126.96.36.199 Enough is more than enough
The quality of your life is not measured by quantities
Want more from what you’ve got, not to get more
Your goal is always an absolute ‘enough’. When you’re in a state of deprivation, this requires ‘more’. But whereas focusing on ‘enough’ gets you where you want to go (aligns your resources with your becoming-mode vision of yourself, not your having-mode one, in a continual participatory process of fulfilling your potential and living a Good Life), focusing on ‘more’ wires your brain to blast right past where you want to go, and leads not to alignment, but to waste.
The aim of this section has been to embed the following ideas:
- Everything is a trade – Train yourself to see opportunity costs as instinctively as monetary ones. More of one thing is always less of another; ‘less is more’ means ‘more is less’, so rather than blindly using such glibness in the name of post-hoc justification or sour grapes, use it as a trigger to stop and remember who it is you want to become, and how your in-the-moment decisions align with that.
- There is only one goal – Enough isn’t a denial, or a sacrifice, or a satisfice. It’s what you want. The only goal is to live a Good Life. After you’ve broken something down for analysis, remember to build it back up again, because it needs to serve your life as a whole. It’s too easy to ‘optimise’ for an element of life, and charge off in increasingly comfortable accumulation of that element, to the detriment of the balance that gives a whole life its worth.
- You live in the present, not the future – Don’t confuse means with meaning. Avoid the trap spelled out by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus: ‘A man wants to earn money in order to be happy and his whole effort and the best of a life are devoted to the earning of that money. Happiness is forgotten; the means are taken for the end.’[i]
- More and enough applies to making money as well as spending it – There’s nothing wrong with either making oodles of cash, or spending it… if you’re doing so in a way that consciously makes your life better. Most people don’t. Most plump for ‘more’ and hope the ‘better’ bit will sort itself out somehow. Not only does it not, but – remembering that the Goodness of a life relies on the Goodness of multiple components – the blind chase of ‘more’ usually actively worsens if not irrevocably ruins many of those components.
- You spend absolute, not relative amounts – It’s easy to believe an expenditure is unimportant and therefore not worthy of conscious decision-making when its monetary cost is 1% of a salary, or a net worth. Yet to act like this is to trust the bettering of your life to luck, not conscious choice. You spend absolute amounts, not relative ones. This comes with an inescapable responsibility to both yourself and others.
- You cannot count – You are insensitive to scope. Your brain cannot accurately compare a million to a billion. Finance unfortunately throws up all sorts of incomprehensibly large numbers whose significance to your life don’t get the attention they deserve, not least because most of them come at the end of a long chain of compounding. Recognise this and remind yourself to stop relying on caring, and trust the stats when it’s appropriate to do so.
- All that glitters ain’t gold – Luxury is a sign of sadness and terrible choices. ‘Treat’ is a sign of addiction to something that steals your money and poisons your body. We sell our souls to the shackles of society, but can free them with culture.
In short, remember that quantity does not equal quality. Cost of living does not equal standard of living. Quality of life is not measured by access to comfort (material or mental). If we made more conscious choices, we would break the spell ‘more’ casts over us. We would likely spend almost unlimited amounts on a certain tiny subset of things, and almost nothing on everything else.
On one level, this is so well known already as to have become a cliché. Similarly, merely stating that enough is more important than more is pointless. We’ve been doing this for at least 2,000 years and it’s gotten us nowhere. The world is awash with people who would proclaim such things on Twitter before unconsciously describing a bigger house as a ‘better’ house one second later.
Understanding the deeper implications for managing one’s financial life needs a change in worldview, not a change in medium onto which the same messages are blindly broadcast.
The story of more and enough isn't one about greed and knowing when to stop; It's about opportunity cost.
No one thinks they're extravagant. Even those that admit they do occasionally extravagant things continue to believe they are not wired for excess. Seeing more and enough more usefully requires seeing not abundance and deprivation, but seeing every decision as a trade.
The former model can lead to the ‘right’ actions, even when taken, being done so with a feeling of denial – as if more were still objectively ‘better’, but one ‘ought’ to be subjectively ‘sensible’ now and then. Seeing every decision as a trade sees that less of one thing is always more of another. It sees the worldview behind the behaviours rather than the behaviours themselves. It consequently sees sustainable improvements as a job for philosophy, not psychology.
Even the best-intentioned behaviour changes are doomed to fail if the underlying view of the world – which is being continually reinforced faster than any behavioural prescriptions can keep up with – remains distorted and self-deceived.
