Monday, June 06, 2011

About Being Rich

Isn't our obsession to become rich essentially biological? Probably, death by starvation has been prehistorically a dominant reason for deaths of members of our species. And therefore, it has probably entrenched such a deep rooted fear, essentially genetic, in us for starvation that we wish to push it as far away from ourselves as possible. Probably, so far away that it can't affect any of our progeny, leave alone us.

But if you were to think logically, isn't it such a waste of effort to try to be endlessly richer and richer? We live in a chaotic world where there exist such possibilities as could wipe us out of existence in no time: diseases, accidents, wars, natural calamities. Yet, we struggle and struggle to diminish the unlikely possibility of starvation to more and more minuscule proportions than ever!  We never stop for a moment to think how bloated our perception of this exceedingly minute probability of starvation, and of our ability to prevent it from touching our n-th generation by mere accumulation of material resources, is.

The auxiliary aspects that associate the sense of power, sexual attractiveness, and status to being rich are also seemingly fallouts of the same prehistoric notion where hoarding more and more resources was the only way to ward off starvation. We are not only biologically driven to try and be richer and richer, but are also prisoners of our instinct to idolise those who have more money. This re-inforces our primitive obsession for more and more money, and gives it this power which more or less defines how our society is today.

The instinct which drives us to the obsession to hoarde money is probably rooted in ancient forms of adaptation, but is probably completely inapplicable in the present conditions. Surprisingly, the above very biologically driven thing is perpetrated by those who, on the face, are the most clever and designing ones!

Such puppets we are to our biology! Really fascinating!


Rahul Vaidya said...

Hi Sujit,

There is a more fundamental reason, that of ensuring the survival of our genes. The obsession to be hoard wealth, look attractive, urge to eat fat is all linked to the ultimate goal: That of having more children and then having had the children letting them get a start so that they have more children, thus ensuring our genes to survive.

And the reason some of the urges seem to out of context (like urge to eat fried item when it makes one fat) is that the environment has changed, but our genes did not get a chance to adapt. Hence we seem to do contradictory things which indeed reduces our chances to 'spread' the genes.

Courtesy: The Selfish Gene by Richar Dawkins.

Pritesh said...

Hmm...........I won't probably completely blame Biology for that. There are social factor at play as well nowadays (I think the time is passe when when we could just get away with Biology as the reason for our behaviour). If social factors are also counted as Biology, fine! I think, we all can 'survive' pretty easily but the "in" thing is to survive in style, in a host of ways!

The "style" keeps getting redefined (and correspondingly more expensive) with time! And hence, the desire to get richer! My two cents.......

vivek said...


Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti said...

Ha ha! :D
I differ. But Why not?!

Tarun Saxena said...

Unified theory of hunger?

Jishnu A said...

I am not in agreement fully as i think biology plays to certain threshold after which you are in a chakravyuh, where you get more rich or just die. You are not left with an option to stop.

Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti said...

Hi Jishnu,

Here's another article I wrote long time back about a similar topic:

In summary, it argues that it's probably intractable for a creature to find the limits to/from which nature stops taking/takes control of his apparently volitional acts.

fuse me said...

I don't buy this completely. Normal animals do not go on eating just because it is available. Thats not the case with money. You can go on collecting money without it harming your body.

I think you want to collect more money, and become richer also because you want to spend the money. (Disregarding the misers and gluttons of the species)

I think the analysis is lop-sided without looking at the spending part of it. Why do we want to spend money, because it gives us more leverage in our lives as compared to the others in our society. You can influence a lot more of your surroundings and environment if you can spend money on it.

Why do we want to be rich? Because we want to spend more.

Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti said...

Hello fuse me. I agree that I do have a bias towards only the earning part of the thing, not the spending one. The bias comes from my general lack of knowledge about what really money can be spent on. Of course, this may give rise to a whole new debate. Without giving a value judgement, let me assert that I personally consider the ability of money to increase one's quality of life (as oppossed to the standard of living) to be very limited. Whatever background I come from, I am incapable of truly enjoying a lot more if I indulge in a lot more spending than I have done in the early part of my life. The marginal benefit (in terms of enjoyment) quickly tapers off for me after I see myself capable to maintain the kind of lifestyle I was brought up with. It's already a very matter-of-factly (and not grandiose) statement for me to make that I see happiness in things which do not require me earn endlessly. In fact, I think, I already earn more than I really care about.

I have met umpteem number of people who are similar to me. They are essentially incapable of truly deeply enjoying expensive ways of living simply because of their modest upbringing (am personally thankful for mine!). If you aren't capable of enjoying the expenditure of your money, you either have to forcefully spend it to meet external expectations or simply have to horde it. Yet, that doesn't reduce their urge to earn money. I agree with you on the point that the only reason to earn money isn't just to horde it endlessly; but also I do feel that there are people who do just that.

Let me add a point in favour of your point. There are people who end up earning a lot of money which then gets used for bigger purposes than mere increase in standard of living of the earner. I think, many of the Tata's are good examples. They managed to lead a fairly frugal lifestyle despite being masters of huge money. Probably, here money becomes a very indirect means of fulfilling a very different (may be noble, may be not; but definitely not materialistic) need of the person. Though, I don't consider myself capable of such feats, I identify more with this style of money-earning, and won't venture to liken it to the fear of starvation in a strict sense.

In summary, I won't mind if you say that I am biased towards methods of enjoyments not based on hajaar money to increase the quality of life. Money, if used as a vehicle to open ways for one and others, to enjoy life in its simple, modest ways, has a direct utility for me. I really can't claim to have any real appreciation of the dictum that money can directly improve one's life. What really has a direct, intense and lasting effect on the quality of life seem to be little, or only indirectly, related to money. In that sense, the applicability of ever increasing money in improving lives is, or at least should be, self-limiting.

The point I wondered on in this article is about the fact, we don't seem to see that limit ever!

fuse me said...

Sujitda, only misers and gluttons simply earn money for money's sake. Maybe you don't want to spend money on things to improve your life. But how about the time you will have if you had enough money not having to earn more? So that is a motivation for some, to earn fast money so that you can spend your time doing other things. For some others as you rightly mentioned it is more than improving the quality of living, it is about fame, prestige power and the like.

I personally don't think there is an objective limit to how much money one should earn. But there may be a subjective limit based on each one's desires, capabilities, opportunities and upbringing.

I must point out that this limit is temporal. The limit may increase or decrease or fluctuate with time.

Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti said...

Dear Ananth,

As long as you use the words 'miser' and 'glutton' open to the reader's interpretation, I don't mind. However, if you are being judgemental about someone, I will object. I feel, all these things, like earning to hoard, or earning 'enough' so that you don't have to earn anymore, or earning enough to ward off starvation to unrealistically far off distance could well be manifestations of the same thing which I have talked about. I am not convinced that there's a fundamental difference.

Your point about earning/saving so that you have enough time to do other things you like to do appears to make more sense to me. However, an important addendum to this is the question as to how figured out the person seem to be in the present moment about the future leisure he is trying to enjoy. If one has kept that figuring out as an exercise of future leisure, and has focused all his might in earning money, I will not believe such a person.

I also buy your idea that there exists subjectivity in people's idea of the limit of 'enough' money. However, just a reminder about the difference between 'subjectivity' and 'arbitrariness.' The limit may vary, again with subjectivity. But if it varies arbitrarily, I would liken it to the same animal fear.

The extent of effort one puts in defining the limit for himself and limiting its volatility is very important.

I reiterate my belief that I don't find money to be extra-ordinarily potent in bringing about happiness directly to a person per se. It works to a very limited extent, beyond which everything starts depending on a person's attitude and sensitivity to the presence of sources of happiness. If happiness is what one is truly seeking, it makes more sense to work on it directly, starting with oneself.