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How Do You Fix Greed, Part III: Why Should I Sacrifice Myself?


In a recent comment to my post “How Do You Fix Greed? Part II: American Society Is Built for Greed,” someone asked

Why should l sacrifice my self to others? Read Ayn Rand, and you will know where greed comes from.

I was surprised by the question, because the answer seemed obvious to me, but the more I thought about the response, the more grateful I am for the comment, because it’s a fair question: even if greed is bad for society, which is something I’ve been asserting in recent posts, from a certain perspective there’s the following pressing question: So what? If I can get everything I want, why should it matter to me if other people are unhappy about that, or if it interferes with things society or culture expects from me?

For the asker’s interest, I’ve read Ayn Rand, and I’m familiar with a lot of arguments for greed. If you’re looking at the question on a strictly personal level, it comes down to this: people who let themselves fall prey to their own greed are assuming that getting more will bring them more pleasure, and that pleasure and happiness are the same thing. The truth–and there’s good science backing this up–is that having more stuff does not necessarily bring more pleasure, and that even if it did (which it doesn’t, remember), that pleasure doesn’t by itself amount to happiness.

I’m not going to go into detail about all the research here, to prevent this post from becoming unmanageably long, but before I continue I’ll link to other articles on this site, several of which reference the studies that provide the raw information for the connections between human relationships, happiness, and pleasure that I’m about to describe.

The Difference Between Pleasure and Happiness
If It’s Not Fun, Why Do It? A Few Pointed Answers
Why Happiness Is Key
How Other People’s Happiness Affects Our Own
Want to Reduce Stress? Increase Social Time
The Best 40 Percent of Happiness (this one covers lottery winners)
The High Cost of Not Liking Your Job

Why doesn’t “more” bring more pleasure?
Getting more things does not necessarily lead to more pleasure, although it’s true that some things, in some situations, can add to pleasure and even happiness. Unfortunately for our pleasure levels, though, the more we get, the less any given part of it matters. If you go to a restaurant and eat the most delicious meal in the world, the first time you eat it, you may be in ecstasy. If you eat it again the next day, due something psychologists call “hedonic adaptation,” it simply won’t be as good. It’s similar to the process a drug addict may go through, whether that drug is caffeine or crack or something in between. The first hit has an enormous effect, but subsequent experiences produce less and less dopamine, the neurochemical that makes us feel pleasure. In other words, the more I have, the less pleasure I get from each thing.

Additionally, having more power, money, resources, or things also means I have more concerns, because I need to defend myself from people who want to usurp my power, siphon off my money, use my resources, or take my things. As I get more and more, what I have pleases me less and adds more to my stress load. We often envy celebrities, people with political power, and others who have “more,” yet the rates of scandal, failed marriage, substance abuse, and other indicators of severe unhappiness seem to be exceptionally high among these kinds of people. Some of it is surely the pressure of being in the public eye all of the time, but regardless, it lends support to the point that having more is not necessarily pleasurable. Ask the many people who’ve won the lottery and later committed suicide–oh wait, you can’t: they’re dead.

Isn’t “happiness” just another word for “pleasure”?
Even the pleasure that we can get from having more doesn’t amount to happiness. Happiness, according to research, has a lot to do with having enough and not much to do with having extra. It also has a lot to do with how we think and feel about ourselves and about our relationships with other people. If I feel like a good person, am proud of my accomplishments and integrity, enjoy the company of people close to me, experience trust and connection with others, and otherwise make the most of myself and my relationships, I’m far, far more likely to be happy than if I have piles of stuff, people whose interest in me might be mainly about my having piles of stuff, and things I don’t need that I have to defend from people who either don’t have enough stuff or are as greedy as I am.

