Epicurus, a Greek philosopher born 341 years before Jesus who lived until he was 72, in biblical numbers, three score years and twelve. He would have lived longer if they’d known how to remove stones from the urinary tract back then. The first known operations for that excruciating condition were in the 16th century and poor Samuel Pepys had it done in 1658 without anaesthetic. And if you are surmising that would have stung a bit, you’d be right, but no need to guess, he wrote all about the diabolical pain in his famous diary.
As philosophers go I especially like Epicurus because he freely allowed females to attend his school, which he called, the garden. This was uncommon at the time because ancient writings (written by men) typically cast women as inferior or even as the sinful yang to male purity. This was a theme later expounded by Christianity and as a direct consequence we are still dealing with a gender-pay gap more than two thousand years later.
I’ve picked this quote though because it’s a continuation of Number 8, Goethe’s “If you wish to draw pleasure out of life you must attach value to the world.” If you’ve recently finished that one, well done, lay down and have a rest, it was a long one. This I promise will be shorter, but then I always set out that way, so maybe not. Maybe I should use a smaller font?
To re-cap, we get a dopamine hit for achieving a task. It’s something most people experience when shopping and for some, it’s a powerful enough reward to start them on the road to a shopping addiction.
Bringing home the bacon is an achievement in itself and there’s usually more satisfaction in bulk-buying and having plenty than in just getting the minimum for the next meal. This is because one of the things we like to achieve is accumulating things.
Psychologists tell us we are genetically predisposed to collect things and that whatever it is you hoard in the twenty-first century is a throw-back to accumulating deer hides, foodstuffs, wood for the fire, pebbles for our catapults and herbs for our many clever poultices. These are the things we might need as stone age beings and well done you for getting all this stuff because running out of supplies might mean doom. More food meant better health and a safety margin for survival in tougher times while running out of pebbles when there’s a bear sniffing at your cave entrance is a bit of a bummer.
Just as powerful, the caveman with the biggest pile of swag might attract the best choice of mates and keep in mind, in those days human societies weren’t monogamous, so attracting a mate wasn’t something you did just once or twice. Well, yes you’re right, human societies are not really monogamous now, but the difference is that now we have established institutions and they guide us in (or seek to restrain us from) our unfettered, consequence-free aspirations and behaviours. We know the family arrangement was a bit different back then.
Meanwhile, back to recent history; Anyone with a grandmother who lived through post-war rationing will probably have noticed they tend to stockpile groceries. Once you’ve queued for hours for an ounce of butter, it’s tempting to pick up extra when supermarkets have so much of the stuff on display.
That’s understandable isn’t it, but collections aren’t limited to essential foodstuffs. People amass stamps, spoons, antiques, vinyl records, comic books, coins, toy cars, watches, wine, fine art, bottles, autographs, the serial numbers of trains or aeroplanes, badges, maps, baseball cards, motorcycle helmets, branded beer glasses, beer mats, Lego (the world’s best toy), seashells and cuddly toys. Jay Leno collects cars and motorcycles, Johnny Depp collects Barbie dolls, Janet Jackson – porcelain pigs, Kiefer Sutherland – guitars (I’d like to see them Kiefer), Tom Hanks – typewriters, Rod Stewart collects model trains (which must be awesome) and my favourite is the fact that Penélope Cruz collects coat hangers. I’ve got some she can have, so just nip round and pick ‘em up if you’re reading this Penny, hun.
Serious collectors will know it’s virtually an addiction. Trying to find the missing items which will make the collection complete can become an obsession and through analysing what’s going on here we can witness the combination of:
…and isn’t it all just a little bit nuts? How much gets spent on all these collections? Here’s a clue: Pelé’s collection of soccer memorabilia fetched £3,600,000 at auction. Bill Koch sold his wine collection at Sotheby’s for £16,300,000. One of those Russian oligarchs bought a collection of Fabergé eggs for £37,300.000. Elizabeth Taylor collected jewellery and in 2011 it sold at auction for £116,800,000. Meanwhile, someone bought a Leonardo da Vinci painting at auction in 2017 for £341,000,000. That last one is not a collection, it’s just one painting to add to your collection!
