it seems that English is the exception. I speak French and I can’t think of an alternate phrase to gagner l’argent.

    • This is a very interesting bunny-trail.

      To add to the data, Indian languages (based on the two I speak) do distinguish between the two concepts. In Hindi you have ‘kamaana’ (earning) vs. ‘jeetna’ (winning). In Kannada, you have ‘samparsa’ (earn) vs. ‘jaisu’ (win). I think ‘kamaana’ is actually Urdu in origin, so I suspect the distinction is also present in Persian and Arabic.

      I smell a cognitive linguistics thesis here.

  8. In Russian they use 4 words (curtesy of my father-in-law)…
    earn but very much as a salary – zarabotit
    win from gambling – veegrat
    make (for your own business) – delat denge
    and literally to forge your own money (often used as a joke similar to “money doesn’t grow on trees”)- kavat degne

  9. Ho-Sheng Hsiao says

    “Conquering” aversions (more effectively, accepting what you are averting from) can be selfish if you are retreating from the pain economy.

    Better to accept other people’s pain so the debt can be redeemed. You are still interacting with the pain economy.

    Better still to hold space so others find it easier to accept their aversions themselves. Teach someone to fish and all.

  10. “Shut up and take my money”?
    Or “I know how much I want this, don’t make it any worse”.

    If you look at the attitude of the highly rich, it is the feeling that they are free floating, (when they know money works) or in a state of profound anxiety (when money itself is the thing in danger).

    Because they have focused on a single strategy for solving problems, economic “pain” is the spectre of everything from mental breakdown (psych bills) to social ostracism (party/holiday bills) to confusion (admin bills) to hunger (food bills).

    Seen as they are surrounded with such profound anxiety, it’s not suprising that the super-rich have a problem with handling the economic crisis!

  11. Mark Milstein says

    «If the total money in the economy represents the sum total of all the pain we are trying to avoid, rather than all the wealth we hope will be created in the future, a lot of things suddenly make sense.» from «Money as Pain Relief».

    Similar perspective would be the Nietzsche’s tendentious joke: primary and original function of money, is not to facilitate trade but to create and pay debts and thereby both nurture and pacify guilt.

    Debt unlike pain relief becomes infinite and impossible to discharge: unlike the gods, no one person or persons can be taken to be responsible for everyone, so all the debt-payments in the world cannot expunge the lasting sense of guilt.