When enough is enough
Welcome to Living Money’s Manifesto series of posts.
On Sunday morning on Radio 4’s Something Understood John McCarthy asked ‘When is enough enough’,
With ecological economist Professor Tim Jackson and others, McCarthy discussed whether our desire for wealth and status, which extends into a yearning for more time, space, love, looks and much more, actually leads to less contented lives.
I explore this further in this post as it sits at the heart of our manifesto for a wholehearted life.
Enough is enough
This complex and timeless question struck a cord in me for a couple of reasons. Markets have dropped between 10% and 15% over the last few months. At the same time clients have become much more interested in their portfolios. The number of clients logging in to see the value of their portfolios has increased quite significantly. And whilst none have rung to express concern, this increased curiosity is certainly a symptom of fear that a portfolio which they may have felt was ‘not enough’ in the first place is even less than enough now.
Listening to John McCarthy and his guests also made me face one of the contradictions in my professional life. I work with clients to help them understand that ‘less is more’ and that the endless pursuit of higher returns can be both financially and psychologically destructive.
Indeed, in my book I devote a whole chapter to the concept of ‘letting go’, not only of our physical possessions but also of our egos which thrive on wealth and power. And my financial life planning work with clients is underpinned by the principles that money is a means to an end, not an end in itself and that true wealth lies in ourselves, not in our portfolios.
However, come the first Monday of the month when I put together my monthly markets commentary I hear myself talking about how much markets have risen or fallen, how rising GDP is important for rising markets and how, generally, ‘up’ is a good thing whilst ‘down’ is a bad thing.
So this first Monday of the month I though I would forego my usual market commentary and join in McCarthy’s discussion about when enough is enough.
McCarthy started by reciting the maxims of spiritual leaders and philosophers past and present from around the world
- ‘Always leave something for the fatherless, the foreigner and the widow’
- ‘If you want money more than anything, you will be bought and sold’
- ‘If you have a greed for food, you will become a loaf of bread’
- ‘This is a subtle truth: whatever you love, you are’
- ‘True wealth does not burn; it cannot be stolen by a thief’
We have probably all been through times when we have had plenty, and times when we have been badly in need. I know I have. That’s life. The art is to find that balance between the two. The younger we find it the better. Most of us yearn for the serenity and contentment that comes with this financial balance. How many of us actually achieve it is a moot question.
My own personal experience, and those of many of my clients, is that fear and greed are powerful drivers. When we have too little, the desire for more drives our lives, leading us into well paid but soul destroying jobs. Paradoxically, the fear of loosing it becomes our motivator when we have enough. This is epitomised by the up tick in visits to our portfolios in times of market volatility.
In July I heard philosopher and psychologist Robert Rowland Smith talking about our wants and needs. His theory is that, as a developed society, we have gone beyond the basic needs of food, shelter, security. These are now commodities of little value, plentifully available to even those of modest means. Even brands, which help us to fulfil our need for belonging, are loosing their value because the one thing we all need and want today is meaning.
Roland Smith is echoing McCarthy: whilst we need money for the basics, too much money (or the desire for more money, wealth and power) detracts from our ability to find meaning, which we only find through the serenity and peace that comes from financial balance.
So a key to a meaningful life is have the power to learn where that financial balance lies, understanding that a marginal increase or decrease in our wealth is not going to achieve nirvana or lead us into the depth of despair.
Professor Tim Jackson, author of the book Prosperity without Growth argues that ever increasing growth is unsustainable. He wants us to redefine prosperity because the endless pursuit of money and things detracts from our humanity.
Jackson admits that human selfishness embedded in our genes has been an evolutionary success story. Fight or flight has mattered in our evolutionary progression, but, he argues, humans have developed beyond this to display a degree of selflessness, compassion, community and humanity not seen in most other species.
He has been carrying out research into the relationship between affluence and happiness.
He believes everyone has the power to change, to decrease the ‘Enough Threshold’ whether by dropping out for 15 minutes a day, practicing mindfulness, joining the ‘buy nothing day’ movement, taking a week out each year to be simply in the service of others or in countless other ways.
Jackson found that people who do this become measurable happier and really do start to live the good life. His concern is that they have to do it in an arena of constant struggle. They are going against the grain of the consumerist society, against the grain of a culture dominated by expectations and the thirst for novelty and new things. This pressure will get even worse in the run up to Christmas, now celebrated in a way that is the antithesis of the event itself.
Jackson suggests we have two specific personal responsibilities if society is to become more meaningful, happy and balanced. The first is simply to just do it, find that 15 mins to opt out or go for a day without buying anything. The second is to adopt a more active, progressive responsibility, to work to change the structures that stop us being the best we can be.
We can become more human, especially when we value our own worth and the worth of others more than our wealth and possessions, so I hope my decision to drop my monthly discourse on the state of the world’s markets and instead examine why enough is enough might in its own small way lead to a marginal up tick in the world’s humanity and happiness.