What’s going on here? Aren’t there hungry children in Africa anymore? Answer: Yes, and in England too, but that’s another matter entirely and you’d only ask that question if you weren’t burning with desire for the painting, the rare guitar, the special Hornby train, an unusually delicate porcelain piggy, or that elusive nineteenth century Ritz hotel coat hanger you’ve always wanted.
Collecting things is natural and the solution to World hunger isn’t for some old lady to sell two-hundred spoons she’s acquired in a lifetie of travel and diligent searching and send the money to “Fifteen, Yemen Road, Yemen.” She can be generous like that if it gives her pleasure, but it won’t solve the problem of world hunger. Climate, corrupt dictators, religious conflict, ignorance, family planning and giant international corporations destroying the local environment are higher priorities. Improving food distribution would make a huge difference. Plenty of food gets wasted in Europe and North America, much of it eaten by people who have already eaten more than enough that day.
Off topic. Reset.
If you love your collection and adding another bit enhances the joy, you’re doing fine. If the one you don’t have becomes an obsession and the sparkle has worn off all the ones you already own, that’s not so good. Stop and think, didn’t you lust after those early ones every bit as much? If they don’t satisfy you now, what makes you think the next one will? It won’t. Return to the start, attach value to what you already have, imagine this is it, there are no more, you’ll never expand the collection and if you can take a breath and think that would be fine, it’s more than enough to make you happy, fine, go get another one, but if you’d feel like it wasn’t enough and you may as well ditch the whole collection if you couldn’t expand it further, then things are out of kilter, the want has overtaken the pleasure of ownership and acquiring more will achieve nothing beyond a very transient dopamine rush. You’ve lost the plot my friend, you crossed the line. You don’t own the collection, it owns you!
Years ago, when you were getting your first pay-packet it was pretty good wasn’t it? Mine was £22 before deductions because it was way back in nineteen-canteen. Soon though, you felt like some more dosh would be helpful, so you asked for a raise. That’s what I did and it went like this.
Pondering my skinny brown packet of cash on a Friday I asked a work colleague how to get a raise and he said he didn’t know, it just happened automatically every year. That was an unsatisfactory answer so I pushed him harder and he said that maybe if I really wanted more money I should ask the boss. Because I tend to take people literally, I missed the sarcasm in his advice. At the time, I worked in an iron foundry, one of those places with fifty-foot gantry cranes and swinging giant crucibles on chains filled with molten iron, fizzing, spitting and smoking as they poured into moulds. It was hot and smoky like a war zone or Dante’s back garden. Nothing like Epicurus’s lady-filled garden.
The boss was called David Bond. He had a big car and an office the size of a first-class lounge in an airport. I downed tools, walked across the factory floor to the office block, hard hat and fireproof gloves off, up the stairs, past all the ladies in the typing pool who froze as I passed (it was not a Coke-Cola moment, I just shouldn’t have been there) and knocked on his door. “Come,” he said, I entered. He looked up through his eyebrows, a good-looking man in his late thirties, nice blue suit, a frown appeared, “What do you want?” the emphasis was on ‘you’.
“I want a raise.” There it was – out.
Out was the word: “GET OUT!” he firmly instructed, and so I did.
When I returned to the factory floor my older work colleagues assumed I’d just been for a pee and didn’t believe that I’d been to see the boss about a raise, but gradually my persistence in explaining it convinced them the incredible story was true. Their collective opinion was not only that a raise would not be forthcoming, but that I should prepare myself for unemployment. Their mood was one of amazement and humour combined. They were doing a sort of half laugh, half cough, looking at me and shaking their heads. They’d have a funny story to tell their wives during Crossroads tonight. BTW, Crossroads was the ‘other’ TV soap, the one to watch if you didn’t understand the accents on Coronation Street, or found the story lines about Ena Sharples too gritty.
Some hours later, the foreman approached and told me, “Mr Bond wants to see you.” The hard-hatted fraternity with their blackfaces and white panda eyes stopped shovelling sand, stopped pushing fresh moulds and filled moulds around the mini railway, stopped breaking them open ready to knock the flash off and forming a small crowd, loudly agreed that it was time to say goodbye to young Geoff. They did so with a laugh. It wasn’t a joke I felt able to share.
I passed the pretty ladies once more (still no spectacles being removed, no hair shaken out of buns and no lips getting licked as far as I could tell), knocked that big door, which in case anyone was unsure whose door this might be, had David Bond, Managing Director etched on a plaque . “Come!” he called. Déjà vu, but this time with more nerves.