It’s impossible to work out what ‘enough’ is (and therefore impossible to aim for it) while we remain blind to our common sources of self-deception around money, and while we continue to know it only in an incidental propositional and procedural (as opposed to perspectival and participatory) way.
Tempting as it is to believe money is somehow different, that it stands outside of us as a resource we can store up and call upon when needed, this isn’t how life works; it’s integrally intertwined with how we live in the world. Money is convertible only in a domain-specific context, and while this is useful when we break life down for analysis, it’s less useful when we put it back together again for living.
See more clearly how to make more with your resources before making more resources
‘Just in case’ is a poor justification for a blind chasing of ‘more’.
Accumulating useless crap may appear clearly unacceptable, but money feels different: it rarely feels useless until we’re dead, and even then we can pass it along to mess with someone else’s mind instead.
Money shouldn’t be useless. It has phenomenal potential. But when we make it purely to waste it – spend it in such a way to justify whatever we did to make it, rather than in a conscious attempt to improve our life – it is worse than useless. For it leads us to places we just don’t want to go, and away from those we do – often away from even working out where those places we do want to go actually are.
Money is a moulder of mindsets. ‘It is not the man who has too little who is poor,’ wrote Seneca, ‘but the one who hankers after more.’[ii] Hankering is independent of one’s financial situation. Some of the most headstrong hankerers after more are the ones who already possess the most. Because, echoing Epicurus, ‘He who is not satisfied with a little, is satisfied with nothing.’[iii]
The way to break free is to come to understand on a more fundamental level that money’s role in your life is about your narrative, not about numbers, about who you are becoming, not what you have, and that money decisions, to be ultimately beneficial, must be consciously made. Believing in the myth of more is the opposite to this – we hanker after more to not have to think.
We believe ‘more’ is about security, yet it advertises our insecurity. We believe it is about creating opportunities, yet it’s used as an excuse for wasting them. A mind wired to see inherent virtue in accumulation forgets to ever apply it. Yet, ‘A wise man,’ wrote Montaigne, ‘sees as much as he ought, not as much as he can.’[iv] And as Stephen Batchelor wrote in Alone With Others, though we may pass accumulation of as exploration, it’s really the opposite – not discovering what we want, but hiding from it:
What is it that we hope to achieve through all this incessant accumulation? Why are we compulsively motivated to have things? In the first place we instinctively sense that a certain element is lacking in our lives. A vague hunger echoes from deep within us. Perhaps through acquiring material objects, friends, and knowledge this void could be filled. So we set out into the world and start to consume whatever commodities it has to offer.
Many a mind has started out with sensible actions – say, saving – but has mistaken the action for the sanity. Saving is not inherently good. Making conscious choices aligned with who you want to become, of which saving may be a wise part, is. The point is the process of examination, not the resultant resource allocation. Focusing on outputs seems simpler, because it is simplistic. Blinding yourself to opportunity costs creates a vacuum into which the nearest salesperson will happily rush.
We want an artistic life, not an expensive one. One that expresses the otherwise inexpressible complexity of us. That is filled with moments like walking on air after a meeting with a close friend, or a way in which we’ve controlled our environment that inspires behaviours that make us smile each morning upon leaving the house. This can include material things – items that each time we contemplate them remind us of the amazing trade we made that sustainably levelled-up our life. All these things are personal; looking for them in objective delegation doesn’t work. Help, where sought, should be in the form of a ‘conscious choice coach’ that reminds you of your responsibilities, not takes them away from you.
Finally, it is worth reiterating that none of this is saying ‘don’t make more money’ or ‘don’t buy stuff’. It’s just saying don’t do it blindly. Don’t do it because you’re trapped in a cycle of wasting resources. Check in now and then, remember that the aim is a Good Life. Is what you’re doing adding to that?
As Bertrand Russell wrote:
It is very singular how little men seem to realise that they are not caught in the grip of a mechanism from which there is no escape, but that the treadmill is one upon which they remain merely because they have not noticed that it fails to take them up to a higher level.[v]
This is echoed by Tim Ferriss:
It is quite possible – actually the rule rather than the exception – to have financial and time freedom but still be caught in the throes of the rat race. One cannot be free from the stresses of a speed- and size-obsessed culture until you are free from the materialistic addictions, time-famine mind-set, and comparative impulses that created it in the first place.[vi]
Want more from what you’ve got, not to get more.
