In January, Salon published a short essay by Geneen Roth on how she came to be ripped off by Bernie Madoff. Instead of portraying herself as the innocent victim of a nefarious con man, Roth takes the opportunity to ponder not only why she trusted someone with 30 years worth of savings, but what it was that she wanted deep down that led to that mindless trust.
For those who don’t know Roth, she is a teacher and writer (When Food is Love) who uses her personal experiences with compulsive overeating to help others get over the same problem. Her approach differs from that of the 12-step program, Overeaters Anonymous, in that she doesn’t believe in “forbidden foods” that you avoid in the same way that addicts must avoid alcohol or drugs. Instead, she feels that the very concept of “forbidden” causes overeating (something that’s been borne out by research, incidentally) and that the solution is to listen to what your body really wants and eat it, but eat it mindfully (not mindlessly as we often do) -- paying attention to how it tastes and how it makes you feel, and to stop when it’s no longer satisfying.
Roth found that when she began to do this, she initially gorged on all the “bad” foods that she always craved and tried to avoid, but before long actually wanted healthier foods, and that some of the forbidden treats weren’t really that tasty, much less satisfying. She also suggests looking past behavior to emotion, to consider what it is we really want when we reach for a bag of chips or cookies – and speculates that often what we want is love.
Given Roth’s work, it’s not surprising that she finds something deeper in her loss to Madoff than most of the “victims” who have been quoted in the media. Roth risks the pain of self-inquiry to reflect on why she chose not just Madoff, but to pile up money in the first place:
Over and over again, I've asked myself: Why didn't I secure the most basic of all things -- shelter itself? Why didn't I pay off my mortgage? And if I don't engage in blame, I see the answer clearly: because I believed in something else more -- I believed in accumulating. And when you believe in accumulating, you see what you don't have, not what you have. My relationship to money was no different from my relationship to food, to love, to fabulous sweaters: I never felt as if I had enough. I was always focused on the bite that was yet to come, not the one in my mouth. I was focused on the way my husband wasn't perfect, not the way he was. And on the sweater I saw in the window, not the one in my closet that I hadn't worn for a year.
This quote reminded me of something I’ve heard from many people who’ve traveled to Third World countries. While noting the extreme poverty, they were shocked at how happy most people seemed – smiling and friendly, faces open to strangers in a way that you rarely see in the U.S., and perhaps least of all from our most affluent citizens (pay attention to how guarded the faces of the rich tend to be!).
I’ve also heard people from other countries reflect on their travels in the U.S. -- saying that for all the wealth and comfort that most Americans enjoy, they don’t seem happy but instead tense and driven.
Like Roth, I have a simple and unoriginal answer to this seeming paradox: While people in most of the world focus on what they have, Americans focus on what they don’t have.
Think about how often your friends, family and co-workers talk about the things they still want in life, what they want to buy or achieve or do, places they want to visit, adventures they wish they’d had, qualities they wish their partner possessed or things they think he or she should do, regrets over the choices they’ve made in their lives and what they’d do differently now.
Think of how often you hear people around you express envy, of everyone from their neighbors and co-workers to movie stars and moguls. “I’d kill to have her figure,” “Their house is to die for” and “If I could get that, I’d die happy” are strangely common turns of phrase in our society – our desire for things that we don’t have is so strong that we have to invoke death itself in order to express how important they are to us!
Research into how material wealth affects happiness is ongoing and not without contradictions (this Newsweek article has a good round-up of some key data) -- but here are some of the tantalizing conclusions that researchers have come to:
Once basic needs are met and the wolf is gone from the door, having more money doesn’t really make people any happier. Contrary to what most people think, happiness is not incremental, ratcheting up with every dollar you make or accumulate.
People overestimate how much material gains will affect their feelings. There is a temporary boost when you get a raise or a new car, but it passes quickly and becomes “the new normal.” The good news is that people also get over bad things faster and better than they expect they will. One theory is that every individual has a “baseline” or set point of happiness that they revert to with only temporary variations.
Satisfaction with one’s material status is situational. The old saying about “Keeping up with the Joneses” is rooted in a truth about human nature. People compare themselves to co-workers, neighbors, friends and family and judge what they have based on whether it’s more or less than those peers. Someone making $50,000 in a neighborhood where most people make $30,000 will feel more satisfied with their salary than someone who makes $70,000 in a neighborhood where most people make $100,000 – even though the latter person is making more money. In other words, it’s all relative (sometimes literally, depending on your family).
This last piece of data may be the one that best illuminates the peculiar nature of American society. For no matter where we are, or how little money we ourselves have, we are always surrounded by images of wealth, on websites and TV, and in movies, magazines and newspapers. Wealthy people are photographed, written about, talked about and all but worshipped in our country.
Even if you think you disdain wealth, you can’t avoid those images and the calibration effect they have. Just as movie stars and models set new standards for beauty (and appropriate weight), the wealthy in our country set new standards in our heads for what is not just desirable, but attainable.
I’ve come up with a term for this: I call it the “white teeth effect.” Once everyone started whitening their teeth artificially, even naturally white but untreated teeth started to look rather yellow by comparison. Pay attention when you watch movies made 20 or more years ago – even the movie stars often have teeth that look shockingly yellow to us now. But what’s changed? Only our perception of not just what is “beautiful” but what is “normal.”
In a poor society, by contrast, you are surrounded by people who have little, and you’re also probably not inundated with media images of wealth. So not only is everyone around you in the same boat, but you aren’t seeing yacht commercials everywhere you turn.
It’s often said that even the poor people in America live better than much of the world. They have access to social services, food programs, community assistance and taken-for-granted services that much of the world literally dies for, such as clean and sanitary water at the turn of a tap in their homes.
Years ago, when the small, independent film Boyz in the Hood came out, it was praised as a searing portrait of the unfairness and frustrations of the urban poor in America, a prescient explanation of the anger fueling the Rodney King/L.A. riots that exploded just a year later. But when the movie was released overseas, it was met with great puzzlement in many countries. These are poor people? But, they have houses, with bedrooms and bathrooms and nice stuff like TV’s and stereos, and they’re well-fed and well-dressed, and they’re all driving cars that they own! What country is this where these are considered “poor people” and can I go there?
Of course, Boyz is also about racism, but the desire for a better material life, the type granted to middle-class Americans, is clearly fingered as a source of frustration to the people in South Central L.A. The gangs that maim and kill the young men in the neighborhood are pursuing the same American dream that’s advertised to those who rank above them in the economic food chain. Just like their middle class and upper class fellow citizens, they want the fancy cars and jewelry and other things that will tell them that they are somebody.
This aspiration is one thing that rich and poor actually share in our country. In late 2007, the New York Times ran an article about the vast sums of tech-related wealth in Silicon Valley and how making a few million dollars a year there means you feel like a nobody, because you’re surrounded by people who make tens or even hundreds of millions a year, at least in stock wealth (well, they did back when this article came out).
This seemingly irrational phenomenon can be seen in any wealthy enclave, from Hollywood to NYC, but it also bites close to home – how many people do you hear around you who compare their salaries or the size of their homes to that of their co-workers or friends or siblings? How much do the people you know focus on what they don’t have?
How much does each of us do this, day after day?
And what would it be like if we just stopped, and focused on what we have?