Wealth is the slave of a wise man. The master of a fool. – Seneca
Fascinating that this notion has been known since the Roman Empire and yet so many still chase after wealth to their detriment. Part of the problem is the age old problem of having a way of sorting out how much is enough. Nor does it help to be bombarded with advertising constantly telling us that we need this! to buy that! act now! time-limited! etc. etc. So how does one be a master of wealth?
Seneca was an interesting philosopher in that he straddled two competing schools of his day – Stoicism and Epicureanism. He is mainly known as a Stoic, but he also known for this interesting line: “Do everything as if Epicurus were watching you.” I’ve quoted this because the Epicureans were very interested in the topic of wealth and how much is enough. This was because of their focus on pleasure (actually on “pleasant living”).
The fact is that we seek wealth because of the pleasure or pleasant life we believe it will bring us. And let’s be honest about this. A certain measure of wealth is part of a living a nice life. But it’s that measure that I like to ponder. Since the goal of accumulating wealth is a good life (happy, pleasant, enjoyable etc.) is there an amount that secures that life beyond which further accumulation becomes a burden?
I don’t usually like to refer to studies as they are often suspect in how they gather and interpret data. You know…lies, damn lies, and statistics! But there is some interesting work done on this wealth question (links below) which seem to indicate that after earning around $50,000 per year, the level of happiness starts to flatten out. In other words, those earning $250K are no happier than those at $50K. In fact, the wealthier may start to experience decreased happiness due to the burden of managing their wealth, fear that it will decline, worries about the things they purchased etc. While I can’t personally verify any of this, it’s very interesting in light of our question – how much is enough?
From my own experience, I’ve noticed that once the essentials of food, shelter, companionship, and sense of purpose are in place, everything beyond those things are variations of them and can be questioned in terms of being a need or a want. For example, some people need a car for work. Others want a Porsche. You get the idea.
Each of these choices is personal of course but I suggest that the choices are better made if done so in the context of the question – what is enough? This brings us back to Seneca and his very wise quote. To simply give in the wanting of a Porsche when a less elaborate but still nice car is to be mastered by wealth. If you saw the movie “Risky Business” you’ll know what I mean. In that case, it was merely a joy ride, but the consequences were anything but joyful.
Let’s face it, there are those essentials I mentioned that we need. But I think that if we are thoughtful about how much we really need, how we go about satisfying those needs, and whether it truly is worthwhile to engage in the struggle to get more and more of what we already have, we will be much better off.
I am not suggesting that wanting is a bad thing. That is silly since without desires one would not bother getting up each day. But some thought about which of our endless desires are satisfied strikes me as a much wiser way to live than chasing them constantly. It is that chase that turns us into fools being mastered by wealth. I prefer being the master and am always working on it.