How to hack the income-happiness plateau, and keep turning more money into a better life
Before leaving this section, there is one area where more really can be better. One way to hack the income-happiness plateau (that says rises in income reliably translate into rises in happiness only when starting from very low incomes). One way to always know what to do with money to increase the Goodness of life. One way that appeases the drive that underlies the lure of luxury, but in a way that actually works.
Why does anyone live in a £10 million house? Imagine that you did. And that doing so makes you a certain amount of ‘happy’. Now imagine that for some reason you’re forced to live in a £5 million house (but you get to keep the change). Let’s assume doing this makes you less happy (or you wouldn’t need to be forced to move – you’d’ve done it anyway).
Now imagine what you could do with the spare £5 million. Given until a minute ago you used to live in a £10 million house, chances are good that you’ve never not done something you really wanted to do because of a lack of money, so it’s probably fair to say there is no ‘thing’ you can think of buying that would level-up your life to a new and sustainable level of Goodness. You have come to understand – perhaps after much trial and error – that hedonic adaptation is very real and while it hasn’t always stopped you double-checking now and then, you know that ‘having’ more stuff does not equate to feeling more alive for more than a few minutes. You don’t need to have heard it every week in a financial-planning career to imagine there are lots of people with lots of money who ‘struggle to know what to spend it on’.
Expand your vision for a second. There are plenty of people who haven’t reached such stuff-based saturation. Plenty whose lives would be undoubtedly transformed by more things. Whose lives, consequently, would be undoubtedly transformed if you redistributed some of your luck their way.
I argue that for each life you helped transform, you would feel pretty damn fantastic (quite possibly regardless of how good the transformee actually felt).
I further argue that were you to do this a lot, the total of these fantastic feelings, even assuming a very swift onset of diminishing marginal returns (i.e. each transformation leaves you feeling less fantastic than the last) would sum to vastly more personal happiness than you ‘lost’ when moving from a £10 million house to a £5 million one.
So why does anyone live in a £10 million house?
Brother, the virtue of charity brings quiet To our will, so that we want only What we have, and thirst for nothing beyond that.[vii]
Happy people give more money away. And giving money away makes people happier. ‘That man is richest,’ wrote John Ruskin, ‘who, having perfected the function of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.’[viii] Consider the opposite: retail therapy. No one goes for ‘retail therapy’ when they’re in a good mood. Good moods make us want to treat other people; bad moods make us want to ‘treat’ ourselves. The way to be comfortable in one’s own skin is not by wrapping one’s skin in fancy fabrics.
On the surface, both donating and luxury are both characterised by ‘waste’. But one leads to feelings of worth, while the other is but a masquerade of meaning. They are interchangeable as means of expressing ourselves with our ‘excess’ monetary resources. If you believe excess money is a measure of your value, you go with luxury. If you believe helping fellow humans is worth more (to you, let alone to them or to the world) you go with transforming someone else’s life ahead of transforming the look of your living room.
We always want to express ourselves, but we don’t always have meaningful material exchanges to make. When we see numbers before narrative, and having before becoming, this gap can lead to trouble. A common ‘complaint’ from the clients I used to advise was that they didn’t know what to do with their money. They didn’t know what to spend it on, but – egged along by a world equating consumption with happiness – felt an urge to be spending it on something nevertheless. ‘What do other people in our position do?’ they would ask.
That question, of course, is as moronic as the lack of thinking that led them to ask it. If I’m not sure what to do with a given day, do I look around for inspiration from people based purely on them having access to a similar amount of money? Do these clients have no values? Never. Do they occasionally forget what those values are, and that they and not the cost of something should be the starting point of money decisions? Always.
Money primes our thoughts to become incredibly insular. Yet we prioritise connection over cash. Suggest that someone widen their vision just a touch, to take in maybe half a dozen other people, and suddenly they’re awash with ideas of what to spend it on.
'Why do people come to Malta for eggs when they're so expensive there?' 'Because they've always done it that way.' 'Why don't they look for eggs in Sicily?' 'Because they've never done it that way.'[ix]
If giving money away were really so wonderful, why isn’t it a core part of everybody’s spending plans? That something ‘works’ (makes our life better) may be a necessary part of a wise decision, but it is insufficient if we cannot see it working, and so either never try, or try in a way that’s doomed to fail. Despite its selfish benefits, spending on others is stymied by our self-deception, and because we’ve always done it a different, less-effective, way.
