Wealth Happiness Ratio

Interesting human interest article in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week about people struggling with their return to work. Largely focused on one man who took advantage of being laid off to connect with his two youngish sons in ways he never had before. A week at a special father-son camp, informal basketball games before dinner, etc. Over the six-nine months he was unemployed, he also began exercising and lost 25 pounds. Now he’s taken a time consuming job and is ambivalent about the loss of family and personal time. He said he gets home at 6:15 and the kid’s evening routine consists of dinner, homework, and bed. And so far he’s gained back 15 of the 25 pounds.

I’m giving the author of the article a “B”  because it was incomplete. Ironic that a journalist writing for the nation’s biz paper wouldn’t explore how the family might reduce their overhead in order to enjoy better balance. My guess is that man’s family, like all families I suppose, could cut expenses in myriad ways. For example, I couldn’t help but wonder how long his commute is and whether he could reduce it by moving closer to work. If I had to cut expenses in order to strike a better work-life balance one of the first things I’d do is try to move within bicycling distance of my work. Then there’s the “new necessities”, cell phones, cable television, expensive lattes in the Pacific Northwest, that few people think about in the context of how many work hours each requires. A related example that I always find odd, the triathlete with an expensive coach who complains about too little time to train.

It’s as if all of us are on a materialistic treadmill that impairs our ability to logically think through the time/material possession trade-off. I can’t downsize my life when the people on the treadmill to the right and left of me are seemingly living larger and larger. Of course their debt, like their treadmill, isn’t visible either.

Why don’t more people question “the wealthier the happier” assumption that powers the materialistic treadmill? Few of us can practice conspicuous consumption and also carve out the necessary time to enjoy close interpersonal relations with family and friends. Not everyone chooses conspicuous consumption, but most do it seems.

Why is that?

4 thoughts on “Wealth Happiness Ratio

  1. Ron,

    I wonder why Americans try to have it all even while losing parts of everything along the way. Thorsten Veblen’s critique of conspicuous consumption was equal parts economic and social: He was searching for a theory to explain why people bought more than they needed and he also critiqued those who spent their lives amassing wealth while missing out on life. That’s a heck of a commentary considering that the lifestyles of the conspicuous consumers of his day wouldn’t be acceptable to the typical American family.

    Even though many people admit to reservations about their performance at home and at work, they continue to spread themselves thin. Why? I don’t know that anyone has that answer, but your post reminded me of a conversation I had today that would have faded from memory. I have a respected colleague at a Northwest insurer who works .8 time. She informed me today that she will begin working .6 time. (I kidded her that she will now finally work .8 time.) Her company keeps her on the forefront of health care and so she had to remove interesting assignments from her portfolio to get down to .6. Since I decided to work part-time two years ago, she said she’d like to share a cup of coffee and get some advice on how to do it. Your post made me consider my advice should we brew those cups of coffee, someday.

    She’s already responded to my first piece of advice without receiving it: to keep my hours consistently low, I had to give up some prestige. This might not be the case with others, but I couldn’t perform well on many choice topics without working in the evenings, consistently. I makes me wonder if conspicuous consumption is the driving force behind Americans pushing themselves or if it isn’t a desire to be recognized in our field. When I went part-time, I was told by a part-time working mother-attorney to be prepared not to get the best assignments. I know from others, that this mother is an expert in her field of law, but she can’t accept the intriguing, time-consuming cases.

    Second, eliminate or cut-back on travel. Nothing disrupts a family more than leaving it. Anyone who has gone on two or more business trips knows they aren’t glorious excursions. Working relationships, however, are made face-to-face. When you really need trusted advice on the happenings in another state, there’s nothing like calling a colleague you’ve worked with at a conference.

    Third, give yourself time to transition. This was humbling. I had to admit that any success I achieved was due, in part, because I was either doing my job or thinking about it, most of the time. I brought no perspective to family life and little perspective to my job. I had to learn how to turn off the profession and live in the moment with my wife and daughters and then click-on in my limited office hours. This took me about six months to get anywhere close to settled and is still a struggle.

