Through writing my books and working with clients over the years, I have dedicated my time to considerable research about why people overspend. I have always believed that if we can get to the crux of this problem, then we are 90% of the way to managing our finances, and leading abundant, happy and creative lives.
Many years ago, I saw a television documentary that covered the scientific research of the compulsive behaviour of mice. Although I am against animal experimentation, I can appreciate the significance of this experiment to explain the cause of similar behaviour in humans. In this experiment, the mouse was kept in a large cage that contained a special lever connected to its food. The mouse soon learnt that if it tapped on the lever, food would be deposited into its cage. For some time, the mouse was quite content and led a stress-free existence. Every time it wanted food, it would simply tap on the lever and down the food would come. The mouse would eat the food and return to its normal daily routine – carefree and relaxed.
Then the experiment changed. The researchers wired the lever so that it would give the mouse a small shock. Not always, just occasionally. Sometimes, when the mouse tapped it would receive food, sometimes a light shock. This random, unknown outcome created a strange, unexpected result. Instead of keeping well clear of the lever in case it would get hurt, the mouse became obsessed with tapping. Instead of wandering around happily and only going over to the lever when it was hungry, the mouse spent most of its time furiously tapping, tapping on the lever. Sometimes, it would get a shock and sometimes food. This experiment described the addictive responses many of us commonly have.
A large part of society today is addicted to pleasure. We compulsively keep tapping away on our respective destructive ‘levers’ trying desperately to recapture the memory of a former incident that gave us pleasure. We may do it with food, shopping, alcohol, drugs, material possessions or even in relationships.
So back to the mouse in the study, why did it change its behaviour so dramatically? The mouse study demonstrates that we become more compulsive when the outcome becomes more uncertain. Sometimes we set our sights on something that we see as the solution, remedy or result of what we are looking for. We become obstinate and place all of our hopes on this one thing as the only solution. When the object of our attention falls through, we cannot give up hope and keep pursuing it – to us, there are no other alternatives. This can only lead to disappointment. If we open ourselves up to all possibilities, we become less fixed and more flexible and open to winning.
The crux of the matter is: we have confused pleasure with happiness. The Greek philosophers, intrigued by the pursuit of happiness, went to great lengths to define and classify the meaning of happiness. Essentially, this was divided into two main thesis: Eudaimonism and Hedonism. Eudaimonism comes from the Greek word ‘eudaimonia’ meaning happiness and contends that the ultimate goal of life is happiness. They found that happiness and pleasure were different notions and subsequently the philosophers divided into two distinct groups: those that believed that happiness was the ultimate goal of life, and others that believed that pleasure is the highest good and only pleasure has value in itself. The latter was referred to as Hedonism.
Socrates (469 – 399 BC) is known for his dictum, “Know thyself”, and spent much of his time and energy in the pursuit of wisdom. From his dialogue, Euthydemus, Socrates addresses the question: “How are we to secure happiness or doing well?” To answer this, Socrates argued that all goods other than wisdom have no use unless they are used correctly and only wisdom can guarantee the correct and successful use of all goods. He establishes this in four distinct points:
1. Assets do not make us happy unless we use them.
2. Using assets does not make us happy unless we use those assets correctly.
3. Correct use of assets is necessary and sufficient for happiness.
4. Knowledge (or wisdom) is what produces the correct usage.
In fact, argues Socrates, if we do not know how to use our assets we are worse off, particularly if we have more, because that will make us more active and therefore more likely to harm ourselves.
The Dalai Lama also contends that the purpose of life is to be happy, but it is sought via the soul not the ego. In The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, His Holiness distinguishes between pleasure and happiness: pleasure is transient, happiness persists, regardless of our daily ups and downs.
So with this guided knowledge, how can we apply it to our everyday lives to secure happiness and abundance? Essentially, when we buy things we are trying to fill our needs. Obviously, once our basic needs of food, shelter, health and educational requirements are satisfied, we often use money to ‘buy’ ourselves something else. But what?
The problem is, we often confuse happiness with pleasure. Pleasure fills a temporary void. Pleasure gives us a flirting glimpse of happiness. Pleasure is that instantaneous feeling of buying a new book, a new dress, a new car – anything – as long as it provides us with the hopeful promise that this new “thing” will give us the happiness we are looking for. To fill a void within ourselves or sometimes to just give ourselves a quick pick-me-up. Ah-hah, retail shopping!
We have adopted most of our patterns from our parents, siblings, teachers, peer groups, and society in general. Advertising promotes esteem through having this product or looking like that. But no-one has taught us that pleasure is not happiness.
Pleasure is a quick fix. It does not last. It comes from having something. It comes from something material - food, clothes, cars, gadgets. But it does not last. So, once that first pleasure ‘fix’ has dissipated, we need another fix - another new dress, more food, more gadgets. And so it goes. Over and over. It becomes a habit - then an addiction. Then before we know it, we’re stuck in this never-ending cycle.
So, how do we derive happiness? Happiness comes from something we do! Yes, it has nothing to do with what we have - but from what we do, how we live our lives, how we all use our own special gifts, skills and talents to develop purpose in our lives. Every person must have purpose. Without purpose, we might as well be vegetables just living off the land, feeding and watering ourselves. So, we feed our purposeless lives with more gadgets, food, etc, etc, until we realise how unhappy we are.
When we tap into something purposeful and dedicate our skills and ambitions to a worthwhile cause that not only helps ourselves but others too, then we become more and more fulfilled - and happy! And this type of happiness is long-term. We stop needing our quick-fixes and gradually and surely we start to use our money on things we need that contribute to our purpose and stop frittering it away on possessions that we don’t need.
I have a little questionnaire that I often ask my clients and workshop participants to answer. Give yourself some time to answer these three questions and write down your answers. This exercise opens up your minds to how to become more purposeful and happy in life:
1. Write down 3 to 5 skills or talents that you have.
2. Write down 3 to 5 things that you love doing.
3. In one sentence, describe how the world would be if it was perfect.
When you have completed the exercise, write on a new page, “My purpose in life is to use (your skills and talents) to do (those things you love to do) by assisting to create a world that is (the answer to Q.3). This is your purpose and within this answer lies your happiness.
Use your money to develop this lifestyle whether through further training, savings and investments that provide you with the financial freedom to adopt this new lifestyle or establishing a business, group or organization that fulfils these needs. This, and only this, is using money to buy you happiness.
Ann M Marosy is an accountant and the author of The Money Program: How to Manage the 6 Stages of Wealth and Money Rules: The 7 Simple Rules of Money Management, now available through major bookstores, or visit her website at www.moneta.com.au. See ad on page 7 for more information.