Courtesy of Hidden Cash's Twitter
Courtesy of Hidden Cash’s Twitter

As the old saying goes, money makes the world go ‘round. Ever since human society first engaged in barter, minted the first coin, or printed the first piece of paper money, we as humans have long labored to earn it. Whether for sustenance or enjoyment, we use money for so many things. And it is a powerful motivator — we work upward of 40 hours a week to earn more of it. This desire is so strong that the cynics among us assert that it may even be our primary motivation: that our actions are driven by greed and a single-minded, cold-hearted desire for cash.

If that’s the case, the entirety of human existence seems woefully depressing. Through this lens, the society of ancient Rome, which contains the basis for our democratic system of government, was self-interested and indulgent. The construction of ships to traverse oceans and caravans to cross continents was motivated not by a sense of exploration, but by avarice. The success of companies like Google comes just as much from a desire to better society as a desire to better the pocketbook.

Into this equation we can consider an additional set of data points. In late May, an anonymous person using the Twitter handle @HiddenCash began tweeting hints to locations where envelopes of cash were hidden around San Francisco. Following the cryptic clues would net the finders of the envelope with around $100 in paper bills — a happy find for any person.

What’s more, discovering the money comes with a catch. The man behind the gigantic scavenger hunt asks that the finders post a photo of the discovery on Twitter — and that they pay it forward. “I’m in that 1 percent that some people loathe,” the anonymous person explained to a San Francisco news station. “But rather than hating people who are successful, my point would be to encourage people who have been successful to give back a little bit more.”

Indeed many people have. One planned to buy books to donate to the local library. Another donated the money he found to a church in the neighborhood. Others gave it away to local families vacationing at the beach. Some people lucky enough to stumble across more than one envelope didn’t indulge, but left them there for another person to take. “I felt like I’d been blessed enough that day,” one said.

The story’s gained a lot of traction recently, and small wonder. The person responsible took the hunt to Burbank in the past few days to spread the charm of the scavenger hunt. People gravitate toward it because it’s an inspiring and heartwarming story people can feel good about as political gridlock worsens, chaos continues to engulf the Middle East and the economy attempts to sputter to life.

But is it really? As larger and larger hordes of people churn out of their homes, hoping to be one of the lucky few to find the greenbacks, we should ask ourselves: Have we lost sight of what the social experiment was intended to do in the first place?

The scavenger hunt was so inspiring because it made people happy. Random people, just living their normal lives, perhaps facing a bad day at work, stumbled across a few bucks and were able to experience a ray of sunshine. It’s that unexpected discovery of something pleasant that inspired that happiness. Even if people planned the searches, there was a spirit of camaraderie in the search, with people standing shoulder-to-shoulder and celebrating each others’ successes.

But it was probably inevitable that as the trend gained traction, more people began actively seeking out the envelopes, turning the search into a competition. One person detailed his escapades scrambling up a set of construction equipment to find his set of greenbacks. In Burbank’s Griffith Park, the first tweets of hidden envelopes were met with a flurry of activity, causing minor damage to the landscape.

The search may still be fun for some, but it doesn’t feel like an uplifting sense of contentment. Instead, participants in the searches seem to be careening dangerously close to wanting to experience the thrill of the hunt and the euphoria of victory. It is true that joy is still joy, and those who find the envelopes are nonetheless happier for it. But what is this joy derived from? Is it still from a peaceful sense of bliss?

Or is it from the knowledge that you’ve dominated what you’ve set out to conquer? That you’ve emerged victorious where others have not? That you’ve successfully planted your flag in the scramble for cash? Joy at the expense of others isn’t true happiness — it’s just another form of sorrow.

True happiness isn’t unbridled victory. It’s spending quality time with your friends or building relationships through shared experience with strangers. It’s selflessly giving something from yourself to help others. Participants once saw the hunt as an opportunity to do these things — the stuff true happiness is made of.

Now, the scavenger hunt for cash is a game. Happiness is defined by who’s winning and losing. It’s a game where achieving happiness is mutually exclusive; one person’s victory is another person’s loss. It’s a game the people participating may not realize they’re playing. And it’s a game in which the donor may not even realize he’s stacking the deck.

The anonymous donor says he doesn’t plan on ending the money scavenger hunts soon, saying that it’s a “wonderful feeling” seeing so many people experiencing joy as they search for the envelopes. Maybe it is. But maybe it should be a little disconcerting that we consider heartwarming a story where people compete like dogs over the last scrap of food. So far, it’s gratifying to hear that there hasn’t been any violence or physical harm done to anyone during the searches. Yet violence or no, the underlying premise of competition remains. The same incentives lie in wait, a bear trap waiting for someone to wander in.

Perhaps this is cynical. Perhaps we aren’t truly driven by greed, and maybe people are still participating for the friendships and the simple bliss receiving an unexpected gift can bring. Or perhaps we should give a second glance to the way we think about this phenomenon. Are we still becoming happy through this scavenger hunt? It’s worth it to ask.