Sacrifices: Money & Well-being

Peter Singer provides us with an alternative way of looking at money and the sacrifices we make in his book The Most Good We Can Do. He suggests that we change the way we look at money and begin to better understand our relationships with money.  Ultimately, what is suggested is that we begin to devalue money and it’s importance in our lives relative to other finite resources that we may give up in exchange for the opportunity or the ability to make more money. Singer writes,

 

“Money, however, is not an intrinsic good. Rather than saying that something is a sacrifice if it will cause you to have less money, it would be more reasonable to say that something is a sacrifice if it causes you to have a lower level of well-being, or in a word, be less happy.”

 

What he first establishes in his quote is the idea that money is not a given and set construct of the human experience. It is a social measurement used to organize people into an economic system, and it is a byproduct of many social factors including, hard work, luck, creativity, and progress.  Singer explains money as something separate from our own happiness and our true experience. This has the effect of moving money to a secondary tier in our lives rather than a primary goal.  By seeking out a lifestyle that provides us with more well-being, flexibility, and happiness, as Singer’s quote suggests, we can adopt a lifestyle where our money is a secondary goal that follows in line with our efforts.

 

His quote does not seem to suggest that money is not important or that we should adopt vagabond lifestyles that don’t require us to work or earn money, but it simply makes money less of an important factor.  If we focus on what will help us be more happy we can move in a direction that may not be as lucrative in the long run, but may provide us with greater flexibility and comfort, which will have a positive impact on our well-being and that of our families.  He is almost suggesting a direct approach to well-being with an oblique approach to wealth building, which is more or less the opposite of the way most of us think. We often set out on a direct path to earn more and make more, which we believe will make us happier. Happiness is sought after in an oblique manner because our primary goals are greater wealth and greater consumerism with the hopes of building happiness. Singer would argue that we should seek well-being and understand sacrifices in terms of values outside of money to reach a lifestyle that is comfortable and productive. In this view, once we reach that level, the money will suffice and our lives will be more enjoyable and based around things that add more value to our lives than stress.

Cheerful Sacrifices

Peter Singer in The Most Good You Can Do recounts a quote from an effective altruist who visited Singer’s classroom to speak to his students, “We don’t need people making sacrifices that leave them drained and miserable.  We need people who can walk cheerfully over the world, or at least do their damnedest.” The speaker was an effective altruist named Julia who faced the challenge of making donations to help others but maintaining a lifestyle that was comfortable enough for her to be a happily functioning human being. Interestingly, Julia’s quote pulls from a quote from the founder of the Quakers, George Fox, who said that Quakers should be an example and “walk cheerfully over the world.” What Julia’s quote shows is the importance about doing positive work because it feels good, and because it helps us add value to our lives. If we start doing positive work only because we do not want to feel guilty, we miss the point of giving whether it be our time, money, or resources.

Julia’s argument toward making donations is that in order to fulfill yourself and have the energy and passion required to continue to thrive, earn money, donate money, and inspire others, you need to be able to live with a budget that allows for spending on yourself and things that can help provide happiness, while at the same time donating as much as possible. An effective altruist would contribute a large amount of money toward meaningful causes, but they would see that they would be the most effective if they were able to convince others who are financially successful to do the same. Living a life where others perceive you as living out of a cardboard box does not inspire other’s to adopt a lifestyle of giving and sacrificing.

I have recently started listening to the podcast The Minimalist, and in the show the hosts address the same idea. Having things and purchasing items for oneself is not a bad thing, the hosts contend, if the items being purchased bring you joy and can serve a purpose.  When you are purchasing items for yourself and your own enjoyment without those items bringing you any joy or serving any purpose, then you are just obtaining more things. The podcast hosts would argue that eliminating some of what you had bought or that reducing your spending would actually help you have more time, since you would not be managing “things”, and give you more flexibility to do what you would like to do to help others and impact the world. Combining the thoughts of the minimalists with Julia and her quote above shows that we can support ourselves and enjoy our resources, but that we can find greater fulfillment by making donations and living a life focused on helping others rather than living a life focused on acquiring goods.

