What is “wealth”?

By Christopher Peck

Our notions of wealth are too limited. Over the past several decades, wealth has come to mean control over significant financial resources: investment portfolios, real estate, and the rest of what you turn to Natural Investments for help in deciding about. Historically, wealth has also included productive land and property: farms, ranches, woodlots, animals. We have conventionally only thought of wealth in terms of currency-based net worth statements: “A millionaire is wealthy.” People often can’t get behind the idea that the all the value they have cultivated in their lives can be contained in a number. And rightly so: wealth is obviously so much more than that! 

While I take it as a given that people want to increase their wealth, I’d just like to expand our picture of what that increased wealth might look like, moving beyond mere financial measures.  

A narrow notion of wealth is at the root of many of the world’s problems. Partial concepts create the disappointing (or disastrous, depending on your perspective) priorities that shape the world we see around us. To look at it from another angle, if you choose a certain set of parameters or restrictions, you get a set of results that follows from those parameters. So, let’s change the parameters (or restrictions) on our idea of wealth so we can get more relevant – and more life-nourishing – results. Let’s make room for values and communities and the Earth. And let’s expand our vision to include the internal realms of emotional and spiritual well-being as well.

WheelMy response to this imperative has been developing over the past several years, and is reflected in the image included with this article. This visual map provides a framework to conceive of wealth in a much more inclusive manner. I’ve been developing this tool for several years, based on idea of the “Wheel of Life” that’s been used by life coaches for ages. A few years ago I added the overlay of Ken Wilber’s quadrant model. My experience sharing this tool with clients and colleagues, and with students in my Holistic Financial Planning courses, has led to continued refinement. 

Let me make a little sense of this diagram.


The idea is that each “slice of the pie” or area within the spokes of the wheel represents a section of our life, an area for development and improvement. Each “slice” or segment has lower levels of development progressing to higher levels of development, moving further out from the center. Wilber’s quadrant divides interior (on the left half) from exterior (on the right half), and individual (the top half) from collective (the bottom half). This framing creates the interior individual quadrant on the top left, our internal experinces: our feelings, thoughts, knowledge. The top right quadrant is the individual exterior, that which the outside world can see. The bottom right is the exterior collective quadrant, those areas that are outside of us but part of shared experiences, where I’ve put our financial resources, our impact on the world and sustainability, and our contribution to community. The lower left quadrant is the interior collective, the inner experience of groups, where I’ve put measures of our relationships, primary and beyond. There’s much more to say about this framework and tool, but for the moment I want to focus on how I use it to help us expand our notions of wealth. 

As an aside, this is one way of conceiving a model like this, and I’m not implying that it’s the only way to do it. You might do it differently, with alternative areas of development. The overly of Wilber’s quadrants helps keep us honest that we’re looking at a full range of individual and social layers.  

The lower right side of the diagram includes Financial Resources, and obviously, this slice is where our traditional concepts of wealth have solely been focused. But we can pretty easily expand from that slice to spread our wealth around the wheel. Right next to Financial Resources on the map is where Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) has focused our attention. The “Contribution : Community Service : Legacy” slice encourages us to broaden our scope beyond our own pocketbook. The evolution of SRI to mean Sustainable and Responsible Investing is reflected in the “Sustainability : Ecological Impact” slice. 

Above Financial Resources in the external individual quadrant is Health, a key place to maintain our focus and attention, since we all know the wisdom of the old adage “health is wealth,” Moving to the left, the internal collective quadrant is where I have the personal network and extended relationships slice, another key area of wealth development. The Chinese concept of “guanxi” fits here. Guanxi isn’t directly translatable into English, but describes both a network of contacts and a personal connection between two people in which one is able to prevail upon another to perform a favor or service, or to offer the same to another. The Chinese actually measure and report on guanxi in their equivalent of the Forbes 100. 

The big piece that’s been missing however, is the internal dimension, the emotional health and well-being development that is one’s true wealth. Without significant development in this area, all of the external physical manifestations are of little import. I include here qualities like balance, contentment, peace of mind, cultivation and enjoyment of discretionary time, living the good life, and finding spiritual meaning.

And what does cultivating wealth in this more holistic and comprehensive manner have to do with anything? In the next newsletter I’ll be looking at the connection between wealth and happiness. 

This article first appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of the Natural Investments newsletter

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Christopher Peck

Welcome to my archive of newsletter articles and blog posts. For more information on my service offerings, please go to my advisor webpage.

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