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The Joy of Less

The New York Times published an article on June 7, 2009 called The Joy of Less, in which the writer discusses trading in a successful journalism career for a life of simplicity in Japan. Not for everyone to be sure but he does raise some good points.

There are a couple comments I particularly like. The first talks about his travels in so-called “developing” countries where many people are impoverished but seem to be fairly happy nonetheless, provided their basic needs were being met of course. He says “every time I went to one of those places, I noticed that the people I met there, mired in difficulty and often warfare, seemed to have more energy and even optimism than the friends I’d grown up with in privileged, peaceful Santa Barbara, Calif., many of whom were on their fourth marriages and seeing a therapist every day. Though I knew that poverty certainly didn’t buy happiness, I wasn’t convinced that money did either.”

This is not to romanticize poverty by any means but it rings true to my own experiences living in Africa and Central America for several years. Provided people had food to eat, a roof over their heads and some gainful work, I found, in general, people to have closer social networks, less stressful lives and more community engagement – the very things that social psychologists say bring genuine happiness – despite the fact that they didn’t have all the piles of ‘stuff’ that we have in so-called rich countries.

Here is another excerpt: “The millionaires I know seem desperate to become multimillionaires, and spend more time with their lawyers and their bankers than with their friends (whose motivations they are no longer sure of). And I remember how, in the corporate world, I always knew there was some higher position I could attain, which meant that, like Zeno’s arrow, I was guaranteed never to arrive and always to remain dissatisfied.” 

This is reminiscent of the concept of affluenza which has been attributed to Oliver James among others. PBS even produced a documentary by the same name that explores the high environmental and social costs of materialism and over-consumption. Why does our economy rely upon high levels of consumption, when it is precisely too much consumption (and the stress associated with the endless pursuit of ‘more’) that is making many people unhappy while seriously damaging the natural environment? 

It doesn’t make much sense to me.


Categories: Genuine wealth
  1. Noah
    June 15, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    An over-lengthy reply, but hopefully pertinent, if not actually worthwhile:

    It reminds me of the story of the American tourist who stops in Portugal on a business trip. At night he sits by the beach with a cocktail and sees a local fisherman come in whose boat is overflowing with fish.

    Intrigued, the businessman returns the next night and again the Portuguese fisherman comes in with a boat laden with fish. Very impressed, the businessman, who speaks Portuguese, goes to talk to the fisherman.

    The Businessman asks him, “Can I talk to you for a moment? Are you busy tonight?”
    “I am not busy at night,” the Fisherman replies, “every night I do the same – I just go the beach, relax, sit by the ocean, and drink a glass of wine.”
    “How do you catch so many fish?” inquires the Businessman.
    “It’s very easy. It’s just about how I drop the nets.”
    “Can you teach this method?” the Businessman asks eagerly.
    “Yes,” comes the answer, “it’s very simple.”
    “Think of what you could do if you fished longer days,” says the Businessman, “You could make a lot more money.”
    “And what would I do with more money?” the Fisherman asks.
    “You could buy another boat!”
    “And what would I do with another boat?”
    “You could teach another fisherman to fish the same way for you and make twice as much money!” the Businessman replies, excitedly.
    “And what would I do with twice as much money?”
    “You could buy more boats. And with more boats, you could catch more fish, and so on, until you have enough money and enough boats that you can retire!”
    “And what would I do when I retire?” the Fisherman asks.
    “Well,” says the Businessman, “when you retire you could go to the beach every night, relax, sit by the ocean, and drink a glass of wine.”

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