I stood before him, straight backed and smutty faced, with my helmet under my arm like a good soldier. He shuffled papers and leant back in the wheeled leather chair, on dampened springs it leaned some more because it was a really super kind of office chair, and with hands clasped behind his head he said, “I’ve been looking into your file and I didn’t realise the embarrassment of your circumstances. I’m giving you a five-pound raise starting this week. That’s all. Back to work!” And off I went, pleased as punch. See? I knew it! Good looking people are more successful AND nicer, just like on the telly!
I said nothing for a while, just worked silently while shouts of, “Still ‘ere then?” “When you off then Geff-err-ee?” “End of the day or end of the week?” were fired at me from all quarters. When I told them I’d been given a rise of nearly 25% they seemed to adopt either or two mindsets; those delighted for me and those seething with regret that they hadn’t thought of the idea before me. With inflation added, that £5 is the equivalent of about £40 now, good for a youngster.
But the £27 a week soon got used up and wasn’t enough and you know the rest of the story because you’ve lived it yourself. You soon get used to the new amount and although you correctly anticipated it being great, you failed to predict how brief the greatness would be. Your lifestyle and outgoings adjust accordingly and in no time at all, more money is needed. And more. One day, you have to reflect on it and come to a realisation that more money won’t sate the underlying desire for cash and unless contentment is found in the present circumstances, there will never be real contentment, ever! Plus, what kind of life are we living if we are just waiting for things to improve?
In Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, he has Mr Micawber say,
“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure, nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
The difference between happiness and misery is one shilling (5p in today’s money, or £45.76 as an equivalent percentage of the average UK salary). That’s not the financial value of the difference between those two human conditions though is it? The point is that overspending creates misery and having a bit left at the end of the week creates happiness. It was a Canadian salesman with a great sense of humour who I first heard say, “There’s too much month left at the end of the money,” and so the point is less about how to get more and more about how to manage well (and be happy on less).
Will the person be happier earning an extra shilling? No, if he didn’t learn the lesson, he would be inclined to spend two and be even worse off than before.
We’re back to the bankrupt and miserable lottery winners of quote #8 and I’ll bet, knowing it’s true that money doesn’t bring happiness and believing those stories about the big wins ruining people’s lives (just Google I wish I’d never won the lottery if you’re in any doubt), most of us would still like to win because WE would know how to have the money AND be happy, not screw it up the way so many people do. We would be the exception, wouldn’t we?
Numerous studies carefully calculate how much money is the right amount. If poverty makes for a s#!t life and extreme wealth is the route to a different kind of misery, where’s the sweet spot? The results are as modest as £48,000 PA and up to £160,000 with a lot coming in around £60K – £80K. There are all sorts of caveats but in the end two things are worth remembering:
There’s an explanation used in psychology classes to explore the thinking behind earnings. The professor engages the class in a thinking experiment. “If there was a job posted on the notice board advertising £2,000,000 earnings for a two-year contract, who would be interested? Hands up if you would.” Lots of hands go up but some people have questions, “No questions, hands up if you’re interested, you can drop out later if you don’t like the terms, I’ll give you more details in a moment.” Almost all the hands are raised.
“Okay,” says the professor, “the job is based in Antarctica.” A few hands drop. But a couple that weren’t up originally go up, it seems some people are attracted to the location while others are immediately put off.
“It’s a straight two years. No time to come home, you stay there for seven hundred and thirty straight days.” There are cries of whaaaat? But he overrides them. “You get weekends off, you just don’t get actually holiday. Come on ladies and gents, two years for two million!” Even so, some hands drop, that’s a long time away.
“Oh, and you’re on your own. No one else there, it’s a solitary position.” Hands drop. “No TV, no radio, no internet, but you can take a laptop to work on, you can write, play any video games you have loaded, read any books you’ve put in the memory, you can also take some books and magazines, obviously… not too many, you’ll be flown in, so just what you can carry of your own stuff.
Most of the hands have dropped, but a few hardy folks remain steadfast.
