Browsing the archives for the how do you fix greed? tag.
Subscribe via RSS or e-mail      

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


How Do You Fix Greed? Part II: American Society Is Built for Greed

Society and culture

Recently I posted about the emotional roots of greed–that is, some reasons we sometimes act or think greedily. Today I want to pick up where I left off and talk about how we’ve gotten ourselves in trouble with greed as a society and what we’d need to do to if we want to root it out.

It would be great if greed were a simple problem, but it appears that it has at least five different parts.

  1. We already talked about where greed comes from individually, the emotional component in Part I of this series.
  2. We have a culture where greed is not only OK, but encouraged.
  3. The effects of how we use money are hidden.
  4. Most of the organizations that handle money in our society are set up to maximize profit.
  5. Laws and regulations about taxation, corporations, and commerce in some cases make greed the law.

Our Greedy Culture
Rich people in our culture tend to be admired, and poor people tend to be looked down on. We tend to think of wealth and success as being closely related, and the role models we see in the media are usually people with a lot of money. This isn’t unique to Americans or particularly shocking, but it is harmful. If we can gradually focus more on people’s accomplishments, integrity, regard for other people, happiness, and personal fulfillment instead of their cars, houses, financial resources, and lifestyle, we’ll move toward justice and compassion as a society and away from celebrity worship and the quest to Have More Stuff.

But it’s hard to change who we envy. If offered the choice between becoming as a balanced and compassionate as the Dalai Lama or as rich as Bill Gates, which would you choose? I’d have a really difficult time with that challenge, I have to admit. When I think of having huge financial resources, I imagine how many of the things in my life that currently take a lot of effort would be much easier, how much good I could do, what great things I could get for my family, and so on. I don’t necessarily think about the complications that come with money or the disparity between the wealth I’d have and the poverty a lot of people live through day after day. I also have a lot of trouble weighing the benefits of being as happy and at peace as the Dalai Lama appears to be against the seemingly more obvious benefits of having tons of cash. Even those of us who work hard at staying out of the consumerist mindset can get hung up on this problem–but that’s exactly the kind of conscious change that will help us transform our culture’s attitudes toward greed.

Hidden impacts of our money decisions
We rarely see the help or harm that comes from our investing or spending. It’s very hard to know exactly who gets our money or what they do with it when we buy something or make an investment. It’s possible be an ardent anti-tobacco activist and to unknowingly have a retirement account that invests heavily in the tobacco industry, for instance. We may buy a product and not know how much of the money we spent goes to people who worked to get us the thing in the first place, how much to investors, and how much to parasites (like corrupt government officials in the country where the thing was made or speculators). It’s even harder to get a clear idea of our money’s impact on things like the environment or the availability of good jobs.

Even when we do know something about the impact of our money–for instance, buying a cheap electronic item made in China at a local Walmart, which is likely to be supporting underpaid labor both in the factory where the item is made and at the Walmart where it’s sort–we often don’t act on it, probably in part because we can’t be sure we’re right. Maybe those Chinese workers are really getting paid a living wage. Or even if they aren’t, maybe the money they are getting paid is better than what would happen to them if that job moved to a country where people get paid fairly for their work.

By not knowing the real effects our financial choices have in the rest of the world, we’re cut off from making better choices. Ideally, whenever I wanted to buy or sell or rent or borrow or lend or invest, I could get a little scorecard that showed me how much good or ill my choice was making all the way down the line to people, places, and organizations. In practice, that’s probably next to impossible (though in a few decades we might have enough information available electronically that something like that would be possible). However, we can educate ourselves about where the things we buy come from, where our investments go, and all the rest. We might not know the exact details of every purchase we make, but any insight empowers us to make decisions with our money that otherwise would be made for us by somebody else.

Designed for profit
Usually, companies are set up by investors or entrepreneurs who are trying to make a bunch of money. While they might have other priorities, money usually comes first. The penniless immigrant chef who starts with a sandwich cart that grows over time to a restaurant and then a chain of restaurants is probably cooking at least in part out of a love of cooking, a desire to do work that’s valued, and all the rest, but  … well, I was about to say “the bottom line is still profit,” but that’s what “the bottom line” means. The need for profit has come to be central even in how we talk about what’s important. We can even things like “The bottom line is that a lot of people don’t have adequate healthcare coverage” without realizing we’re being ironic.

What’s the alternative? Different kinds of organizations: fewer entrepreneurial start-ups and money-worshipping corporations and more non-profits and cooperatives. I’ll grant you, this doesn’t solve everything itself. For example, the health insurance I had up until a year or two ago was run by a not-for-profit, and yet it was terrible. Still, organizations like my local food co-op and the credit union where I bank show that these kinds of organizations can be reliable and successful without anyone trying to turn them into little money factories.

Greed is the law
Like a lot of things that have become part of our culture, greed has naturally made its way into our laws as well. Probably the biggest example of this kind of legislation is that for-profit corporations are legally required in many situations to maximize short-term shareholder profits, and corporations are also treated as individuals with legal rights of their own, just like a person.

Laws won’t change much until the culture does, but laws that make profit sacred get in the way of cultural change away from greed. There are only two ways I know of to get out of a bind like this: one of them is to make improvements wherever possible and gradually drag the legal system along with the priorities of the people it governs. The other is for there to be a huge catastrophe that ruins everything we’ve built so that we have to go back and start over.

