A bibliophile and technology enthusiast with a previous career in IT.
The Acquisition of Wealth
As individuals, our worthiness is defined by various parameters like our education, our family, our job role or designation, our visible possessions, the wealth we acquire over our lifetime. Most of the parameters are feeders or demonstrators of the wealth we acquire. So, the purpose of life is linked unconsciously to wealth.
The pursuit of a college degree, especially a graduate degree – often, this is directly linked to the pursuit of superior employability. The exception would be the born academics, who pursue higher education as a cause in itself.
The acquisition of monetary wealth has been a strong driver to build careers.
Looking around at peers, friends, colleagues – the biggest defining factor that comes up is how one demonstrates wealth. Some of us are members of a generation where the benefits of education and employment allow us to improve our day to day lives to include comforts and options that were out of reach of our parents' generation. So, even without trying too hard, one gets into the rut of seeking the next level of comfort – bigger houses, bigger cars, more toys, expensive vacations. Basically, a list with no end.
Rather unintentionally and unknowingly, we fall prey to “conspicuous consumption” as defined by the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen in 1899 in his book "The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions". This term defined the behavior of the nouveau riche (the new rich) who applied their wealth as a means of publicly manifesting their social power and prestige.
While this puts the behavior in a rather poor light, it is an appropriate reflection of our times – clearly defining the acts we do to “keep up with the Joneses”.
To make matters worse, Veblen also defined “conspicuous compassion”, the practice of publicly donating large sums of money to charity to enhance the social prestige of the donor.
There is a school of thought that there is nothing wrong with “conspicuous consumption” behavior overall – it is just a manifestation of prosperity and friendly rivalry.
The Hedonic Treadmill
Hedonism argues that pleasure and happiness are the primary aims of human life. The origin of the word comes from the Greek word for delight.
The "hedonic treadmill" refers to the human tendency to have a baseline state of happiness. There may be some events that cause increases and dips in happiness levels (like getting a raise or a significant disabling injury) – over a period of time, the individual adapts to the event and goes back to the baseline state of happiness. In effect, humans are on a treadmill as far as happiness goes – continuously in motion, but in the same place.
Research has been done into how the happiness baseline can be improved, and whether these improvements can be maintained, but there is no clear result that gives the steps for these. Acting with intent, towards themes that provide you contentment is one recurring viewpoint for increasing happiness.
Where does Money fit into Happiness?
Of course, money fits into happiness – if your basic needs are unmet, your mental state cannot be described as happy. But once the basic needs are met, does more money make you more happy? By the way, is there a global definition of basic needs?
The International Labor Organization defines basic needs to include food, shelter, clothing, sanitation, education and health-care. But when it comes to the individual, each person tends to define "basic" based on personal circumstances – a one room apartment may take care of housing for someone, while another may consider an independent house with a yard, as basic.
There is a lot of research into determining the link between consumption and happiness – to figure out what makes the consumer happier. Obviously, this cannot be a one time snapshot as the perceptions of the consumer change over time. Some points that have emerged, of course, your mileage may vary:
- Experiences rate higher than “things” - a leisure activity like a concert, participating in a game, going on a vacation rate above designer furniture or expensive cars
- Social bonds increase happiness – group activities, family vacations, an evening out with friends foster goodwill
- Smaller pleasures give more value for money than large ones – the high from a weekend getaway tops a planned two-week vacation (I personally wonder about this one, having fond memories of both long vacations and short ones)
- Anticipation builds pleasure – there is a school of thought stating that planned and researched purchases give more happiness than the spontaneous “instant gratification” purchase
The Americanism “retail therapy” emphasizes the “feel good” factor of purchasing as a mechanism to combat mental lows. This is a reflection of the consumerist society that continually feeds off the theory that increased purchasing power equates with happiness. “Black Friday”, which is now considered the height of American retail business, and one of the big days for advertisers in the year, is a nice contradiction in the middle of the Thanksgiving weekend – counting your blessings and feeling thankful (over enormous quantities of food) on Thursday gives way to “retail therapy” on Friday.
Looking at the other side of “retail therapy”, it has sparked off significant additional debt as well as the view on needless clutter in our lives.
There is also the parallel story emerging about “minimalism” and “frugal living” or the linkage of happiness to simplicity and the need to de-clutter lives, throw away unnecessary possessions. There are enough case studies of people who had it all, but who became minimalist and turned their life around to focus on specific actions that they linked to happiness. As always, there are also the minimalists who returned to the consumption fold after trying it out for some time and finding it not to their taste.