“There is work to do. It’s a job, five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, two years. Here’s what you do. You go to a predetermined spot with an ice pick. At 08:00am you start hacking away at the ice. At 1:00pm you stop for lunch. At 2:00pm you carry on and at 6:00pm you finish for the day but you take a photograph with the camera supplied, It is the only thing with internet connection and it automatically sends the picture back. Day two, you dig a second hole a few yards further from your accommodation. And take a picture. Day three another hole and picture, five holes and five pictures by Friday, two days off, start again on Monday. Seven Hundred and thirty days, seven hundred and thirty holes, two million pounds.”
There is a lot of loud groaning and challenges, but the professor is steadfast. “That’s it, simple, absolutely no variations and no concessions.”
“What if we get ill?” shouts one person.
“Good question,” says the professor, “You are being paid around £2,740 per day. You can buy a visit from a dentist or a doctor if you need one but it will cost you an entire week’s wages. You do that by sending a picture of your teeth or itchy feet and they will turn up within 48 hours, faster if it’s a dire emergency. They will visit only for as long as the consultation requires. Try not to get sick though because it’s expensive.”
“What if we give up?” shouts another.
“Yes, you can do that. You take a picture of a hand-written sign saying you want to come home and it’s all over. You then get paid for the time you’ve put in, forty-five hour weeks at the current minimum wage, it’s about £290 a week.”
There are only a couple of hands up now.
“Well then. Just how badly do you, each of you want the money? At what point did you drop out? What was the piece of information that was one bridge too far for you to stay in? “ They pondered the point, almost all of them had wanted the deal to start with, virtually none were left at the end.
“Was it being away from home for two years? How much less would you have been willing to take if you’d been allowed to visit home? How much less for how often? Where’s your personal balance on that point? Was it being alone? How much would you have done the job for if you had been part of a team or been able to take one friend, work together, share the money maybe, would that have worked for you? Was it the absence of TV or your devices and internet access? How much are you saying that was worth?
“You see, it’s not just the money, It never is and if you go in blind chasing the money you may find you don’t like the conditions, that you don’t like the cost of the money.” Money always comes at a price.
Thinking about the sad and destitute lottery winners and knowing you wouldn’t be like that, maybe you figured out there’s a problem with getting so much money so suddenly. In the U.S. the lottery win is taxable and federal taxes can be as high as 37%, plus you might be liable to State taxes on top of that. Being the United States, nearly all lottery wins are accompanied by law-suits. How? you ask being an innocent-minded, non-litigious Brit. I’ll tell you, because if you’ve ever said, “If I win a million I’ll split it with you,” to a friend, a work colleague, someone you knew twenty years ago, they have a case. That’s a bona-fide verbal agreement. You win, and one of the first things that happens with your money is you’re paying the exorbitant hourly rate of a decent lawyer, you’re not in the Caribbean, you’re in court! Maybe you’d negotiate a payment to stop it going that far. Well done. Now watch the queue form of people with a hazy memory of a similar conversation, all with their hands out.
Big U.S. lottery wins can also be paid in thirty rising, annual instalments until the full balance is paid, guaranteeing you income for thirty years, so you can’t be broke in the meantime, right? Actually, people do go broke in the meantime, hanging on and massively in debt waiting for the next instalment to partially satiate their creditors. And it’s only the income which is guaranteed for thirty years, not your happiness, not your relationships, in fact none of the real things that might make you happy with or without the money.
I was talking to a chap in New York a few years back and he was filling me in on his life story. He sold timeshare and had done well for himself, earning a good income over an extended period and winning promotions. This was a good, legitimate product of fixed-week, fixed-unit condos in the Poconos, a favoured beauty spot popular with New Yorkers for skiing in winter and Honeymooners any time of year. An easy two-hour drive down Route 80, off the freeway at the Delaware Water Gap and ten minutes later you were somewhere utterly delightful.
For the salesman (who we’ll call Timothy because I can’t remember his actual name) selling timeshare was a mission. It gave families mostly from Queens and Brooklyn a week in beautiful surroundings once a year, in a unit they bought, at the time of year they also bought, with great facilities. Guaranteed good times for years to come. I learned that within certain parameters, timeshare can work really well, but that’s another story and not for now.
I wore a nice suit with a label unknown outside of the clothing trade while Timothy wore a fancy Hugo Boss suit. My watch cost a few hundred pounds, his was a Rolex. He also had an expensive car with extra spent on the chrome wheels and music system. His life was full of nice things, of cash to spare. And yet he wasn’t happy.
