Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery. – Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
I’m on the second chapter of Alain de Botton’s The consolations of philosophy in my attempt to start the year with a good book.
Although you could start every day anew there is something special about the start of a new year – some kind of extra energy you get only at this time.
de Botton’s second chapter is called Consolation for not having enough money and it introduces a philosopher called Epicurus who championed the importance of pleasure – especially when it came to food.
His name has been appropriated to now mean an excessive pursuit of pleasure – the difference between a good meal and gluttony – but de Botton explains that the real person found happiness in simpler, less expensive things.
There were three things in his list.
First was the importance of friendships – never eat alone, he said.
Next came freedom – the option not to work for people you don’t like and do things you don’t want to do.
Or the converse, I suppose – work with people you like, admire and trust – in the words of Warren Buffett.
And then lastly having the time to think, to reflect, to question – to go through issues and come to a view – the ability to analyse anxiety and, in doing so, resolve it.
Maybe even dissolve it.
The point, de Botton points out, is that these three have nothing to do with money.
If you have money but don’t have these things – well, you’re probably not happy.
And if you do have money as well – then it must be a good life.
de Botton goes on to argue that the reason we think we need stuff in order to be happy is because of marketing – we’ve been programmed that way.
And if look for exceptions to those marketing messages or rules then we might find that the rules are wrong or need amending – and we can do that.
That seems quite simple – almost simplistic – so maybe there are a couple of messages to also add to that.
I’m reminded of two points about this thing called money.
Most of us think that money was created so we had a medium of exchange that wasn’t a chicken or pig or potato.
In other words money helped us replace a system of bartering with one of trading.
But there is another view that money is actually a form of debt.
Suppose I came to your shop and wanted some bread – and you didn’t really want one of my chickens, but you did want a piece of gold.
I might have written you an IOU on whatever the equivalent was of paper at that time – and this IOU was a promissory note for something of a certain value – and money was invented.
So, to some extent, when you collect money you collect someone else’s debt – you are “owed”.
But then why do you collect the money in the first place – why do you work or do whatever it is you do?
Is it for the money – for that pile of debts?
Or is it because you want to do something with that money?
This brings us to the second thing about money.
In order to figure out if money will bring you happiness, you first need to figure out what you want out of money.
I come from a world where Dickens’ quote that starts this blog is still very relevant.
I remember my grandmother keeping a cash book and accounting for where everything went.
And she seemed pretty happy.
I did that for a long time as well, although in the last decade it became harder with children and a general lack of time.
But it’s something to get back to again now – because I think Epicurus’s list is missing something.
Yes you need friends, freedom and time to think to be happy.
But many of us don’t have the freedom he talks about – and we still manage to be happy.
The thing that’s missing is not money, I think, but what money represents.
It doesn’t represent the ability to buy things as much as it represents a lack of debt.
And not being in debt is a good place to be.