Health is the greatest gift, contentment is the greatest wealth, a trusted friend is the best relative, Nibbana is the greatest bliss.
— Gautama Buddha
Contentment is True Wealth
Eastern mysticism and the teachings of the Buddha is where I first came across the references to contentment being true wealth.
I recall a poem that was part of my high school curriculum in a local language – I have no idea why it is stuck firmly in my head, although I am unable to recall the poet’s name (I even searched unsuccessfully on the internet). It talks about Alexander’s triumphant progress in India after his victories en-route from Greece to India. Sikandar, as he is referred to locally, came across a saint meditating under a tree in the forest and was nonplussed to see that the saint did not acknowledge him, did not seem aware of the fact that he was facing one of the biggest emperors of all times, but rather seemed to be engrossed in his own world of meditation. Sikandar offers the saint any gift he wants, referring to himself as an all-powerful monarch who could grant wishes. This elicits a smile from the saint who asks Sikandar to move away stating that Sikandar is blocking the rays of the sun from reaching him. The saint has no further need for gifts because he already has all that he requires from his God. The poem ends by stating that Sikandar’s pride was burst instantly, he beat a hasty retreat and contentment is indeed the true wealth.
So it is a standoff between achievement and contentment, and at least in this instance, contentment won out. But if the protagonist was not a saint, or a person in a completely different sphere of life than the antagonist, what would the result be?
To simply put it in today’s terms, we can probably be content when we enjoy good health, have a good job, the company of our family and friends, some material possessions (with “some” varying for different individuals). But can we be content when the going is tough – if we have health issues, or are in a job we hate, lose our family or friends, find that some material possession that we yearn for is continually out of reach?
Possibly yes, if we are at the mental maturity of mystics and saints, or have a fatalistic attitude that we are on a predetermined course in this world.
For the vast majority of us, we would have to come up with an action plan in tough situations, and seek support from someone in our trusted inner circle – figure out the way forward on the health issues, seek a new job, find a new social circle, downgrade the material possession requirement to something achievable.
Once the action plan demonstrates some success, we can then look at defining contentment for ourselves – what makes life meaningful for me as an individual? Is it rising to be the CEO of my company? Or is it going off on an entrepreneurial bent and starting something new on my own? Is it getting into a social enterprise or volunteering my time to a social organization?
Most importantly, can I define “enough” at various levels for myself? How many pairs of shoes are enough? Is one car adequate or is no car the answer?
There is no right or wrong answer – the only wrong answer here is if I define “enough” to be more than the Joneses, rather than what is enough for me.
Life then becomes the pursuit of these “enoughs” and our earning need becomes focused on these. Monetarily, this usually would be less than what we previously were pursuing as our goal for wealth.
The side-effect here is on time – when money is not the overriding purpose of our day, we can focus our time on activities that are meaningful to us, even if they have nothing to do with acquiring money. This puts us on the path to contentment and getting the best out of life.
Does Satisfaction Limit Achievement?
To a workaholic pursuing achievement (actually an endless cycle of achievements, because each one is a stepping stone to the next), this is nonsense. It can be construed as the loser's way of seeking contentment in being ordinary or coming second. So if your driving ambition is to make CEO, you will define that as “enough”.
The point is contentment is personal – to one it may be in becoming the emperor of the world, to another it may be meditating in a forest under a tree. Neither situation is a winner or a loser – it just is.
The Happy Balance
The underlying message is that as an individual, one strives to strike a balance between chasing achievement and being happy with what we have. We should make a personal choice to define our achievements as what matters to us, irrespective of the monetary value attached to it – but that is possible only once basic needs are met.
The case studies of extremely wealthy individuals living less ostentatious lives and privately giving away wealth are fairly well known. In most cases, these are people who have chased achievements at some point in their lives but redefined the nature of their goals at a subsequent point.
There is no need for a mandatory directive towards minimalism or frugality unless that is what defines contentment for a specific individual. On the other hand, there is a need to re-evaluate multiple rounds of “retail therapy” or “conspicuous consumption” - if that truly defines contentment, that individual has to figure out ways to support it, or alternatively to redefine contentment.
© 2018 Saisree Subramanian
Saisree Subramanian (author) from Bengaluru, India on April 19, 2018:
Thanks, Haley! Glad to see that you found it interesting..
Haley Kieser from Arizona on April 19, 2018:
Very interesting read. Thanks for sharing!