Greed at its heart is a misunderstanding, at attempt to substitute money, power, or stuff for the things that really make us happy (see the first article in this series, “How Do You Fix Greed? Part I: The Roots of Greed“). The altruistic and kind behavior that seems like sacrificing ourselves, when done in a healthy and proportionate way, surprisingly turns out to get us the most individual happiness of anything we could possibly do. Greed is an easy path to falling short of the happiness we could otherwise achieve.

Photo by CaptPiper



  1. John Arkwright  •  Nov 15, 2011 @11:48 am

    I live a good life. A friend with similar credentials, who was more materially ambitious, lives a life that is better, materially. As a VP of Research for a major finance company, he makes about 8 times my salary. He works very hard for it. He was out of the house before his kids woke, home after whey went to sleep. He worked every Saturday. On Sunday he was home in his office.

    His efforts created a huge amount of economic activity. The field of finance moves money from people who are willing to sacrifice current consumption, to people who are able to use that money to create value, which employs people. If my friend does his job well, he might be responsible for hundreds or even thousands of people being employed.

    So while I am not nearly as ambitious as he is. And while I feel for his children, who have not had a lot of his attention, I am glad he is out there, creating jobs for my kids.

    Does his life fulfill him as mine fulfills me? How could I possibly judge? First of all, I would have to be supremely egotistical to think that I know what fulfills him. Second, I do not want to take any of his freedom to do what he does. And third, I do not want to diminish his incentive to produce those hundreds or thousands of jobs by trying to carve a bigger bite from his income.

  2. Luc  •  Nov 15, 2011 @12:15 pm

    Thanks a lot for commenting, John.

    I have to agree that we can’t assume the level of happiness your friend may or may not be feeling–however, from the research I know of, it appears that people who live lives like your friend’s tend to be more stressed and unhappy than people who instead have more limited work lives and strong, active family relationships.

    On a side note, while I agree that investment can create jobs, it seems to me that it does so only once at most, when it’s initially invested, and not always then. Whenever it’s reinvested or moved around, it’s taking away capital from one enterprise to put it into another enterprise, which strikes me as a zero-sum game in terms of the total amount of capital available to enterprises that employ people once the original investment has had its effect. So to the extent that a person in a finance company helps encourage more money being invested than is being taken out of the system, I think it helps job creation, but the vast majority of activity in finance–at least, this is my perception–is involved in reinvesting money that’s already invested somewhere and therefore doesn’t make meaningful changes to the job situation.

    With that said, and despite the fact that I’ve worked in the technical side the financial industry, I’m certainly no expert in economics or finance and on that particular topic am only putting out the thoughts that come to mind.

  3. John Arkwright  •  Nov 15, 2011 @3:54 pm

    Not a one time thing.

    We prosper by taking resources that nobody would pay more than $10 for and combining them into a product that people are willing to pay $25 for. This is value creation–the basis of economic activity. Maybe a potter combines labor, clay, a kiln, electricity, a wheel and a small stand for selling.

    However some productive processes only create value with an initial investment. Maybe the entrepreneur builds a $10,000 facility, then begins creating that value–which might soon pay for the $10,000 investment. The entrepreneur may be able to make the initial investment or the entrepreneur may borrow the $10,000.

    For the entrepreneur to borrow the $10,000, someone must be willing to forgo buying something for themselves today in order to be repaid later, with a reward for waiting. This is finance and interest.

    So the entrepreneur gets a $10,000 loan and begin to offer clay pots for sale on a good corner, creating value for people who would rather have the pots than have the other things their money could buy. The entrepreneur may earn much more than $10,000 per year for a number of years–that is, more income has been created than the initial investment.

    So it is not a one time thing, shifting money from one use to another use.

    If it were a one time thing–“Here’s $10,000–The End,” then nobody would invest their money because there could be no interest payments. People want to invest their $10,000 in good projects because their investment can create a lot of value.

    If our potter is successful, they might build a bigger plant and shop and hire more workers to make and sell pots.

