Wealth means different things to different people. To some, it is simply being financially secure or living a rich and rewarding life. To others, it means having all the material trappings of success that the modern world offers or the status involved in being able to call yourself a millionaire.
We're getting richer not happier
People are now wealthier than ever with an array of choices that were not available to our parents let alone our grandparents. The opportunities to live an authentic life on our own terms are unprecedented. Yet it's evident that, beyond the most basic level of income, as society grows richer we're not becoming any happier.
In recent years, affluence has had a transformative impact on the world and its new rich. However, an outward focus on material possessions has also brought with it a financial flu called 'affluenza'. Tim Kasser, author of The High Price of Materialism, describes affluenza as a condition in which sufferers become addicted simply to having or consuming.
At the recent Forbes Global CEO Conference, Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, Head of Champagne Taittinger, remarked, ?There are two attitudes today. The first one is that they (billionaires) like quick and instant pleasure. They are like Napoleon. They like to eat quickly, to enjoy a glass of champagne... and they go back immediately to their work. They have an entourage that likes to show off their money and buy music, paintings, maybe go into space, but the real billionaires are interested in work and making money and generally they are lost in how to use it.?
Americans encounter 3000 ads every day
Is it then possible to have too much of a good thing? Amazingly enough, on average, Americans now encounter 3000 ads every day informing them of what they can acquire. With such a variety of options and no clear framework for determining what type of spending will contribute to our life satisfaction, how can we hope to choose wisely?
Choice, and our ability to exercise it, is an important part of our freedom and enhances our sense of control. Psychologist Barry Schwartz has identified two key consumer types: maximisers and satisficers.
Maximisers spend hours, days and weeks wading through all possible choices before making a selection and then descend into regret when something better comes along later. Satisficers stop searching once they have found something that their serves their need, enjoying a more regret-free life with more time on their hands. While maximisers may end up with the best product, they are less satisfied in the long run. Chances are you'll be happier as a satisficer.
Understanding and living consistently with our personal values is another key to a practical rather than a slavish approach to possessions. Instead of asking, "How much money do I need to be happy?" we should first ask "How can I be happy?" and then determine the contribution that money can make to our lives.
Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the founders of the Positive Psychology movement, has developed a comprehensive understanding of what happiness really is. There are several routes to authentic happiness, he says, each one very different.
He distinguishes between pleasures (such as a good red wine) that tend to be momentary and gratifications (such as painting or dancing) that evoke a sense of flow and are longer-lasting. By organising your life for an abundance of both, you can enjoy the good life.
Positive emotion builds up reserves we can draw on when threatened
Gratifications are powerful because they draw on our personal strengths and engage us in activities that are challenging, requiring skill and concentration. Think of a child at play, in a perfect state of flow ? it's that feeling we are trying to recapture. Central to the good life is the idea of positive emotion, which makes us more expansive, tolerant and creative, enabling us to be more open to new ideas and experiences. Positive emotion builds up reserves we can draw on when threatened or when an opportunity arises.
In this day and age, we should have the confidence to lead full and authentic lives ? but first it's important to look inwards and develop our own answers to the fundamental question, how much is enough?
Arun Abey is a co-founder and international strategic adviser to acsis, an independent financial services group based in South Africa. He is also is a co-founder and executive chairman of the financial advisory firm ipac and Head of Strategy for AXA. He coauthored 'How much is enough?' (distributed by Blue Weaver Specialist Publishers and available in all good bookstores).