Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Wealth vs. Happiness

A friend once e-mailed me the following joke:

An investment banker was taking a much-needed vacation in cottage country when he noticed a fisherman, sitting at the end of a pier, his legs stretched out, smiling contentedly.

"Here on vacation, I presume?" asked the investment banker.

"Nope, I live here most of the year round," replied the fisherman.

"Ah, so you own the place?" asked the investment banker.

"Just my cottage, my boat and my fishing gear," replied the fisherman.

"You look awfully young to be retired," observed the investment banker.  How do you spend your time?

"Mostly fishing," replied the fisherman, "and sometimes taking walks or boating on the lake with my wife, or playing with my niece and nephew and teaching them to fish when they come visit."

"But what do you do for money?" asked the investment banker incredulously.

"I have all I need," replied the fisherman, "or, when I don't, I do odd jobs here and there and sometimes rent my boat out to vacationers like yourself," explained the fisherman.

"But don't you want to earn more than just enough money to get by?" pursued the investment banker.

"Why would I want to do that?" asked the fisherman.

"To become financially secure," explained the investment banker.

“And what would I do once I became financially secure?" asked the fisherman.

"Why, whatever you wanted to!" answered the investment banker.

“But I`m already doing that,” answered the fisherman with a wink and a smile.

I also found a related post on  It had to do with people who earned a Ph.D. degree and wound up being janitors or doing similar menial work.  The question was asked why this happens. One answer, posted by Joseph Wang, who boasts a Ph.D. in computational astrophysics and, ironically, is also an ex-V.P. of an investment bank, proved quite surprising.  Mr. Wang aspires to be a janitor,  He calls it the "perfect job" and goes on to elaborate:

He talks about an "F.U. Number", which he defines as the amount of savings you need in order to be able to tell your boss "F.U.".  The more alternate sources of income you have, the smaller this number becomes. If being an investment banker or an astrophysicist or whatever is your full-time occupation and therefore your only source of income, the "F.U. Number" is fairly high. However, even a modest alternate income source reduces it drastically.  Note that the implication is that you don't much like either your current job, or at least your current boss.

Secondly, Mr. Wang points out that you don't need as much of an income to pay down any student debt that you might have accrued in getting a Ph.D. in astrophysics, since it costs a lot less to achieve that degree compared with getting through medical school or law school.  Being a doctor or lawyer may pay more than being a janitor or an astrophysicist, but you generally need that income just to pay down your student debt, unless you have very rich and generous parents.

Janitorial work is low-stress.  You generally work during off-hours so you tend to be left alone, which is great if you're an introvert, and you don't normally have a supervisor or boss looking over your shoulder.  There are no deadlines or quotas or time limitations.  As long as the facilities you look after are presentable and everything works, everyone is happy.  You're not ruled by the clock.  If you're efficient and can get your work done in four hours, you can go home and still be paid for eight. Nobody knows or cares whether you actually put in your time.

You can do janitorial work and theoretical physics at the same time.  There's nothing to stop you from pondering quantum field theory while pushing a broom or mop or floor buffer, unlike other jobs which demand much more of your attention and thus keep your mind from wandering.

Of course, what the joke about the fisherman and the investment banker and the post about the would-be janitor with the Ph.D. have in common is they make us think about what really gives us satisfaction and makes us happy.  Too many people think that it's about accumulating wealth, but it isn't.  I don't entirely subscribe to the old adage that money can't buy happiness.  I believe that it's much easier to achieve happiness with money than without, The reality is that you need money in order to access the basic necessities in today's world, and if you're not content with just the basic necessities, then you need more money.  However, we need to remember to treat money as a means to an end, rather than as the goal itself.