Timon of Athens and the Happiness Exchange Rate

I mentioned earlier that the book “The Last Safe Investment” had raised two interesting thoughts (which is two more than is standard from that kind of book). I explored the idea of “Tribe” in my earlier post about how Stoneham is coming together to help a kid with autism stay safe. (Three weeks until the big day! Buy your tickets now, or donate online!)

The second interesting idea had to do with “the Happiness Exchange Rate”. The idea is this. Past meeting all your basic needs, the purpose of money is usually to make you happy. (There are plenty of exceptions.) But we don’t always think very carefully about the happiness per dollar ratio we’re getting. For example, a new car would make me happy. I don’t need one – both of my cars run fine and get the job done, but especially the older one is getting a bit junky. A Saturday morning sleeping in, drinking coffee in bed and reading a novel would also make me happy. One of these things costs $25k (minimum). One of these things might set me back $10 in the worst case scenario for the novel.

Would the new car make me four orders of magnitude happier than the lazy Saturday morning? Would it make me two thousdand five hundred times happier than that novel? If we factor in the obnoxiousness of having to deal with a car salesman, I think that on the whole I’d be LESS happy with the car than with the caffeinated novel consumption. So the amount of $$$ it takes for a unit of happiness is much lower for the novel than for the car.

The authors make the point, however, that we’re really bad about judging how these things stack up against each other. They tell the story of someone who spent $200k on a bottle of wine, and described the experience as “nice”. Give me a $10 bottle of wine and great friends over a $200 bottle of wine any day of the week!

These ideas of friendship and money (and using money to obtain friendship) were one of the great themes of Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens”, which we just saw in Ashland. (A trip that was, I think, an excellent investment per unit of happiness.). For those unfamiliar with the work, Timon was a leader of Athens and a purveyor of the best parties. He’d host his friends. He’d wine and dine them and give them rich gifts. He’d bail them out if they ever needed bailing out. The money flowed from his hands to his friends in an unending torrent.

Or almost unending. Athenian – and Elizabethan – economics are very similar to ours. If you spend more than you earn, you eventually run out of cash.

Timon assumed that his great generosity had bought him true friends, who would be as generous with him as he had been with them. When his messengers knocked on their doors, however, they were turned away with feeble excuses. The giving was a one way street.

The entire second act takes place on a rubbish pile while Timon rails at his erstwhile friends, names himself Misanthropous (hater of humans), and provides an army of invading Athenian soldiers (also rejected by an ungrateful Athens) the funds* with which to sack and raze the city, before he commits suicide.

Methinks that either Shakespeare (or his co-author Christopher Marley) may have had an experience that stung, somewhat. I suspect that one or more persons in the audience were red-faced at the incredible ingratitude on display.

One could definitely argue that the happiness exchange rate of Timon’s gifts was… poor. What he thought he was getting with his money was not in fact what he got.

Our vacation was rather indulgent. We ate some great meals, saw five great plays (“Great Expectations”, “A Winter’s Tale”, “Timon of Athens”, “Yeoman of the Guard” and a riotous “Twelfth Night”), spent some time at a great spa and got a lovely piece of jewelry for our anniversary. Having this sendup of spending in the middle of our indulgent vacation was both a timely reminder to remain moderate, and an interesting juxtoposition.

I think it’s worth thinking carefully about where our spending is habitual, where it FEELS like it will make us happy, and what actually makes us happy. Feasting my friends at my house makes me happy – although I don’t do so thinking that doing so “earns” me anything from them past perhaps their friendship. Hiking and camping make me really happy. Reading makes me happy, especially in cozy situations like around campfires or in cafes. Writing makes me happy. Playing board games makes me happy. I love singing. I confess to digging hanging around with my friends and maybe a glass of wine. For the most part, these are moderately priced things with great happiness exchange rates.

I really don’t want or need a fancy car (although as some point I’ll probably need a new car). I take no pleasure in expensive clothes. (They just worry me, since I’m guaranteed to spill something on them.) 70% of the time, I’m disappointed when I eat out. (I could make it better, the restaurants are too loud, they make me wait too long.) My tastes in wine or drink are moderate. Spending a lot on high quality options doesn’t make me enjoy them more. I should do less of these things, or avoid them altogether, since the happiness exchange rate is poor.

The book inspired me and the play reminded me nourish and flourish the activities that make me happy with a great exchange rate, and despite seeming like I “should” like other expensive things, to question whether they make me happier than other cheaper (and healthier?) options.

Does this concept ring true? What are some of your excellent happiness ROI activities? What things have you tried that have just turned out to be a waste of money? And what are the very expensive things that are totally worth it to you anyway?

*Which he ironically finds buried under the refuse heap where he’s sleeping.


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