Out of My Mind

The Musings of a Woman Who Thinks Too Much

Nelle Engoron

Nelle Engoron
May 01
You can email me at "nengoron@gmaildotcom" & follow @NelleEngoron on Twitter. My archived radio shows on last season's Mad Men are available (for free!) at: www.blogtalkradio.com/madmentalk **My "Mad Men" commentary for Season 5 is on Salon rather than here -- go to http://www.salon.com/writer/ nelle_engoron/ to find all my Salon articles. **My book, "Mad Men Unmasked: Decoding Season 4," is available on Amazon in both e-book and print versions.** I'm a writer/editor/consultant who lives in the SF Bay Area. I write about all kinds of things, but am particularly intrigued by movies, relationships, gender issues, belief systems and "Mad Men." (Scroll down left sidebar for links to a selection of my blog posts.) I'm working on a novel and a memoir, neither of which is about Mad Men!

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FEBRUARY 2, 2009 3:59PM

To Have and To Have Not

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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?


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Fantastic post, Silkstone. As one who has traveled to many "third world" countries I'd say you are right on. As long as basic needs are met, people can be happy and satisfied. Our country is a mess because of greed, and some of the least satisfied people I know are the wealthiest.

I have been both well-off and poor, and I have always said that for me the best is to be comfortable and secure, no more, no less.
thoughtful AND thought provoking.
thank you.
So, so, so, so true. Great post. Thank you.
Yes! Very true and timely. I hope the editors find this one.
Lea, I especially value your opinion on this since I know you travel a lot. My Third World experience is limited but many people close to me have been to Africa, India, South and Central America, off the beaten path and into slums and yet they all say this. I also agree with you that the "middle path" feels best!

Brian and David, thanks!

Lisa, thanks and as some of my elderly relatives would say, "From your lips to God's ears."
Wow fantastic use of words and pictures. You should read Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Thanks, I enjoyed this very much. Rated.
This is a great post---well thought out and plenty of food for additional thought.
Thanks, folks!

OE, I'm a little familiar with Maslow because of teaching management classes eons ago but haven't ever read him.
Great post! I am thankful every single day above ground for what I have and never, ever take it for granted. I tell my son to be thankful that there are people who have no food, no clothing, no shelter. He wanted to see. He's 8, I showed him on here. He cried and I hugged him. He wanted to send his allowance to help. I told him I would give it to the proper place to help.

We have to teach our kids not just right from wrong, but thankfulness instead of self-pity.

I agree completely. Mark Kingswell, a Canadian philosopher, has written extensively on how money doesn't buy happiness. His book, In Pursuit of Happiness, is a great read.
Incredible post. I really love this. Have often thought how materially rich I am in comparison with folks in other lands in my little 900 sq ft home.
When my daughter was five, I lost my good paying job as an x-ray tech. Years later she asked what happened. Now grown, she says she is glad that she grew up poor because she did not get into the consumerism in the US. She is happiest in a canoe on a river or camping in the mountains. And she will be far more ready to weather any economic storms to come.
Thanks for this very much.
This is hands down one of the damn best things I have read on OS. First of all, it is VERY well written. Secondly, it's all true. I have lived on every horse in the merry go round of life and I can attest that "things" do not/can not/will not define WHO I am. What you say about the connection to food and wealth is also very true. People consume because they CAN without even or ever thinking twice. What they throw away is reflective of what they think of the rest of the world in many cases. It's unconscious but sadly, in many ways it's not.
And those poverty stricken countries you speak of? I have lived in them and know from my own experience that what you say is true. As much as I enjoy my creature comforts, they do not make me MORE or LESS happy. The people around me and the QUALITY of love and love for life most certainly do. This should be required reading. Brilliant. If I had a hat on, I would be taking it off to you in respect. With apologies for the ramble, but your words resonate with me. Deeply. Very. Highly. Rated.
I didn't have much sympathy for Roth when she told her story. To put money you can't afford to lose in a hedge fund is---you're right--greed. That's how Madoff justifies it. He set up the rules that way. I believe (after 25 years in the securities industry) it takes a fraud to be duped by a fraud for the "most" part and if you don't get that by an early age you'll pay the price eventually.
Yes! Thank you for this. I need to remind myself of your points every day.
Oh, I'm glad I BW'd this now! cool responses from everyone.

Greg, I think parental influence is huge. My parents were young adults during the Great Depression and boy, did they teach us to focus on our good fortune (and to save money!). and they had the real life experiences to tell us about and make us believe them.