If we see money as a means of shaping our narrative, its potential as a source of generosity would not be in doubt. However, seen through a numbers lens, it is. Similarly, we may want to become a more generous person, or one who is happy enough to demonstrate this by redistributing an excess, but if we view the world in having mode, we will be at best sceptical that this could work.
Traditionally, charity is reactive, not proactive. People donate to causes that come to them, not the other way around. This is the path of unthinking, not thinking. Each of these act against internalising the idea that giving money away could be a reliable means of upgrading our quality of life.
We saw the answer to this quandary in our earlier discussion of symbols:
The skills you are trying to acquire to transform yourself are those possessed not by the person you are, but by the person you are becoming. How does the person you are now know what it will be like to become what you could be? How do you know that becoming that person is even a wise move?
We need a way of test-driving an expanded sense of self. Fortunately, this is (relatively) easy. Start the habit of giving (however small, but it must be a habit, not a one-off, otherwise you are not acting like a different person, but merely doing a different thing) and see what happens. Almost no one regrets it, but you may. If you do, and you started sufficiently small, it’s a cheap means of self-discovery. I say relatively easy because this needs to be done right. Done wrong, you’ll learn nothing.
Recall Nate Soares’s ‘care-o-meter’ and how it doesn’t work on large numbers, but that shouldn’t stop you from doing what you know to be the right thing anyway: ‘The fact that you can't feel the caring doesn't mean that you can't do the caring.’
If you’re going to do the caring, it’s worth learning how to care well. The three most common ways giving goes awry are:
1. thinking it is only for the rich;
2. doing it in a personally ineffective way; and
3. giving with the wrong intention.
Thinking it is only for the rich. First, recall from the beginning of this book that you are, in all probability, already rich. And not in a facetious way. In a ‘you’re almost certainly in the top 10% of global rich’ way. And if you can’t live a Good Life with those resources, living with 1% less, say, isn’t going to make a difference anyway, so it’s still worth a shot.
Second, anyone can give. It needn’t be money. Maybe it’s time, or energy, or a non-exhaustible resource like connections. Maybe part of the reward of your job is already from the service you provide to others. In terms of wiring your brain in a way that evidences being a generous person – which is what determines the feeling of living well – the absolute amount is less relevant than what it represents to you. Giving 10% of one’s income may be unwise to someone already struggling to make ends meet, while giving 50% may still not scratch the surface for a banker.
Personal effectiveness. I have a friend who had heard of the life-enhancing magic of giving a crap about other people, and so decided to test it out by spending his Saturdays volunteering in a charity shop. He resented it, and decided that maybe charity wasn’t for him. Yet however much we may treat it as such, not all charity is created equal. This is true in two ways.
First, as expertly detailed in Will MacAskill’s Doing Good Better, because the best charities can do 1,000x more good with your money than the worst (and indeed some charities actually do more harm than good). And second, because of the importance of fulfilling your potential that’s central to the transformation of your resources into a Good Life.
My friend failed on both these accounts – he had no evidence of the effectiveness of the charity he was working for, let alone of his own contribution to its effectiveness by working in the shop, and neither was it an obviously good use of his skills. As MacAskill wrote: ‘The good I do is not a matter of the direct benefit I cause. Rather it is the difference I make.’ I.e. what would have happened without me? This could be innocuous – someone else would’ve worked that Saturday shift just as well; or it could be dangerous – for example, a well-meaning amateur shoving a trained professional out of the way to perform CPR.
When we think that charity must ‘hurt’ in some way, we are dooming ourselves to failure just as much as the dieter who is making food choices based on denial. Charity is an opportunity to be embraced, not a chore to be endured.
Knowing you’re making a difference can come from direct evidence, though this hugely limits your options. A better source is usually researched effectiveness. You do not have to directly see the difference you are making if you trust that people better placed (through relevant skills, motivation, opportunity, etc.) have done the research for you. For many, trusting that your donations are directed towards somewhere where they’re doing just about the most good possible is more than enough for some first-class warm and fuzzy feelings.
Giving with the wrong intention. There are several ways your intentions influence your outcomes. Primary among these is giving from a place still heavily hoodwinked by self-deception, such that sharing an abundance of riches still feels like at best a chore fulfilled rather than a burden relieved.
