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Beyond Enough: The Joy-to-Stuff Ratio

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At what point do we spend more energy to acquire our assets and possessions than we do to enjoy them?

By Ellen Frankenberg

As a family psychologist, I am interested in two major assets that my friends in family businesses possess: money and time. More specifically, I am fascinated by how the limitations of time and the pursuit of money—or “stuff” —continually shape behavior, yours and mine.

How much time did you spend today pursuing money: reviewing investments, analyzing accounts, making decisions about purchases? Time well spent, of course. But sometimes money sucks up all the oxygen in the room, leaving no energy for the time of your life.

We are the first civilization to grab supper during two-minute commercial breaks, and to specify “quality time” as a measure of our commitment as parents. Families in business can be especially vulnerable to the relentless rush of time. Talk of business can pervade the Sunday cookout on the deck. Even all our time-saving inventions—e-mail, cellular phones, Palm Pilots—seem only to demand more of our time. And yet we know that, at the end of life, most people don’t say, “I wish I had spent more time working.”

A major goal of a family business is to make money, to provide generously for your children and even your grandchildren. But the desire to provide for one’s own can undermine the very work ethic which built the company. While you were busy minding the store, your family may have become an acquisitive family rather than an “inquisitive” one, to use a phrase coined by West Coast writer Martha Glessing. Through the wonders of modern consumerism, our children may have become more focused on hunting and gathering “stuff” at the mall (actually a very primitive set of behaviors) than on learning more about science, art, history, business, the good life—whatever is worth knowing.

What’s the right balance between work ing and loving, between accumulating luxuries and nurturing our children and family? The chart at left provides a challenging perspective. It is adapted from a book by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin called “Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence” (Viking Penguin, 1992). The authors argue that while people must usually work in order to survive and achieve a minimal amount of comforts, the pursuit of more and more goods—at the expense of other goals—sooner or later leads to “clutter” and a sharp decline in satisfaction. Their “fulfillment curve” illustrates that point graphically.

As children, our basic needs were simple. We learned in a healthy family that if we cried loud enough, mom or dad would respond in predictable ways—a bottle, a chest to snuggle against. Even though we now know that most of the citizens of the world spend each day struggling to survive, we gradually learned to take necessities for granted. As the chart indicates, the amount of money spent (the horizontal axis) to meet “survival” needs (the vertical axis) yielded great outcomes: You and I are here. We survived!

Then we discovered life beyond survival: the taste of the first strawberries of summer, with even a little honey mixed in. We learned about “comfort”—snoozing on the raft floating softly around the swimming pool, music “to die for,” a roller-coaster ride after the prom. There were still more comforts to discover, all legal, all commonplace: three cars for the family, Chicago-style pizza to spare, the largest TV screen on the block. Our parents were proud they could provide these comforts. Sometimes we demanded more, better, again.

The goal for some of us and our families then moved up the curve beyond familiar comfort, to a life in which “luxury” became not a surprise but an expectation. First-class plane tickets to the Caymans. Learning to order crème brulee without blinking. Sending not only your daughter to college, but also her horse. As we experience more and more luxury, the comfortable can become routine. Our appetites for the expensive—and our children’s appetites—continue to expand. Even the ubiquitous Tommy Hilfiger may not be able to satisfy it.

This is reflected on the chart at the point where the curve levels off and turns downward. Excited as we were when we first flew first-class, a plane ride is still a plane ride, almost always too long. There is only so much time to travel, so much energy to manage all the choices before us.

Sometimes we can find ourselves sitting in a 4,000 square-foot house with a hot tub on the deck and a room full of entertainment equipment and still feel unfulfilled. Often we even yearn for the simpler life we enjoyed before we acquired all these “things,” when an August evening walk in the park really was a delight. In other words, we hit a fulfillment ceiling. Maybe we didn’t realize the point at which the formula was no longer working for us, but against us. We may begin to notice that we have been expending more money and time to acquire and manage luxuries that bring us less and less joy.

What is enough to survive, to be comfortable, and even to appreciate some luxuries, without the burden of continuing to acquire and manage more than we or our family can truly enjoy? At what point do we spend more energy to acquire and manage our assets and possessions than we do to enjoy them?

“Enough” is a peaceful place, standing in the center of your life, without the tension of more and more. Queen Elizabeth II of England, arguably the wealthiest woman in the world, probably relaxes most evenings within the limits of two or three familiar rooms in only one of her vast palaces, sitting in the same slightly worn, but favorite, comfortable chair. The human psyche can only absorb so much.

Finding balance in our lives has little to do with our net worth: It’s the ability to know what is “enough.” Part of the secret of life comes from identifying for ourselves the point of maximum fulfillment, at the peak of the curve. Families and individuals will differ on what is enough.

-- E.F.

The Fulfillment Curve

The Fulfillment Curve chart

From, "Your Money or Your Life" by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez.
Copyright © 1992 Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez.
Reprinted with permission of Viking Penguin.

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