    Fourth, I was no longer a player. This isn’t an ego thing. The value of my advice came from spreading myself thin: I knew what was going on elsewhere and so could tailor my advice to complement other projects and their pace. It’s why we only want the busy people on our projects; hire the consultants working in other states and D.C. I have less time to learn and so have to be more selective about what I read, discuss, and analyze. I can only hope to select a little better today than yesterday.


  2. Why don’t more people question “the wealthier the happier” assumption that powers the materialistic treadmill?

    One of your best lines.

  3. Ron:

    Materialism is full of idols. Or why else would Nicolas Cage feel the need to have four or five gargantuan homes just within the continental United States? And not to mention the Bavarian castle, the Irish manor, and a bunch of other stunning places he owns throughout Europe. At any rate, it’s seeming these things—these material acquisitions—like his practice of serial monogamy were not enough to hold him, at least for long; now we’re hearing he’s owing the IRS something like six million bucks.

    I understand being in a “Florida state of mind” or a “Maine state of mind” or whatever, when one feels the desire to hang out for a couple of weeks, even months in places different from where one ordinarily lives, places whose draw is perhaps only exceeded by the beauty of their geography. But I believe magnificence can be held in a single cup also, and we do not necessarily need to travel the globe or own the world in order to achieve an inner equilibrium.

    I’m only speculating of course, but I do wonder if Cage like so many others was unable to get off his materialistic treadmill. The magic fishhook in his mouth, he flings from one desirable pond to another, never drinking enough, and therefore never achieving that state of satiation because nothing was ever quite hitting the spot.

    In this increasingly fast-paced world with more and more options available, I am not even certain that people still hold spending time with family and friends to be the sacred thing it once supposedly was. In a nutshell: people change, people go their own way; their trajectories always spring from within and in the end mostly have nothing to do with us. People are always breaking apart from each other, crumbling as if they were a single loaf of bread. Social beings that we are we incur stress by bumping into each other, rubbing each other the wrong way, whether intentionally or otherwise. We don’t understand the art of taking nothing personally. Therefore, working crazy hours to support extravagant lifestyles and sacrificing relational time along the way is seen by many as not that horrible a trade-off. One man who springs to mind is a former tenant of one of our buildings; while he worked long hours building his pizza delivery business, and seemed to hardly see his family, he often found time to inform me his overweight wife was a cow. The perfect marriage, the perfect family, the perfect group of friends is in my opinion going the way of the tiger in the wild. Maybe it is time we reevaluate our standards.

    I think nowadays when people talk of relational time, they might instead mean personal time—time to recharge, rejuvenate, regroup, far from the inevitable nagging, probing and clever observations that attend people being around us.

    Perhaps we work harder because we’re drawn these days increasingly to inanimate objects, rather than other people because at least those won’t change.

    What baffles me is that most of us have yet to figure out those gaudy material possessions don’t hold the answers either.

    I have talked to you in the past about my desire to downsize my own life, and to retain within it the most important characteristics. While I don’t think I will ever quite be able to practice your sheer simplicities, Ron, I find myself still avidly exfoliating—all the things that must go!

    Still…because I have large dogs, and am an avid animal lover, I am intending on getting a largish hobby farm. This to me is a necessity. While my dogs get more than enough exercise, they still need the space to run. And because I have a large collection of personally significant paintings, I need the wall space to display them! As you know paintings are not like books, they do not have the luxury of emerging electronic media, one needs the actual frame in one’s hands to truly appreciate it!

    Still, I have been jettisoning clothes, most books, and I think just about everything else but the notion of the farm and my dogs and my art.

    But I am holding onto the fact that the cultivation of inner peace and its acolytes of yoga, meditation, exercise, nourishment for body and soul, good thoughts toward my neighbors, family, friends, whatever, will enable me continue to soar far and away from the bear traps which the pursuit of excessive materialism always in the end reveals.

    • Thanks for those thoughts Francis. I was also struck by the recent Cage “fiscal crisis” story. The other part I don’t understand is how someone can delegate that much power to anyone else. I live relatively simply, but not in a global perspective. Still have a long ways to go. Ron

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