How much is enough?

Probably a lot less, and a lot more than we think.

17 November 2010, by Tracey Swanepoel

How much is enough? A million bucks? Ten million? A billion?

It's always a number (only the currency denomination varies). Somehow there's an unspoken recipe for happiness around (maybe it's only a Joburg thing).... it goes like this - make enough money and only once this is achieved are we free to focus on other aspects of our lives. Enough money will automatically result in a satisfying life - ultimate happiness is certain. Isn't it?

So we spend all our time doggedly piling up the cash (in the process most likely neglecting or destroying other areas of our lives). Much like my childhood mantra when my parents confined me to the sticky backseat of the no air-conditioned jalopy for the 18-hour trip to the coast - "are we there yet?" reverberates through our lives with increasing frequency. Sadly unlike the family pilgrimage which had a defined end point ("there" was when we saw the sea for the first time), on this journey "there" is a moving target. We think that might be it... but no... not yet.... perhaps just a little further.

It's crazy really. We spend a huge amount of time making hideous sacrifices, suffering to get somewhere we are not even sure exists. And guess what the richest people in the world are doing with their money? Giving it away! Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett and numerous South African millionaires. What's going on?

Interestingly enough the number-crunching zealots at Gallup have recently (as the result of a global study reaching 98% of the world's population) come up with their definition of "there" or as they put it, the answer to "what makes life worth living?"

It's not career success, wealth, health, love or making a difference/leaving a legacy. Rather it's ALL of these. In perfect balance, each and every day. Maybe it's just me, but one or two of these I can gladly tick the box on. All of them? Every day? No way!

In fact Gallup's findings have empirically disproved the so-called recipe for happiness described above: single-mindedly pursuing success in just one or two areas creates such wear and tear on the others that there is a net drag on our well being and happiness is eluded.

And yet this is what we do - all the time. We work late at the expense of family time, we avoid community involvement because we are simply too busy for other people, we are "too hectic" to catch up with friends, we put off our run today because we are too tired from a late over-indulgent dinner.

Gallup's "famous five" (career wellbeing, social wellbeing, financial wellbeing, physical wellbeing and community wellbeing) are not rocket science. They have just put numbers to what we already know. However, very few of us do anything differently. Why?

We don't define "there" on a daily basis

We know we should exercise regularly to prevent heart disease, but surely missing today won't make a difference? Fatty foods aren't great for us, but one Kentucky-fest? It's hardly going to cause diabetes single-handedly is it? Our kid's school concert? Will they even miss us if we use the time more constructively to catch up on e-mail backlog?

Somehow thinking this way seems to turn us into our own worst enemies. A long-term view results in a "doesn't really matter" rationalisation. But if we were to crystallise the short-term benefit for ourselves it could make a huge difference to our levels of motivation. Thinking of a 20-minute jog in the morning as a way to boost our mood and make us sharper for the next 12 hours (enhancing our performance) would make us more likely to do it. Avoiding fatty foods because they will make us feel bloated, sluggish and ruin the rest of the day may make us think twice about giving in. In the same way approaching the school concert as a fun talking point for the following week could make it a must-do.

We don't structure the "soft stuff"

To have a good day we need six hours of social time, every day (social time includes chatting at work, e-mailing, phone calls and other forms of communication)! I am ashamed to admit that this is usually the stuff I bemoan as getting in the way of my "real work". Work is diary driven. Why not apply this to other people and areas that are a priority? Setting up regular "default" dates with friends and family may sound a bit contrived, but don't knock it ‘til you've tried it.

We don't see money for what it really is

So back to my question - how much is enough? Without seeing money for what it really is we are destined to just keep chasing it (and not become any happier in the process). Once basic needs (ie, food and shelter) are met it seems that money only functions as a comparative measuring stick. In an enlightening study conducted in the US, respondents who were given the option to earn $50 000 while everyone around them earned $25 000 or earn $100 000 while everyone else around them earned $150 000 - 50% of the sample picked the lower amount!

I often wonder if there was a Forbes Happiness Index, whether it would correlate with the Forbes Rich List. I somehow don't think so. And that's great news for me, because while I certainly won't make the one - perhaps I'll have a shot at the other!

Read published article on MoneyWeb site