I’ve seen this so many times and often it’s a simple matter of whether someone’s in love. Poor guy or girl in love – happy as can be. Wealthy person who’s lost their lover – miserable as sin – and isn’t there a powerful lesson right there? Another time! Anyway, that wasn’t it.
Sure, he was between girls at the moment, but he had lots of girlfriends he dated and he preferred being single for now and the one long-term relationship he’d had in the last few years had ended amicably and he wasn’t sorry about it. The problem was…. well, everything else.
As he’d moved up in the world, he’d moved out, moved on, lost touch with a lot of his old friends. He hadn’t done well at school, but it wasn’t the kind of school it was really possible to do well at. Instead he’d been proud of himself for never being arrested, keeping out of gangs in spite of intense pressure and threats of violence that he had to join and had escaped a life of drugs, crime and prison. Some of his old friends had gone that way, others were now working here or there in regular jobs and many of them had frequent contact with the police via stop and search or being pulled up when driving. Timothy was sanguine about it. One of his work buddies was an Hispanic ex-cop who explained that all cops, whether Hispanic, black or white, were not being racist, they were following their noses and playing the odds. Timothy was polite, proud of his success and had a police-supporters badge in the back window of his car and another one in his wallet.
He’d found himself unable to have money and live in his old neighbourhood. His first decent car had been broken into, his second was stolen, although only driven two blocks before being searched, emptied and abandoned. They wanted what was in it, the music system and other items, not the car itself. He moved out of the ‘hood and on to Staten Island. Later he moved to Long Island, to an area with virtually no crime and that’s where he lived now. Unhappily.
When he moved in, food turned up on his porch in true American welcoming fashion. All of his neighbours were white, bar one very black, very African guy who was a doctor. The white folks were mostly Jewish, but that wasn’t obvious from the start, it was just a fact. By comparison to the African neighbour, Timothy, although African-American himself, was just tanned but anyway, out here colour was less of an issue, everybody was kind regardless. Enquiries about Mrs Timothy were answered in the negative and no, there were no weekend custody children who could come to pool parties at his neighbours’ houses. Nor could he attend for a burger and beer because he worked weekends and in fact, he soon found that their whole lifestyle was at odds with is. They worked nine-to-five, Monday to Friday, they had wives and children, they vacationed in Florida or sometimes California, their cars were made by Buick, Mercedes-Benz, Acura or Lexus and every weekend was a party, an anniversary, a birthday, 4th of July, Superbowl, Memorial Day, and he didn’t fit in.
Fulfilling a lifelong ambition, he’d gone to a school reunion, but he admitted to playing it wrongly, making it too obvious he’d done well and rather than attracting admiration, he’d offended people and found it difficult to mingle. “It’s like they thought I was there to make them feel bad about themselves. I also started worrying about my car again and even thought I might get mugged for my watch and wallet. I feel bad just saying that, but I know the look.” He mustered up a few old friends and suggested a drink – he knew a place. He took them somewhere quite nice and when they hesitated to go in because of the cost, he revealed it was his treat, he’d pay for all five; himself, three guys, one girl he had liked a lot at school. She was the one who reacted worst, gave him some harsh words and stormed off. Two guys left with her and one gave him a hug and just said, “You’ve changed man. You never used to be this… fake,” and was gone.
He didn’t fit in there anymore and he didn’t fit in with his neighbours. “So Geoff, what do I do?” We talked a long time, drank Coors Light, had a meal, split the bill and discussed how to stop money and success ruining his life. This involved moving house again across the Hudson River to New Jersey and into the suburbs where his money would go much further and he could have the same type of house without a mortgage. He would change his car and buy American. He would dress well, rich but not gaudy because right now he favoured gaudy. He was not dressing for quality, he was dressing to make a statement and it shouted too loudly when it should speak kindly and quietly to the observer.
Finally, being a regular church-goer, in a moment of clarity he said to me, “You know the bible says, money is the root of all evil, right?”
“No, it’s better than that. Cleverer, more insightful.” I don’t go to church, I’m not a fan or organised religion, but I am a fan of wisdom and knew the quote. He was misquoting it, so I suggested he read it again and reflect deeply. It’s in the book of Timothy and it says. “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Money is like all stuff, collect it with caution, appreciate what you have, avoid craving more.