    Participants in the financial system, who move money to its most productive uses, try to create maximum value. That is, they try to use the least scarce (expensive) resources to create the most value (since people pay more for more valuable products). And the more value that is created, the more positive spillovers are gained by people outside the productive activity. First of all, they get jobs related to the activity, selling pots, digging clay, feeding people who dig clay, etc. Second, they use the products, selling wine or oil.

    Let’s get away from pots and the city building games. 😀 Steve jobs combined engineers and marketers and raw materials and factories and made iPhones. These phones are more productive than the old phones. This puts people to work designing software. If the phones are efficient, then they save time and money for people. And this creates more business opportunities.

  4. Luc  •  Nov 16, 2011 @11:14 am

    Remember, though, that I’m talking about an investment being a one-time event in terms of job creation specifically. Since of course the interest on the investment goes back to the investor, sometimes along with the principal (depending on whether we’re talking about an instrument like a bond or a loan on the one hand or an equity on the other) , it turns into a drain on the business rather than an expansion of it. All the good that investment ever does to the business is in that initial boost; after that, it’s a liability to the entrepreneur and a source of income to the investor, who doesn’t have a need to create any additional jobs with the additional money coming in. By that I don’t mean that investment is a bad thing: I think we both agree that somebody has to come up with the initial investment or resources to start a business, and that in our society that often needs to be cash from an outside source.

    The other part of my point is that selling one investment and buying another does not add capital to the economy, but instead only moves it around. The only benefits in that process go to investors and in some cases employee equity holders; no new jobs come of selling your stock in Company A and buying stock in Company B: the existing debt is just changing hands. This is why I say that only the initial investment creates jobs.

    You have a good point, though, that the initial investment may continue to be a significant part of the business unless/until it’s paid back, and the business may continue to create jobs, so that the investment can still be said to be supporting job creation as long as it continues to be on the books.

  5. John Arkwright  •  Nov 16, 2011 @11:51 am

    If the pottery business cannot start without the investment, the investment does not create a one time benefit, but a continuing benefit. And moving dollars from an unproductive activity which was not creating enough value to support itself (a video rental store) to a productive activity which can create enough value to support itself (an Apple store) also creates new streams of income in excess of the original investment.

    If you do not believe that the economy is a positive sum game then I understand (1) why finance seems a near useless activity to you–which, I guess would make it irrational for people to participate in other than for amusement–or maybe it’s just akin to theft (2) why you focus on fairness–since we are just deciding how to divide the pie, and baking more pies is not possible.

  6. Luc  •  Nov 16, 2011 @12:06 pm

    Hi John,

    Yes, I agree that the original investment provides a continuing benefit, as I mentioned, and I do see finance as a positive sum activity insofar as it provides the basis for productive businesses, as I also mentioned. Finance doesn’t seem a near-useless activity to me, and I’m not particularly concerned with fairness per se. It sounds as though I haven’t done a great job getting across my point of view in my replies to you; sorry about that.


  7. lepifera  •  Nov 21, 2011 @9:15 pm

    Well, there is also “joy”. Where does it come in this scale of things?

  8. Luc  •  Dec 23, 2011 @1:59 pm

    Well, there is also “joy”. Where does it come in this scale of things?

    Sorry to take so long in responding to this reasonable question. It seems to me that joy comes from a combination of being happy with your situation and modifying your situation to be in harmony with your needs–so I think that feeling joyful requires first and foremost an attitude of willingness to be joyful, which doesn’t require a lot of stuff, and second an outside situation that doesn’t prevent you from being joyful, which also doesn’t require a lot of stuff.

    About that outside situation, I mean that things like immediate danger (a war, a very unsafe neighborhood, a potential gas leak) get in the way of joy, as do problems getting basic needs (like food, shelter, and companionship) met. Nobody needs a yacht or a 6-course dinner to be happy except for people who have trained themselves to reject anything less, and these people (like many of us!) can fix that problem with an adjustment of attitude and thinking.

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