It only took about ten Christmases before I realized how quickly the new-toy feeling wears off. I knew by the time New Year’s came around, I would lose that feeling I looked forward to all year — getting up to a dazzling world of new stuff.
Then one Christmas Day I felt that same predictable boredom, the same fading of abundance, creep in by dinnertime. I had eaten more chocolate than could actually be enjoyable, and played with everything once.
I felt like I had definitely lost something substantial since that giddy first hour of the day. Obviously I didn’t own any less by that time (not counting chocolate), but it absolutely felt like I did.
Of course, no matter how I felt about my possessions at different times of day, I was always rich and rarely realized it.
The same is true for me today, probably you too. Average income across the world is about $7000 per year. But that’s just a mathematical mean. The vast majority of people make far less than that. Only about twenty percent of the world’s population lives in countries with an average income that high.
So no matter what class you are in your society, if you’re sitting in front of a computer with some blog-reading time on your hands, you probably outclass (financially anyway) a sizeable majority of people alive today, and certainly almost all of the people who are no longer alive.
But that’s just money. Wealth includes power and privilege too, and not just because you can buy more of those things. It’s reasonable to say that someone with a thousand dollars is less wealthy than someone with a thousand dollars and access to political connections, say. Ability, knowledge, and privilege all contribute to wealth.
You’re probably not doing too poorly on that front either. You’re unlikely to be reading this if you live in North Korea. All sorts of people read this blog, but statistically you probably have the right to vote, the right to protest, the right to say what you like, the right to travel, the right to practice your spiritual tradition, the means to contact your political representatives, the means to practice your chosen art, and the means to self-publish your thoughts. Extraordinary and exclusive privileges, if you have any of them.
These are riches, if the word means anything at all, and most of history’s humans certainly did not have the level of wealth you do.
It’s unlikely, though, that you would describe yourself as rich, or particuarly that you feel rich.
An iPhone! My Kingdom for an iPhone!
High technology has given superhuman powers to almost all of us, and these are riches of the most enviable kind. Today’s technology extends privilege way further down the economic scale than ever, so that a much wider swath of people can have incredible powers. You certainly have superhuman powers if you have internet access, even if you have to walk to the library to get it.
Imagine if you could transplant your life, and all its advantages, into an iron age society. Your house or apartment gets plopped down on a hillside at the edge of a farming village. All your devices work, you get internet and cable, water and heat. Don’t worry about technical issues like where you get your electricity from, or how you’d get cell service. Assume it is freely available to you within your means, as we tend to assume today.
Outside your doors, humans who are otherwise just like you are getting along with the powers they have available to them — just like you do today. They keep warm with wood stoves, they can work only by the available light of the day, they repair their tools and clothing themselves. They aren’t lesser people by any means, but even the most privileged among them couldn’t even dream of the powers and freedoms you have within arm’s reach right at this moment.
Imagine how they would feel toward you once they learned what you’re able to do with your lot in life. What do you think they might pay for even the simplest of the advantages you have? For walls that easily keep out the worst of the weather, for an accurate timepiece, for a machine that can perform basic math functions instantly without error, or even for a glowing blue cell-phone screen to find something in the dark. Undoubtedly they would be willing to toil an extra day per month to bring these advantages home for their families. Maybe much more than that.
And those powers are nothing compared to what else you can do with your riches. What would they pay to be able to:
- speak to someone across the sea
- have the knowledge of thousand encyclopedias in their pocket
- watch segments of the past (or someone else’s past) unfold in moving pictures, in real time
- see the face or hear the voice of a dead loved one
- heat the house without stoking a fire
- cook food in thirty seconds
- clean and dry their family’s clothing with ten minutes of actual work
- suck the dirt out of a rug
- get all their water from inside the house at whatever temperature they wish
- access instructions on how to do almost anything that can be done by humans
These are insane powers, which most of humanity could never have dreamed of, and they’re all yours, right now. Do you really think more money will make you feel rich if you aren’t blown away by what you already have?
The rich members of past societies may or may not have had more than you in terms of monetary wealth. Yet, it is undeniable that the age you live in gives you access to powers they could never have had, or even imagined. The contents of your crummy apartment certainly would have been worth more to them than all their piles of furs and gold.
And all of this is to say nothing of the intangible privileges you have, just by being alive here and now — rights, freedoms, moral advances, literacy, public education, and modern medicine.
The Makings of Being Rich
You’d think gratitude would increase alongside advantage and privilege. If you have more to be grateful for, you become more grateful. But clearly this isn’t true.