The End Goals of our Goals

Colin Wright focuses on self awareness throughout his book Considerations and he turns that inward focus toward our goals and desires for life.  Specifically he writes about bucket list items and goals we aspire to reach.  What Wright explains is that we often set up goals with the hopes of impressing other people. Our goals are chosen not because we actually want to achieve them or because we desire the things that come with reaching that goal, but instead we choose our goals based on how impressive they sound or how they will make us look relative to our peers. When comparing actual goals to bucket list items Wright states, “…rather than cataloging goals we actually have aspirations to achieve, we list things that are very impressive and intense-sounding for the sake of being associated with those types of activities.” What Wright is establishing is the idea that we are not focusing on ourselves in goal setting, but what others want or expect from us.

 

Wright continues to explain the difference between choosing goals that are for yourself rather than for others and ends this chapter in his book with the following, “in short, make sure your goals are for you, not for others’ perception of your. This applies to all goals, not just those on some sort of bucket list.”

 

I want to share this quote, or perhaps the entire section of Wright’s book, with every high school and college student in the country. So often it is easy to have expectations in your mind about what success is, but that vision of success does not always align with who you truly are, and what you truly desire.  Pushing towards success by achieving what others have decided is a worthy definition of success, as opposed to understanding and creating your own definition of success, can lead you down paths that are not enjoyable and do not lead to happiness.

 

For me, a major challenge throughout college was developing the self awareness to understand what visions of success I had and where those visions came from.  Growing up watching Top Gear had build success in my mind as a fancy sports car, and growing up in a nice house gave me certain expectations for how success translated into a home.  Evaluating myself and what my definition of success was allowed me to understand what was important in life and what was not. Once I decided that I did not need to achieve a certain monetary level of success, drive sports cars, or live in a giant house, much of the stress I felt melted away.  It is difficult to look inward and understand what sets the foundation for the goals we have, and it is even more difficult to begin to develop those goals on our own without feeling the pressure of what society and family expect from us.

Self-Centeredness

Self-centeredness and materialism are two of the topics Richard Wiseman touches on in his book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot.  Wiseman looks at how making purchases affects our happiness, and compares spending money on items versus spending money on experiences.  As he explains, research suggests that spending money on experiences leads to greater and more sustained happiness by creating social interactions leading to positive memories and stories for the future.

Wiseman continues to dive into the world of shopping and happiness and explains a study by Elizabeth Dunn which evaluated peoples scores on a questionnaire meant to measure their level of materialism. The study asked what the individuals would do if they had $40,000 to spend. “Materialists spend, on average, three times as much on things for themselves as they do on things for others,” Wiseman writes, “Also, when they are asked to rate statements about the degree to which they care for others (“i enjoy having guests stay in my house,” “I often lend things to my friends”), they end up giving far more self-centered responses.”  Wiseman’s section on materialism is not surprising.  Our culture pushes us to want to be impressive and to make purchases that will display our success and high status.  The research shows that people who are more materialistic tend to also act in more self-centered ways.  Wiseman continues to explain Dunn’s research, “from the perspective of happiness, this self-centeredness can have a detrimental effect on people’s happiness.”

What Wiseman explains is that our brains are wired to make us social creatures.  We depend on and rely on others, and when it comes to spending money to make us happy, purchasing experiences that can bring us closer to others is more effective than purchasing items for ourselves.

I am currently working on a book called Return on Character by Fred Kiel, in which he examines leaders in the business world, their character, and the performance of their enterprise.  What Kiel’s research shows is that those CEO’s who tend to be more self-focused don’t produce the same results as CEO’s who are more caring, empathetic, and operate with a strong character.  This is in line with Wiseman’s findings about happiness and self-centeredness. Those CEO’s who are self-focused are more likely to be materialistic, less likely to be happy, and don’t stick to the same values and morals that drive the (as Kiel puts them) virtuoso CEO’s.  When your company is run by people who are less happy and act in self-centered ways, the leadership team is likely to be less interactive with employees, and they are less likely to create a work environment based on integrity and positivity.  This in turn can bring the entire company apart, as apposed to creating an organization that pulls all of its members together.