I favor the first approach.

In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about ways we can take greed out of businesses.

Photo by Michael Aston


How Do You Fix Greed? Part I: The Roots of Greed

Society and culture

How do you fix greed? It’s a question that’s plagues our country and much of the world right now, although I’m going to talk about America specifically–because let’s face it, where greed is concerned, we Americans are at the top of the charts. In some other countries, corruption and greed in the government is an especially nasty problem, but here in America greed is more or less a core value, something that’s encouraged for every citizen. As a result, we’re the wealthiest large nation in the world and consume a percentage of the world’s resources that’s far out of proportion to our population.

What specifically is so bad about greed? Isn’t it natural, anyway? Even if it isn’t, what can you do if greed is just something bad people embrace?

What’s wrong with greed?
The problem with greed is that it leads to people and corporations trying to amass resources they don’t need and can’t use well, often straining the capacity of the rest of society and the natural environment in the process. It’s not just the multi-millionaire tossing back caviar while homeless families try to survive on canned soup: it’s kids amassing electronic devices instead of going outside and playing with friends, adults trapping themselves in jobs that make them miserable in order to get the larger houses and better cars they think they “should” be able to have, and people whose lives are dominated by abject envy of everyone wealthier or more famous than they are. Greed is bad investments, celebrity idolization, consumerism grown out of proportion, lousy jobs, waste, inequity, and disconnection of us all from one another.

Isn’t greed natural?
We’ve grown to think it’s natural and normal for people to want as much money as they can get, but we don’t really want money at all: what we want is what money gets us, and by this I don’t mean the products and services, but rather things like a sense of safety, power, indulgence, or validation. When we talk of caring about something, we’re saying we have an emotional stake in it. Our emotional stake in money doesn’t have anything to do directly with having the assets: it’s first about answering physical needs—the minimum of food, shelter, health care, safety, clothing, transportation, and education that is the baseline for our society–and second about gratifying unmet emotional needs.

The emotional roots of greed: some examples
Let’s say Ed grows up in a house where his parents only pay attention to him when he accomplishes something–gets good grades or wins a trophy in a track meet, for example. Ed may very well internalize the idea that the only way people will care about him–in fact, the only way he’s actually worth anything–is if he has something to show for it that everyone can appreciate. He may therefore go into a high-income career and spend his money on trophies: trophy house, trophy clothes, trophy vacations, trophy foods … all so that he can impress people into caring about him and so that he can feel worthwhile. This may sound a little pathetic, but consider how many people buy things–cars, houses in the right neighborhood, even certain foods–in order to act out the life they want to be seen leading.

Actual human connection could make all of this trophy-getting unnecessary. If Ed acquires a set of friends who appreciate his sense of humor and determination and don’t care about his money, Ed may come to stop caring about money so much too, which could lead to enormous changes in making his life happier–like living where he really wants to live, doing what he really wants to do, and prioritizing experiences with friends and family or meaningful accomplishments in the world over acquiring things.

Ed’s situation isn’t the only way we get emotionally involved with money. Imagine Deborah, whose childhood was one disaster after another resulting in moves, loss of friends and homes, and other kinds of upsets. Once Deborah gets out into the world on her own, she may prioritize security over all else, meaning that she has to pile up a lot of things and a lot of money so that she will feel safe against things like the layoffs her father went through or the loss of her home to a flood because her parents couldn’t afford flood insurance.

Or imagine Nick, who was awkward and shy as a kid and ended up being the butt of everyone else’s jokes. They won’t be laughing at him when he pulls up to the high school reunion in a Ferrari while wearing a twenty-six hundred dollar suit, now will they?

Or Andrea, whose parents gave her all the physical things she wanted but left her actual care to a string of nannies and boarding schools. As an adult, Andrea buys anything she wants, whether she can afford it or not, because she “deserves” it–constantly trying to fill an emotional void with things, and probably failing just as badly as her parents did no matter how delightful that first, brief glow of pleasure may be.

That’s not nearly the whole list, but I hope my point is clear: the roots of greed are emotional ones. People want to feel safe, loved, valued, validated, and respected. In different ways, money promises all of those things, even though it often doesn’t deliver.

Are greedy people bad people?
It’s tempting to write off anyone who acts greedy as simply a bad person, yet there’s a more exact and constructive way to look at the problem. First, problem behaviors like greed usually come from people trying to meet their emotional needs, which is a pretty understandable thing to try to do, even if somebody hasn’t chosen a very successful method.

Almost all people who act greedy also do things that we would admire in their lives–they might parent their children well, give to charities, have a strong work ethic, work for causes, help friends and neighbors, have a lot of integrity, or otherwise show their true value.

Writing these people off also means writing off whatever part of ourselves might agree with them, the part that may covet clothes or free time, travel, cars, expensive foods, luxury, or even having a lot of money to help other people with.

Writing off anyone who acts greedy is wasteful, too, because if people can learn not to be greedy, as surely seems to be the case even without the fictional or legendary examples of Siddhartha and Ebeneezer Scrooge, then there’s a powerful reason to try to find ways to fix greed: if a greedy person becomes a non-greedy person, we’ve gained an ally–sometimes a powerful one.

In the next part of this series, I’ll take a look at how greed is entrenched in American culture and what would be necessary to root it out.

Photo by subsetsum

No Comments

%d bloggers like this: