Preamble: this piece appeared in the August edition of the Art of Mastery magazine. It’s somewhat more esoteric than what you might be used to on here. Basically, my point is that the economic problem of ‘scarcity’ is both psychological construct and real world problem. When those two gets conflated, people end up less happy than they ought to be. But if we had some tools to deal with this inner belief that there’s ‘never enough’, then perhaps we might be better at dealing with those situations where the need is physical, or biological, or fundamental. It’s a question of mindfulness, really. We’re particularly good at identifying what we don’t have – but do we give equal weight to what we already have? Hence this post: the economic of abundance.
In economics, we talk about the problem of scarcity: we live in a world of limited resources, faced with an unlimited number of wants and/or needs.
So, how do we reconcile this?
Here’s an approach that links cognitive behavioral study with religion (or, if you don’t like that word, some really practical metaphysics):
- In most religions, a central tenet involves God as Love, or Love as the highest purpose on the road to eternity.
- In cognitive behavioural therapy, love means having your needs met.
- We have unlimited needs.
- Love is having those needs met.
- Religion is a path to Love
- God, like our needs, is unlimited.
But what about a world of abundance?
There’s a book called 59 Seconds by psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman, which I frequently gift around to almost anyone in a life crisis. Unlike all those anecdotal, Oprah-style self-help reads about positive thinking and eating right for your blood type, 59 Seconds summarises actual academic research on things like motivation, creativity, persuasion and attraction. And at the end of each chapter, there’s a section that basically says “so given what we’ve found in these studies, perhaps you should try this.”
And the “this” could be something like “go to a bathroom stall and stand with your arms raised above your head in a victory position just before you go into an interview, because people who have done that in these studies have been demonstrably more confident after doing so”.
The book opens with a chapter on “Happiness”. And as it turns out, the key to happiness seems to revolve around gratitude.
Let me give you the background and experiment first.
- When you walk into a bakery, the first thing you smell is the delicious aroma of freshly baked bread.
- But after a few minutes, your senses get used to it, and the stimulus fades (unless you keep leaving and re-entering the bakery).
- The theory put forward is that like staying in a bakery, we get used to the things that we have – and they fade into the background, and stop giving us joy.
The experiment that Wiseman cites (conducted by psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough), wanted to investigate the psychological impact of getting people to do the daily equivalent of leaving and re-entering the bakery.
The 10-week study went something like this:
- Take a large sample of people, give everyone a notepad and a pen, and then split them into three groups
- Ask the groups to do the following:
- Group one was asked to spend a few minutes once a week listing five things they were grateful for in the past week.
- Group two was asked to spend the same amount of time listing five things that hassled them in the past week.
- Group three was asked to spend a few minutes listing impactful events that happened in the past week (this was meant to be the neutral control group, as the events could have had both positive and negative impacts).
Once a week for each of those 10 weeks, the participants filled in identical questionnaires that asked them about their physical and emotional well-being (questions like: “Did you have a headache this week?”; “Did you ask for any help with a problem this week?” and “If yes, how did you feel toward the person that helped you? Pick the most accurate word: grateful, annoyed, embarrassed, understood, surprised, glad, appreciative.”)
Allow me to interpret that for you: the grateful group felt
- happier about life in general,
- more optimistic about their upcoming week,
- had fewer physical symptoms, and
- did more exercise.
And that’s after doing nothing more than spending a few minutes a week listing just five things that they were happy about.
Putting that into economic terms
In a holistic sense, gratitude may well be nothing less than the answer to the economic problem.
The way we currently phrase it, we can do nothing about the fact that our needs are unlimited, and that there are only finite resources to fulfill them with. All we can do is discuss the most efficient form of allocation, and try to maximise the number of needs fulfilled, given the limitations involved.
But we should also be looking at it from a slightly different perspective. We should instead be saying “Actually, plenty of my needs are already being met – and that should count for something. And just recognising that will leave me feeling less needy.”
And if my needs are being met, then I feel loved.
And moreover, Loved.
Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and sometimes things that are only loosely related. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rollingalpha. Also, check out the RA podcast on iTunes: The Story of Money.