My face presses against the sliding glass door as my dad cuts down branches and my mom trims down the half-acre yard they’ve worked so hard for. The wealth they had to accumulate over the course of twenty-nine years of hard work has lead to this very moment.
I recently moved back in with my parents. As the temperature in Seattle rose above seventy degrees, the heat started attacking my body, leading to burning rashes all over my body. My parents embraced their suffering twenty-five year-old son with a nice home and air conditioning, and allowed me to stay until I healed.
Over the past seven weeks I have lived with practically nothing. Four shirts, two pairs of pants, a pair of shorts, two pairs of shoes, three pairs of socks, and two pairs of underwear. The remainder of my things were left in my apartment unattended.
Prior to moving in with my parents, I had recently just moved my things to a new place in an effort to ’feel better’ about my health situation.
After a grueling fourteen months, I am finally healthy enough to move into my new apartment. It’s an open one-bedroom with 600 square feet, but there were still things I needed for my new place before I could call it home.
The basics: food, hygienic products, a shower curtain, towels, and a bed… oh, as well as matching black leather bar stools, a large mirror, another lamp for the corner over there, and a Verismo Starbucks latte machine.
What color of a Verismo machine would define me as a man?
Does the fact that I’m even asking this question make me less of one?
How many cups and silverware pieces should a man own?
So here I stand as I take a break from writing my Home Items list, dumbfounded at my new perspective. The more I buy, the more I have to maintain; I have more branches to cut down, and more lawn to maintain.
So why did I want all of these things? Did they make me manly? That’s why I wanted all those things, right? Those things made me feel like a twenty-five year-old man making his mark in the world, one Versimo at a time.
“The things you own, end up owning you.” – Fight Club
The achievement of wealth and greatness wallops the imagination with the potential of nobility, but we tell ourselves it’s well worth the toil and anxiety.
It is this perception that gets us up in the morning for work, and it pursues a continual motion of industry for mankind. We have entirely changed the face of mother earth by turning impolite forest into fertile plains, and made the unpaved and desolate ocean a new source of survival.
It is this deception that encourages us to cultivate the ground, build houses, found cities, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts which embellish our oh-so-important human life. 1
Why is more better?
The economy is the answer. Our entire pursuit of progress hinders on the belief transmission game that we choose to engage in.
The Belief Transmission Game
Let’s say a college psychology professor wants to test two groups of Gossipers. Over the course of one month, the professor will provide general statements, and each individual is responsible for deciding if the statement is accurate or inaccurate.
If the Gossiper believes the statement is inaccurate, they do not share it. But if they believe to be accurate, the individual will call a teammate and pass it along. If the Gossiper does share inaccurate information, the group loses a point, but they accrue points if the information is correct.
There are two groups for this study; the first is a group of Accurate Gossipers, and the other group is a group of Gullible Gossipers. At the end of one month, the professor tallies up the accurate statements for both teams.
You would expect the Accurate Gossipers to win, right?
Not necessarily. Imagine what happens if one of the Gullible Gossipers sent this false message; “talking on the phone all day and night will make you very happy and fulfilled.” 2 Since the Gullibles are gullible enough to believe it, this message is passed around. Although this message is inaccurate and will cost the Gullibles a point in the end, it may have an advantageous effect.
As a result of this belief, the Gullibles allow this fact to affect their personal life. They stay on the phone more, thus increasing the total number of accurate messages they share. Under this specific circumstance, the cost of this inaccurate belief would outweigh its benefits by increasing the Gullibles to behave in ways that can increase the odds of sharing other accurate beliefs.
Another illustration applies to genetics. Imagine that one person is blessed with a mind-blowing orgasm gene, while another person is blessed with an orgasm gene relative to a sneeze. Those with the practical sneeze also have a ‘fit’ gene, while those with the mind blowing orgasm gene are blessed with the ’fat’ gene.
If you observe the gene pond over 1,000 years, you are more likely to find mind-blowing orgasm genetics exceeding the sneezing orgasm genetics, because the act which produces the orgasm also increases child-bearing awards.
Simply put, the genetics that survived were not those of the fittest shown in Darwin’s theory, but those of encouraged transmission.
When someone tells us the name of the most romantic restaurant in Seattle for a date, we tend to adapt that belief and pass it along. We believe that our friends want to experience the things we experienced, such as a good experience in that restaurant.
Even a false belief that increases communication has a good chance of being transmitted over and over. Why? Because false beliefs that promote thriving established societies are spread by people who tend to live in these societies.
Hungry for Wealth
I love to eat. I mean, my God, do I love to eat. I barely leave a meal unfinished. But on Thanksgiving Day with food plastered across the tables and kitchen counters for my family of four’s holiday meal, I reach a point of being so full I can’t imagine taking another bite. I literally cannot grasp the idea of eating… ever again.
“The desire for food is limited in every man by the narrow capacity of the human stomach; but the desire of the conveniences and ornaments of building, dress, equipage, and household furniture, seems to have no limit or certainty.” 3
After decades of study, economists and psychologists have concluded that an increase of wealth increases happiness when it elevates someone out of poverty and into the middle class, but it does little to improve happiness from then on. 4
According to studies,5 Americans who earn $50,000 per year are much happier than those who earn $10,000 per year, yet Americans who earn $5 million per year are not that much happier than those who earn $100,000 per year.
If food and money stop pleasing us once we’ve had enough, then why do people work long hours to earn more money than they can ever derive pleasure from?
It’s a simple explanation; we buy into the cultural wisdom that happiness is associated with wealth. The amount of money we possess is an achievement in itself.
When an individual sells an item, typically one tries to sell it for as much money as possible. At the same time the buyer is trying to purchase it for as little as possible. This demonstrates that all parties assume that they are better off if they completed the transaction with more money rather than less.
This finicky false belief exists because it causes us to engage in the very activities that perpetuate it. 6
The production of wealth does not essentially make individuals happy, but it does serve the needs of an economy. Our economy is the foundation for a stable society, which develops as a network for the breeding of delusional beliefs about happiness and wealth.
When individuals strive, economies thrive.
Since individuals only strive for their own happiness, it is necessary that they accept the false belief that producing and consuming are routes to personal happiness. This highlights how we have fallen into the trap of the belief-transmission game, and why we believe there is a large correlation between happiness and money that simply isn’t true.
Yet rather than being aware of this false belief that earning larger paychecks increases our happiness, we believe we are doing these things for ourselves, when we are actually doing these things for our social network.
We continue to toil and continue to be surprised when we do not experience all the joy we so gullibly anticipated.
- Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
As quoted in Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. ↩
- Book: Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. ↩
- Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), book 1 (New York: Modern Library, 1994). as quoted in the Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. ↩
- E. Diener and M. E. P. Seligman, “Beyond Money: Toward an Economy of Well-Being,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 5: 1–31 (2004); ↩
- R. A. Easterlin, “Income and Happiness: Towards a Unified Theory,” Economic Journal 111: 465–84 (2001); and D. G. Blanchflower and A. J. Oswald, “Well-Being over Time in Britain and the USA,” Journal of Public Economics 88: 1359–86 (2004). ↩
- Some theorists have debated that societies exhibit a cyclic pattern in which people realize that money doesn’t buy happiness but then forget this lesson a generation later. ↩