Written by Joe “Red” Hayes and Jack Rhodes and made famous in 1955 by Porter Wagner, it has since become a country and western standard. Today, there are at least 34 different versions  of the song performed by some of the biggest names in American music, including Gram Parsons, Joan Baez, Lucinda Williams and Bob Dylan.
The song first caught my attention in the Quentin Tarantino film “Kill Bill Volume 2,” when Michael Madsen, playing the titular character’s brother Budd, has Johnny Cash’s remarkable version of the song playing on repeat in his shabby desert trailer.
So what does “A Satisfied Mind” have to say about money? Lots:
How many times have you heard someone say/ if I had his money, I would do things my way/ But little they know that it’s so hard to find/ one rich man in ten with a satisfied mind
There’s a long tradition of these sorts of “more money, more problems” sentiments in popular music and art, but I’m not a believer. It seems to me that having enough money that you don’t have to worry about how you’re going to pay your rent or what will happen to your family if you’re laid off would be a profoundly good thing.
There’s actually a lot of scientific research on the subject of how wealth affects our happiness, and most of it backs me up on this. A 2010 study  by Princeton researchers Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton found that people who made more money were generally more satisfied with their lives, rating them higher on a scale of 1 to 10, than those who made less. Day-to-day emotional happiness was more tied to health and relationships, and wasn’t tied as much to income.
“We conclude that high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness, and that low income is associated both with low life evaluation and low emotional well-being,” Kahneman and Deaton wrote.
There’s a caveat, though: We’re not sure whether there’s some kind of a point where you’re earning so much that earning more money won’t give you much more life satisfaction. Kahneman and Deaton’s study suggested that point was around $75,000 per year or so, but more recent research seems to suggest there’s no “satiation point” at all.
Where ‘A Satisfied Mind’ gets it right
Where I think “A Satisfied Mind” really does give us something to think about is on what wealth can’t do for us. Numbers in a bank account can give us a sense of accomplishment and make day-to-day existence easier and more fun, but they’re no replacement for the most important things in life:
Money can’t buy back your youth when you’re old/ or a friend when you’re lonely/ or love that’s grown cold/ The wealthiest person is a pauper at times/ Compared to the man with a satisfied mind
Bringing it back to Cash’s version of the song, I can understand why he chose to cover it. At the time, his health was failing; his beloved wife, June Carter Cash, died before the album on which the song appears, “American VI: Ain’t No Grave,” was completed.
I don’t presume to know what was going through Cash’s head at the time, but I do wonder if he ever would have traded the fame and fortune he had earned through his phenomenal musical accomplishments for a few more years of healthy life with June and his family.
What do you think? Does money get in the way of having a satisfied mind? Does it, instead, help you get there? What do you think?
Here’s my second favorite version of the song, by singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley: