Monday, 5 July 2010

Life's all about stuff, stuff and still more stuff

It's human nature to want more stuff. Purchasing the 'must have' CD only to listen to it only once, or the expensive shirt that's been hanging in the closet for years. Then there's that pile of unread books sitting in the 'to read' pile collecting in the study.
But greed is most pronounced when measured in plain, simple cash. We all want to win the lottery and become overnight millionaires. Millionaires don't have any problems – at least none that money can't solve.
1907 photograph of Alaskan Inuit woman

After hitting the million dollar mark, everyone agrees that the rest of our lives will be happy? I tend to disagree – greed knows no limits.
(Given inflation and the decline in the value of paper currencies, perhaps we should be talking about eight digits and not merely seven? With the resale price of some (subsidized) Housing Development Board flats in Singapore nearing SGD one million (USD 714,000) then adding one more digit does seem appropriate.)
Humans always covet the next million dollars, the better car and the better home. Will a CEO be happy with his existing pay check, even if it is one hundred million dollars? Or will the Wall Street trader be content with a twenty million dollars annual performance bonus?  No. It's human nature to want more, irrespective of how much we already have.
The nascent field of 'neuroeconomics' contends that many of these behavioural traits, including greed, are reflexive and instinctual. Just pre-programmed responses controlled by emotions which reside in certain parts of the brain.
But is wealth a necessary condition for happiness? To a large extent, the answer depends on how one defines wealth.
Take away a CEO's private jet and she might be extremely unhappy. The CEO takes a private jet for granted. Give a factory worker an enhanced transport allowance and she will consider her company management to be enlightened and benevolent capitalists, for a few days at any rate.
In a sense, the fewer our wants the easier it is to be happy. Like a child who is just as delighted playing with a worthless piece of paper as with an expensive 'designer' toy. (I assume there is such a thing as a designer toy?)

No, I don't suggest that we 'turn on, tune in, and drop out,' Timothy Leary style. (Remember, in Singapore graffiti vandalism results in caning but illegal drug use is punishable by death!) Or become monks and renounce all material possessions.
Nevertheless, taking a step back to determine what is important and necessary is a worthwhile exercise. In all likelihood, one will conclude that, other than family and friends, little else matters.
We need only ask the Maasai tribal people in Kenya or the Inuit people living in harsh snowy climate of the Arctic. On an annual global survey conducted by psychologists both the Maasais and Inuits score just as high as members of the Forbes 400 'Rich List' on a 'Happiness Index,' despite their relative lack of wealth and bleak weather conditions in the Arctic.*
*See "Your Money and Your Brain" by Jason Zweig. 2007. At the time of the survey, the minimum net worth for someone to be on the Forbes 400 list was USD 125 million.

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