Emma, thanks for the book rec! It's interesting that happiness is such a hot topic for books in North America these past several years (as is the fact that depression diagnoses have been skyrocketing for a decade or more) when we're so affluent.

O'Steph, that's so cool about your daughter! I have that thought about how I started in adult life, too -- it was years before I made more than just subsistence money and I actually think that was a good thing. I know how to live on very little - and to be happy with it.

Cartouche, my goodness! I don't even know how to respond to your extravagant praise. To quote the Cowardly Lion, "Shucks, folks, I'm blushin'." Thank you so much and I'm thrilled to have such a strong and thoughtful response from a strong and thoughtful woman!

Ben, I didn't feel sympathy for Roth until I read her essay. (I haven't felt sympathy for Madoff's victims in general.) I think the fact that she not only takes responsibility but uses the event to think about her own shortcomings is rare and impressive.

Palindrome, you and me both!! (I write to tell myself these things, after all.)
Silkstone, home run with this one. Outta the park.

From the old Madison Avenue to Wall Street, to our celebrity-crazed culture our values have been trampled and manipulated to want more and bigger and better and richer and obscene accumulation.

Yet each of us knows, in our heart of hearts, that it's really all about the comfort zone, not the backstage pass or the private jet. We need to start thinking that way again.
I've heard this argument before and have always found it a canard. Yes, I know those in third world countries can live hand-to-mouth from birth to death. But it's not the material goods that count, it's how you get them. Here in America it's pure dog-eat-dog and I've had foreigners tell me America is the most financially repressive western country. You can tell me to be a happy slave cuz I have a toaster and somebody in Cavite does not, but I ain't buying it.

If you want to slam greed, fine, I'm right there with you. But let's get serious. Let's start talking about deconstructing a system that rewards it - which means eliminating it, not the folly of "regulating" it. Asking me to be happy under Pharaoh's whip, well, that's a just a threat as far as I'm concerned.
Wow, Sally, thanks! And, yes, I'm a big fan of "comfort". I think it's just that what makes people comfortable (or more to the point, what they think will) varies hugely.

Tarheel, I agree we're going to have to grapple with this -- and to me, it's the huge upside of the economic crisis. We need to confront our materialism and where it's led us. But it ain't going to be pretty, and a lot of innocent and poor people are already suffering because of all that's happened.
Perceptive observations, beautifully expressed. This is one to bookmark and reread during those "grass is greener/glass is half-empty" moments that seem to come almost automatically with being an American. Only yesterday I was talking to an old friend who's become very wealthy and SHE was lamenting the fact that due to the economic downturn she may have to give up her private jet timeshare and resort to flying first class commercial again. Oh, the horror! I fear we're becoming a nation of spoiled brats.

PBS ran an excellent series on happiness awhile back that reached a similar conclusion about the nature of our society. Turns out the same social and economic mobility that has opened up so many possibilities to us may be the very thing that also makes us unhappy! In other parts of the world where there are less opportunities for personal advancement, people are more accepting of their lot in life, while here in America, where anyone can become rich or famous, at least theoretically, it seems more like a personal failing when we're not one of the lucky ones. Even for those of us who feel we are above comparing cars, say, or flat screen TVs, we measure ourselves against others in a myriad of ways day in and day out -- it's built right into our nature. Heck, I'm already thinking "this post is so well done, why didn't I write it?" You've gotta laugh. I guess.
...and of course I'm looking at those very impressive stats. ;-)
Hey Laurel! thanks for commenting. I like the personal experience you shared, as well as the stuff from the PBS show you saw. It is interesting how more choice can lead to unhappiness. To me, it does seem a clear line that after basic sufficiency of human needs, more stuff doesn't lead to more happiness. Some of the happiest people I've known have been fairly poor (in American terms) and some of the unhappiest quite affluent.

You know, I have tried to figure out why this post, which is nearly 3 months old, is getting so many hits in the past week or so - -I haven't found it referenced or linked anywhere on the web, but my search capabilities aren't the best. If anyone reads this and has any ideas, let me know!
Oh that's funny...I didn't even realize this was an old post. How mysterious. Maybe this can become the next Pitbulls in Spamalot!
Oh god, then everyone would hate me!
You touch on fundamental truths.
The image of accumulation for its own sake reminds me of a scene in the book, The Little Prince, in which the Little Prince visits a planet where the sole inhabitor just sits at his desk counting and guarding his money...silly, absurd, purposeless.
Someone had to write this piece. I'm so glad that you did. Thank you.
no happier who else has but who needs the least