Buying Happiness

In his book 59 Seconds Richard Wiseman examines people’s attempts to buy happiness. He takes a scientific approach to the question by studying academic experiments aimed at studying how money impacts happiness, and if purchases can really increase happiness.  Wiseman also considered how long different types of purchases will sustain your happiness in an attempt to find the best way to spend your extra money. An experiment by psychologists Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich served as the base for Wiseman’s research, and not surprisingly, Wiseman found that experiences made people happier for longer periods of time.  Van Boven and Gilovich asked people to rate the way an act of purchasing an item made them feel at that moment, and how they felt later on. Wiseman summarizes why purchasing experiences had a greater happiness factor than purchasing items,

 

“Our memory of experiences easily becomes distorted over time (you edit out the terrible trip on the airplane and just remember those blissful moments relaxing on the beach).  Our goods however tend to lose their appeal by becoming old, worn-out, and outdated.  Also, experiences promote one of the most effective happiness-inducing behaviors — Spending time with others.  Sociability might be part of the experience itself, or it might happen when you tell people about the occasion afterward.  In contrast, buying the latest or most expensive new product can sometimes isolate you from friends and family who may be jealous of the things that you have.”

 

Wiseman shows that the best way to be happy is to connect with others, and that those who emphasize material gains risk pushing others away.  He continues on in his book to explain the differences between highly materialistically driven individuals and those who are not as driven by material goals.  Those who view success as a community effort are more likely to want to spend time with those around them and also enjoy the successes of others as much as their own.  These people are more likely to spend their money on others or group experiences that bring people together instead of purchasing personal items. Wiseman and the research he studied suggested that this use of money will help connect people and build positive memories of the past. Buying fancy items however will lead to decreased happiness in the long run with the item purchased becoming worn out or out of style and serving as a constant reminder of the money that went toward the purchase.

The Importance of Happiness

Following the introduction of his book 59 Seconds, Richard Wiseman starts chapter 1 with an exploration of why it is important to be happy.  He explains a study by Sonja Lyubomirsky at the University of California that reviewed hundreds of studies regarding happiness to find what was common between them all.  One thing her team found is that happiness does not just result from success, but in many ways it actually causes success.  Wiseman summed up Lyubomirsky’s research by writing, “happiness makes people more sociable and altruistic, it increases how much they like themselves and others, it improves their ability to resolve conflict, and it strengthens their immune systems.”

 

Wiseman’s book dives into the science of the ideas and strategies in self help books.  Many of the books are meant to increase happiness, even if their main goal is to help someone in a specific area.  Becoming a better leader, achieving financial peace, and becoming more self aware all have an end goal of helping someone reach a more happy state of mind.  Wiseman starts his book with this quote to show just how important happiness can be, and why we all strive for it.  His quote shows that those who are happy are able to have more personal and engaged relationships, perform better in their career, and live healthier.  The question he sets out to explore is what methods for improving happiness have a scientific backing behind them.

 

I enjoy the quote from Wiseman that sums up Lyubomirsky’s findings because I think it is something we all understand.  I think that we can all vision a happy version of ourselves, and that version does have meaningful relationships with a long and healthy life at the center.  The quote also shows me that it is not a bad thing to try and understand this happiness to a greater extent through reading.  Often times reading self help books carries a certain stigma, but with the importance of happiness, there is no reason not to try and understand happiness and its ties with success.

Mind Myths

Richard Wiseman wrote the book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot to bring science to the ideas of self help books.  His book examines many popular ideas about how to improve our lives, and provides scientific evidence for what works and what does not work when it comes to self improvement principals.  Wiseman is Professor for Public Understanding of Psychology in Britain and has performed many experiments that directly test the efficacy of popular ideas such as positive self projections, writing down goals, and ideas for building creativity.  He became interested in studying this angle of psychology because many self help ideas have permeated through society and can have very positive and negative consequences for those who implement actions into their lives.  Wiseman writes,

 

“Both the public and the business world have bought into modern-day mind myths for years and, in so doing, may have significantly decreased the likelihood of achieving their aims and ambitions.  Worse still, such failure often encourages people to believe that they cannot control their lives.  This is especially unfortunate as even the smallest  loss of perceived control can have a dramatic effect on people’s confidence, happiness, and life span.”