There is a gulf between giving because of a desire to make a difference, and to be seen to be making a difference. There’s another gulf between expecting to receive a ‘reward’ to compensate for the voluntary deprivation, and receiving the reward as a side-effect of selfishly acting in alignment with one’s values. As Daniel Kahneman explained: ‘There is clear evidence that generosity brings its own reward, making people more satisfied with being themselves.’[x]
Our self-deception is a master of self-defence. In this context, it makes use of ‘anticipated reproach’. Anticipated reproach explains why we mock vegans, even though whatever one thinks of their life choices, no one can deny that they’re mostly just trying to make the world better for everyone. We see overtly moral behaviour not as a positive for the world, but as a personal attack on our own immorality. We judge others for how we perceive they are judging us (regardless of any actual judging). By mocking their characters, we soften the blows we feel they (but really we) are dishing out to our own.
The potential benefits are worth taking a shot at these defences. Without question, those clients I could see to be living most happily were the same that regularly donated amounts that would make most people uncomfortable. And those that were most annoyed I’d even raised the possibility of redistribution as a potential use for their money were always the most on edge about life in general. They’d mutter something about deserving to keep it because they’d worked hard for it, as if at a buffet one should keep eating beyond the point of healthy satisfaction just because one can.
Charity can characterise a life well lived as well as contributing to it. Matthieu Ricard describes ‘A happiness so deep that, as Georges Bernanos wrote, “nothing can change it, like the vast reserve of calm water beneath a storm.” ‘[xi] He continues:
The Sanskrit word for this state of being is sukha. Sukha is the state of lasting well-being that manifests itself when we have freed ourselves of mental blindness and afflictive emotions. It is also the wisdom that allows us to see the world as it is, without veils or distortions. It is, finally, the joy of moving toward inner freedom and the loving-kindness that radiates toward others.
Practical steps to identify and embrace enough and avoid being misled by more
This, like all step-by-step instructions sections, is being saved for the published version of this book.
 It’s worth repeating two footnotes from the previous section: ‘Every client I’ve ever met has always described each and every year as ‘exceptional’ when asked to analyse what they’ve spent their money on during it’; and ‘no one believes their spending is extravagant. I’ve known people burn through half a million a year or more and believe that while their lifestyle may be unusual, it’s not unhinged.’
 Recall our ‘scope insensitivity’ from earlier. It works both ways. As the afore-quoted article states: ‘Saving a person's life feels great, and it would probably feel just about as good to save one life as it would feel to save the world. It surely wouldn't be many billion times more of a high to save the world, because your hardware can't express a feeling a billion times bigger than the feeling of saving a person's life.’ Transforming many lives at once won’t feel as great as doing it individually, even factoring in the extra time and energy costs of the latter option. Good things should always be broken down, while bad ones should be batched together. But you can train yourself to a certain extent to feel an additional warm and fuzzy buzz from knowing you are saving many lives, say, when you contemplate them as individuals and scale up. And in any case, even lumped together, it’d be a weird person who thought it’d still sum to less Good – for them – than whatever was ‘lost’ from the house swap.
 It does work in both directions, though the former – happy people give more – is stronger.
 Often with things that after a short-term kick, increase our unhappiness, especially if that unhappiness was anything to do with how much money we had… for after ‘therapy’ we now have less of it. See Trigger #13: Treat.
 See the Effective Altruism movement for countless examples.
 You also won’t get much support for giving as a means of turning your resources into a Good Life from a typical adviser, for two simple reasons. First, if they get paid based on your assets, their fee will go down. If I’ve come to you for advice on how to use my money to most effectively enhance the quality of my life, there’s a chance the answer is ‘give some away’. Perhaps give a lot away. Perhaps give so much away that your fee reduces by an amount equal to the revenue from a dozen of your smaller clients. I’m sacking half a dozen of your clients! If this is an option on the table for what to do, am I going to trust you to treat it with appropriate lack of bias? Or even tell me in the first place? How solid are your saintly credentials under the stress of an attack on your salary? Second, as we saw earlier, they’re as self-deceived around money as anyone.
[i] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
[ii] Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
[iii] Epicurus, The Essential Epicurus
[iv] Michel de Montaigne, Essays
[v] Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness
[vi] Tim Ferriss, The Four Hour Work Week
[vii] Dante Aligheri, The Divine Comedy
[viii] John Ruskin, Unto This Last
[ix] Conversation between Yossarian and Milo in Joseph Heller, Catch-22
[x] Daniel Kahneman, Interview in the Wall Street Journal
[xi] Matthieu Ricard, Happiness