J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

The Expensive Cheese Test (When The Happiness Curve Stops Rising)

The pinnacle of wealth-derived happiness.

The other day I read this post on Cal Newport’s Study Hacks blog.  Cal describes a pattern that can be observed among many twenty-somethings, the quixotic quest for the “perfect job” or career that, if found, will result in happiness and satisfaction.

Cal makes a convincing argument that the attitudinal and work habits of an individual are more closely related to happiness than finding one’s dream job or “following your passion.”  He contrasts himself to 4-Hour Workweek author Tim Ferriss, who he quotes as saying:

“But if it’s tolerable mediocrity, and you’re like, ‘Well, you know it could be worse. At least I’m getting paid.’ Then you wind up in a job that is slowly killing your soul.”

Cal doesn’t buy into “follow your passion” as a prime directive — he believes work habits and mental attitude are more important for happiness and work satisfaction.  Tim Ferriss, on the other hand, fears the mediocre life more than anything — he charts his course in life based on how much excitement he feels towards a particular area.

Finding the “right work” vs. “working right”?  Is it really a choice?  Of course not — you need both to be happy in your work and in your life.  What’s notable is that more Americans are asking the question “How can I be happier?” instead of “How can I be more successful?”

The Productivity Curve and the Expensive Cheese Test

Tyler Cowen’s recent e-book The Great Stagnation has received much attention (at least from economists).  In it, he argues that the United States went through a period of explosive economic growth and rising standards of living due to a number of factors (free land, big technological innovations, cheap fossil fuels, and large numbers of smart, uneducated kids [who could thus benefit enormously from receiving a high school education]), and that these factors are now depleted.  Cowen argues that we have “picked the low-hanging fruit” and that future growth will be slower and harder to come by.

Parallel to (or maybe because of) the economic trends that Cowen points out, there is another trend that is gaining steam in the U.S. — the quality of life trend.  It is exemplified by the oft-ridiculed hipster crowd, by Ferriss-inspired entrepreneur/adventurers, and by Cal Newport-style optimizers.  All these micro-movements are up to the same thing; increasing happiness without necessarily increasing income, workload, or responsibility.

It's a quality of life choice.

Psychologists and social scientists who research happiness have long been aware that after a certain level of material wealth, wealth-derived happiness levels off.  Personally, I call it the expensive cheese test.  If you have enough money to buy expensive cheese on a regular basis, more money in your life will not make you significantly happier.  Many hipsters (not the trust fund kind) work shitty jobs and don’t have much in the way of savings, but they can afford Brie and wine.

Anyone can work themselves into a funk if they compare their own wealth to the richest member of their peer group.  There will always be someone with a nicer car (or yacht).  But if we can afford expensive cheese, we are already wealthy. More wealth will not make us significantly happier.

Your yacht only has one swimming pool? Mine has four.

As the rest of the world gets wealthier and more productive, Americans may feel that we are losing some kind of race.  Many U.S. citizens are in dire economic straits, with high unemployment, outrageous health care costs, rising costs of food, clothing, and other necessities, and a dearth of economic opportunities.  But there are also many people, especially young people, who are choosing to focus less on making money, and more on raising quality of life.  Cal Newport points out that some of these efforts might be quixotic (or at least misdirected).  But the desire is there to improve quality of life, to learn how to live well.

Bad Work Habits

As a nation, we are work-obsessed.  Among those that are working, we take the fewest vacation days and work more hours per week than many.  Among developed countries, we even drink the least.  What’s going on here?  Why do we work ourselves so hard and spend so little time relaxing with family and friends.  Do we love work that much?

Labor movement statue in Grand Rapids.

Part of the reason we work so much is because we have to.  The labor movement (the folks that brought you the weekend) has lost enormous ground over the past several decades.  Republicans and other free-marketeers continue their attacks on workers rights even today.

High cost of living plays a role too — it’s difficult for the middle and working classes in the U.S. to make ends meet.  Most households (including my own) need two incomes just to get by.

Another reason may have something to do with our shared cultural heritage — many of us are descended from “hard-working immigrant” stock.  Is working long and hard hours “in our blood” more so than those continental types, with their lunch wine and afternoon lattes?

Yet another factor is persistent connectivity via laptop, smart phone, or other device.  It’s hard to draw clean lines between entertainment and work when using these devices.

I wonder, though, if the most pernicious factor is the possibility that we’ve forgotten how to share long meals together, to converse without time limits, or to engage in other activities that are enjoyable yet “unproductive” (long walks, hobbies, reading fiction, non-professional creative pursuits, etc.).