We’ve all heard stories of tycoons who couldn’t be happy, or lottery winners that end up ruined a few years later, wishing it had never happened. I can understand the possibility that having amounts of money that seem copious to you and me might bring certain problems we’re ignorant about. But I still always find myself thinking that these people must be particularly foolish or naive not to be able to make millions of dollars work for them.
But this kind of thinking is what’s naive. We do the same thing. Almost all of us are in an extremely high percentile of material and social wealth, even if you only consider the people who are alive today.
If our standards for wealth are where we sit on that spectrum — and what other standard could we have? — then we’re certainly rich, but how often do we feel rich?
That’s a totally different question. And clearly there is no real value in being rich by any material standard, if we don’t feel rich — if we don’t feel like we have more to be grateful for than most — and of course we do. That feeling of abundance, the opposite of the feeling of lack, is what makes riches attractive to anybody.
I think it’s important to reiterate that point. No matter what material things we pursue, we’re only ever looking for certain feelings. Money is attractive to us because we believe it will come with the feelings we want: abundance, security, power. That’s all the good it can do. Stuck on a desert island with a billion in hard currency is a terrible place to be, because you’re poor in all the things that matter.
How rich we’re able to feel does depend a little on what we do have in terms of privilege and material wealth. It’s hard to achieve feelings of autonomy if you have no clothes or no home. Yet it seems to depend more on what we feel entitled to, what our peers have relative to us — and most importantly — whether we think more about what we do have than what we don’t have.
The Manhattan investment banker who only grosses $96,000 a year probably feels like a have-not when he goes out to lunch with the big dogs. But he probably feels differently about his level of wealth and privilege when he’s being asked for change outside the train station.
How rich he is depends on how rich he experiences himself to be, which is quite independent of his financial bottom line. It’s dependent on how he values what he has and how he values what he doesn’t have, which changes from moment to moment, day to day, year to year. Depending on his perspective, there is a huge range of possible levels of happiness within his means, and that’s every bit as true for you. The influence of our material holdings on our ability to experience wealth is actually quite small.
“Rich” is clearly a relative, emotional state, and your life almost certainly contains far more material (and social) advantages at your disposal than a random human life picked out of a hat. So for most of us, what we need to get rich is not more money, it’s to cultivate a shift in perspective. More money would still leave that necessary perspective shift ahead of you. Chances are you do have the makings of being rich.
If we break it down, the makings of being rich are:
1) Enough stuff to survive in relative comfort. I’m talking about the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid here: food, shelter, water, and decent health.
2) Some extra stuff, beyond the essentials of survival. Some toys, some technology, some art, some tools you could survive without. Most of us have way more than some of this.
3) Some friends. I don’t think this is optional, if you want to feel rich. Humans are highly social and I expect there are few people who can exist in a generally grateful state if they are alone in life. Luckily it is easier than ever to meet other people with like interests. Facebook.com. Meetup.com. Millions of forums worldwide. Use your superpowers here.
4) Some freedoms. Chiefly, to speak your mind and to do your own thing. This varies hugely across modern societies, but if you’re reading this you are probably near the better end of the stick. By the same token, everyone does live under some measure of political constraint, but most of us are still left with an amount of room to pursue happiness that would make most of history’s people envious. People have made rich and worthwhile lives with much worse.
5) The capacity to keep perspective when it comes to assessing a) the value of what you do have, and b) the value of what you don’t have. This is a skill and it can be developed.
Those are the makings, as far as I can see it, and for most people reading this it’s just a matter of working with the last one.
Here are a couple of ways to get better at that:
“Caveman gratitude” — Whenever you use a material posession, think of how valuable it would be to someone who didn’t live in a highly technological world. Remember that you are still only a naked animal, surrounded by a lot of stuff, and even the crappiest of that stuff confers powers that most of the past’s humans would find extraordinarily valuable. What would medieval serfs make of my “crappy” Panasonic point-and-shoot? Yet I have a mid-level Nikon DSLR, and I still salivate over the top-of-the-line stuff. Whenever you feel like a have-not, mentally drop your home and your stuff into an iron-age village and realize again that you live like a monarch with magic powers, right here in the far future.
Own fewer things, but better things — Respect your possessions. Get rid of low quality possessions. Get rid of any possession you don’t respect or use. Have a home for everything in your home, or get rid of it. If you don’t respect your lot in life materially, then you can’t feel like you have a lot worth having, and that’s what being rich amounts to.
Picture losing what’s important to you — This is one of the most worthwhile things I’ve ever learned to do. We just cannot have the necessary perspective to appreciate what we have until we understand what it would mean to lose those things. Do it with your possessions, your rights, and most powerfully, do it with the people you love. Those links will explain how.
Make 2012 your year to get rich.