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X and 2X Kind of Happiness; If you cannot lose it, you do not have it; The Gospel according to Seneca

In my last essay, I discussed an idea that exacerbates the hedonic treadmill – the diminishing marginal utility of wealth. If Peter – with $0 in his Bank of America account –  won a $20,000 jackpot, he will be tremendously happy, let’s call the value of that happiness x. If he was lucky enough to win another $20,000 US dollars (to make $40,000 in total) we should expect an overall happiness of 2x (if the relationship between happiness and wealth were linear) but it turns out that his level of happiness will be much less than 2x.

This is the diminishing marginal utility of wealth. Peter would expect a 2x worth of happiness but wouldn’t get one, this mismatch drives our greediness, avarice. To put some icing on the cake, this x and 2x kind of happiness disappears very quickly (the hedonic treadmill) and all this can be explained clearly by the focusing illusion.

An instance – in the United States, quite a lot of folks prefer to work down in California because of its warm weather. They thought that this will make them happier, however, studies conducted does not support this hypothesis. People anticipated such happiness because all they thought about at the moment was the warm weather.

But once they begin to experience it, they stopped thinking about it. And here lies another mismatch – the happiness derived from thinking about the warm weather is much greater than that from experiencing it. This applies to a large array of entities, money being one of the most pronounced.

And so, we can conclude:

“Nothing is as important as it appears to be when you are thinking about it”

If you cannot lose it, you DO NOT have it.

Conventionally, we see wealth as some sort of freedom, people will say financial freedom or something like that; which I think can be a huge misconception, the ancients knew this (Seneca being the most celebrated).

When the rich man, a Pharisee in the ruling Jewish council came to meet Jesus Christ. He asked politely “Rabbi, what can I do to inherit the Kingdom of God”. Jesus, a perfect gentleman himself also answered very politely, “go and sell all your possession, and give to the poor”. The last time I read my bible (which was not long ago), he went home sad after hearing those words – In my opinion, a sound litmus test for freedom.

A friend of ours engages in alcoholism; he can go as much as possible, as much as you can imagine. Yet he claims not to be an addict. To test his claim, we suggested he stop drinking for at least a week (the simplest experiment we could design for him). Fortunately, he agreed. On exactly the second day of his agreement, a friend of a friend caught him at a faraway bar drinking in wholesale. Since no one saw him at the bar he normally visits, he claimed to have proved not to be an addict, unknown to him that he already got busted.  At that point all he needed was our pity (and we showed him a lot).

Again, lets conclude:

If you cannot lose it, you do not have it

The Gospel according to Seneca.

Seneca preached the practice of poverty:

“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘is this the condition that I feared?’”

Seneca’s wisdom here does not only dismantle fear but it helps to detect the finest level of our freedom and even as important – to conserve our humility.

We should note that this advice is not coming from an hungry man whom out of lack of optionality decides to embrace poverty. Seneca was a big man, a very big one –  a senator during the reign of Claudius (Even though he was sent to exile at Corsica around 41AD after being ‘accused’ of adultery with a big fan, Emperor Caligula’s sister, Julia Livilla)  he resumed his ‘royal’ life as the speechwriter and the teacher to the teenage and ruthless emperor – Nero. So, his advice on poverty should be taken seriously.

Seneca was won over to stoicism by Attlaus, a Greek philosopher who taught at Rome during the reign of Tiberius (Attlaus ended up teaching Seneca). Seneca referred to him as a king – more specifically someone who can pass judgements on kings, not because of his wealth but because of choice of asceticism (A clear indicator of freedom).

I have long noticed that there is a tag price for flamboyance, once you appear as such a consistency pressure begin to ensue. If you happen to be among the first persons to purchase an iPhone 7 plus in your home town last year, once the new version is released you must be ready to impress your friends even if you must borrow some money to buy. By following Seneca’s prescription, you squelch any such pressure, at worse, people would label you inconsistent, which (at this point) is the bull’s eye.

Finally, when I was in High School, a friend of mine won a very big essay competition conducted by the state government. The next day we saw him in school we mistook him completely for somebody else: he completely lost his heels, he now literally worked on his toes, his tone of voice changed (more baritone), and after studious attention and observations we even noticed his shoulders pronouncedly higher than normal.

Friends, there is an almost-natural compulsion for pride after certain accomplishments.

I haven’t found so many antidotes to this but one of my favorite is from Seneca. And to what it is, your guess is as good as mine.

(Photo Credit)

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  1. Bifarin Oluwadolapo says:

    So ur ideology ere parallels the ‘owo o ki n to olowo’ mantra – the basis of all materialistic want (money). I posit to extend dis scope to ‘romance’ too which cud be d reason for insincerity amongs spouses (at times) – Wundt know if most times will b apt dia- 😊.

    Wud need ur clarification about that.

    Nice write up sir.

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