A Stupefyingly Obvious Realization

Last year, after my 30-day Be More Lucky Experiment, I decided to continue, indefinitely, one of the specific practices from the experiment.  To this day, I recount (usually to my wife and kid, but really to whoever will listen) my “Top 3” experiences of the day — whatever moments or activities stood out as especially rewarding, fun, or memorable.

It’s an illuminating practice.  Yes — it’s “focusing on the positive” — but it’s also a kind of informal research.  You learn what makes you happy (and what makes your family and friends happy).  It’s not always what you think.

For me, writing is often on the list.  So is music production.  Meals with friends and/or family often make the list.  Those things are all obvious — what surprised me is that some things I sometimes think of as chores also make the list.  Getting the house really clean.  Dropping my daughter off at preschool.  Those things don’t sound exciting at all, but when I reflect on the day, sometimes little things like that stand out.

It sounds stupefyingly obvious; notice which activities and experiences make you happy, and then do those things every day (while simultaneously abstaining from those activities that make you miserable).  But until last year, I didn’t always do that.  Sometimes I would feel agitated at the end of the day, with a mystifying sense that I had wasted the day (even if I had gotten a lot done).

There are shortcuts in The Great Neurotransmitter Chase, and this is one of them.  There’s no reason to take a long circuitous route when direct paths are available.

Fight The Plutocracy With a Smile On Your Face

As this series of graphs illustrates, democracy in the United States is threatened by the ruling elite, who can buy influence with expensive gifts, lobbyists, and economic coercion.  U.S. income inequality has not been this high since the 1920’s and 30’s.  Statistically, it’s likely that you’re getting screwed economically.

Still, this doesn’t mean that we can’t all personally improve our quality of life.  Yes, we should have a personal economic plan, but as long as we can afford expensive cheese, we also need a quality of life plan if we want the happiness curve to keep rising.

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8 Comments

  1. cece blake

    Another good one, JD! Thanks for th reminder in re-defining “happiness.” Because we live in such a consumerist society and “success” driven culture, happiness somehow is always attached to what one has amassed and how many cheese wheels one can stock in the fridge. It will be interesting in the next generation how many people will have their happiness tied to electronic devices versus a plate of cheese shared with family and friends.

  2. eric

    i am glad that rice and beans and swimming in the ocean all make me happy, and that fancy cheese or really anything fancy is stuff i can enjoy, sparingly, but not require for my happiness.
    it *is* interesting that getting stuff done around the house, like mopping, sweeping, laundry, etc. raise my happiness as well. i think a big part of that is how you choose to look at things.

  3. Great piece, JD.

  4. I love cheese!

  5. Hi JD,

    Another nice article, what you say here is very true.

    On another topic, what do you think about the SB510 that recently passed?

  6. Tyler — Honestly I wasn’t familiar with the bill until just now. This post seems like a balanced overview:

    http://www.muchadoaboutfooding.com/2011/01/articles-news-sb-510-fda-food-safety.html

    The batch tracking makes sense. So does exempting smaller farms from some of the more laborious regulations.

    What do you think?

  7. amy

    Getting the house really clean. Dropping my daughter off at preschool. Those things don’t sound exciting at all, but when I reflect on the day, sometimes little things like that stand out.

    Exactly. I used to beat myself up because I was “just a housewife,” “wasting” my college education. It is only in the last year or so (at the age of 41) that I have really started to realize how much I love being a housewife, and how well-suited it is to my personality. And it’s those little things you speak of that bring me the most satisfaction.

    If my husband becomes unable to work, then I’ll worry about a career and doing “bigger” things. Until then, I’m going to appreciate what I have.

  8. Lisa

    I agree with Amy..although not a housewife, per se, I enjoy all of the housekeeping tasks to a strangely large degree and prefer to be the one to do them. I get great satisfaction in making our house feel a home, in keeping up with nutritious meal planning and ensuring we are in good health overall. I use to criticize myself for focusing on these areas of our lives and not as much on my job/career/way-to-pay the bills, but now I dig in even deeper instead (I research and experiment a lot with efficient/creative/more natural ways to live, move, act, think, supplement, etc.) and find I achieve even greater satisfaction now.

    I also agree with the idea that you can be in a vocation that is not your ‘ideal’ if approached a certain way and have it be both enjoyable and rewarding, as well as successful. It’s not that you “give up” on your dreams, but you modify both your behavior and your emotions about your work to make it more satisfying, if that makes any sense? I find that many times I can break up my day by doing tasks that I enjoy every few hours and allow myself to take short breaks to go across the street for a coffee or just go for a brisk walk. Sometimes, all I have time for is to sit quietly with my eyes shut, breathe deeply for a few minutes and “meditate” and somehow it brings me renewed energy and resolve. I can also afford good wine and cheese pretty regularly, so I suppose that makes me fairly content, as well! 😉

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