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Developing the Right Joy to Stuff Ratio Or What's It All About?

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Ellen Frankenberg, Ph.D.

As the drumbeat of the holidays reverberates through our ears, maybe it's time to think about the "Joy to Stuff Ratio" we have established for ourselves. How much "stuff" can we really enjoy?

As a family business psychologist, I am fascinated by what motivates people. I know that making money gets most of us out of bed these dark winter mornings. We also spend hours deciding what "stuff" to buy as gifts, and which "stuff" - the new PT Cruiser, the hot tub, the slick computer that "burns" CDs - we will be able to pay off in 2002, slack economy or not.

These long winter evenings at the turn of the year also prompt us take stock of our financial status (especially if we don't work for Enron). How much time have you spent analyzing what's happening to your 401K? Whether the year end bonus meets expectations? Perusing the Business Courier stock charts for fear of the next debacle? Responsible behavior, of course, that your financial advisor will commend.

But sometimes money sucks all the oxygen out of the room, leaving no energy for the rest of life. Sometimes we get so focused on the stuff that money can buy, that there is no time left to enjoy what we already possess. While we were busy making money, our families may have become "acquisitive" rather than an "inquisitive".

Even though we pride ourselves on the advances of Western Civilization, the great sucking sound of traffic clogging the malls may have induced our children to revert back into hunters and gatherers (actually quite primitive behaviors, and not necessarily patriotic).

What would an inquisitive, rather than an acquisitive family look like? How much time would they spend learning about other cultures and other languages? Discovering the physics behind the computer that can "burn" CDs? Deciphering the economics behind job lay offs? Creating their own Harry Potter, their own Middle Earth - inquiring about whatever is worth discovering?

Most families I know start out focused on "survival": paying the rent, getting the kids to the pediatrician, buying baby new shoes. After a while, as paychecks become more predictable, the family develops a more "comfortable" lifestyle: a week at the beach, new bikes for the kids, saving for college.

As families become more affluent, sometimes they begin to suffer from what has come to be called "affluenza": they focus their lives around accumulating more and more "stuff" that they have less and less time to "enjoy": their "joy to stuff ratio" gets out of balance. Some condos in the sun, some boats floating at anchor, lie empty most of the year because the owners that worked so hard to acquire them no longer have the time or energy to enjoy them. Some Palm Pilots are so crammed, that their owners' other most precious commodity - time - has declined more than the stock market.

How much "stuff" can you and your family truly "enjoy"? The answer to this question will differ from one family to the next: what is important is to discuss the question together. How do you define what is "enough"?

After you have determined whatever is "enough", you are free to experience once again the joy of "surviving" through someone else's eyes: the kid you mentor, the family moving into the house your office team rehabbed, the new hire who contributes diversity to your staff, but needs more of your time than you predicted.

I received one Christmas card from a substantial Cincinnati business that listed the five charities they will support this year, in honor of their customers and suppliers. Perhaps the simplification of some office extravaganzas will turn out to be a good idea, especially if some of funds beyond "enough" bought heaters or coats or computers for kids that may be working for you someday.

During this season of giving, at the end of a very challenging year for most businesses, we are all taking stock of what we have lost, what we have acquired, and perhaps what we are prepared to give away. Even if we are less profitable this year compared to last, there may still be room left to share something with those who don't even have a balance sheet.

What kind of philanthropy makes sense to you and your business, now that you know how priorities got shuffled during 2001? What kind of commitment can you make to help refashion the city in which we live and work, so it can become a source of pride again?

Perhaps the extraordinary generosity Americans showed after September 11 will persist through another September, because we have learned we really are all in this together. Perhaps finding the joy beyond the stuff is, after all, what it's all about.



Dr. Ellen Frankenberg, President & CEO


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