 

Wiseman’s quote shows how important it is to not follow bad advice from self help books, quotes, or guides.  By following ideas that do not have any scientific backing you may just be frustrating yourself even more.  When promised results do not materialize through a poor practice, frustration will increase, and a greater sense of inability will ensue.

 

Throughout Wiseman’s book he looks at different areas that are popular in self help communities.  He examines what it takes to be creative and how we can build our creativity. Wiseman looks at what practices help us build self awareness to change habits, but in a way that helps us understand the challenges and obstacles we will face on our journey so that we are prepared to handle them.  The book reveals not just what works and what does not work in psychology and self help books, but it explains theories as to why some practices are helpful, and why some damaging practices have become so popular.

Greatness and Ego

Vera Countess von Lehndorff wrote a letter to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, and in her letter she discusses goals, ambitions, talents, and our journey.  She encourages us to have courageous goals, but she also brings in a bit of self awareness with out goal setting. “You want to be the greatest? You want to just feed your ego? That’s not so great.”  This quote is her response to lofty goals and visions of success.

 

When I read over this quote I think about the goals that I have had throughout life, and how many of them are less about me, and are in one way or another more about fulfilling other people’s expectations and looking impressive.  These types of goals promise us a land where we will feel high and mighty because we will gain the respect and admiration of others as a result of our greatness. However, these goals may not always be aligned with our true purpose or talents, and pursuing them relentlessly could cost us our peace of mind, happiness, and relationships.

 

For me, building habits of self awareness and learning how to look inwards to examine my goals has helped me understand where my goals originated. When I began to examine my goals I found I pursued some because society had determined that they were lofty and valuable.  When I return to von Lehndorff’s quote I can see the ways in which pushing towards goals that simply feed an ego are more damaging than positive for the individual and the world.  Losing sight of other people to pursue a goal that will build your ego will direct you to a place where people may be impressed by your title or your material possessions, but you may risk jeopardizing true friendships along the way.  If you set out on a goal that only serves your ego, you also risk missing the chance to provide something meaningful and unique to the world. I am currently reading The Go-Giver by Bob Berg, and Berg would agree with this point of view.  He would argue that you can provide value and find success by chasing goals that only serve yourself, but that in order to reach a level of stratospheric success you must focus more on the value you provide to others.  This means that you must forget about your own ego and find goals that serve others as much as yourself.

 

Ultimately, I believe the problem with chasing a goal fueled by ego is the likelihood that you will burn out.  You run the chance of pushing yourself into situations that serve your ego rather than your purpose, and you miss out on actively working towards  goals that excite you and fuel a passion. In the end, aiming for greatness takes you away from happiness because your ego is built by your accomplishments and outside recognition.  If you abandon ego and learn to operate without requiring the praise and admiration of others, you can find a level of greatness where you understand that you are great independently of outside recognition and ego serving applause.

Prescribed Happiness

In a letter of advice for James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, Arthur Nersesian writes about the ideas our society has for happiness and success.  He argues that most people try to fit in to pre-defined ideas of success, and that we strive for an image of happiness set by things that influence us. Nersesian writes, “I think a lot of people feel unhappy because they don’t fit into prescribed notions of happiness.”
In Nersesian’s quote I see the importance of looking for our own path, and finding our true desires rather than following the ideas that society prescribes to us.  I am currently reading a book written by Colin Wright in which he explains that we have many things that influence us such as our parents, the media we consume, advertisements, and people around us.  What Wright argues, and I think Nersesian would agree with, is that these influences shape our desires and world views to fit what others want in our lives, as opposed to what we want in our lives.
Nersesian in his letter explains that we should not try to judge other people’s success by how well they fit into these prescribed notions of happiness or success. Advertisements and television shows would paint a picture of success that equals lots of money, good looks, and a sports car. At the same time, the images of happiness that bombard us through media and social media paints a picture of exciting trips, unique experiences, and a fully checked off bucket-list.  If we spend all our effort trying to reach these ideas of success and happiness then we are forgetting to ask ourselves what we actually want.  By turning inward and understanding what is important to us and why, we can begin to journey towards our own form of happiness without the pressure to be happy in the way that society envisions for us.