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superannuation and hope to be happy.
We are much more likely to shuffle down
into a blurry mediocrity or worse.
We can be happy in a flash, according
to the media and the advertisers. Food,
sex or self righteous anger will all do the
trick. Apparently, it also helps to talk fast
and loud, and to run and jump, if you
still can. Shopping and flaunting their
purchases obviously makes the Sex and
the City women deliriously happy, far
more so than their sexual encounters or
We invariably associate happiness
with big spending and high energy
consumption, and we all get sucked
along with this ideology. Teenagers with
their first credit card commonly mistake
credit for capital, and even the world's
bankers bought into this childish error.
The inclination to regard debt as equity is
what caused the Global Financial Crisis.
This incontinent lack of self control,
and the quasi-religious belief that over-
spending is sacred and vital for the
economy, is what persuaded governments
worldwide to bail out the banks. With a
tiny fraction of that money, they could
have bailed out the earth and staved off
global warming. Unfortunately, they had
Indulging our impulses can give us
flashes of happiness, but self control, the
ability to restrain our impulses, is a much
clearer marker for a healthy, happy life.
There have now been decades of study,
going back to the 1950s, on variants of
the famous "Marshmallow test". In its
classic form, a child is given the option
of having one marshmallow now, or two
marshmallows later if he waits until the
interviewer returns. This tests to see if
children can delay gratification in return
for a greater reward later. Many of these
children were studied for years afterwards
to see how their levels of self control
played out in later life.
The results showed that self control
wins hands down over immediate
gratification. The "Marshmallow Now"
kids had less academic and professional
success, were more antisocial, more prone
to drug abuse, risky sex and criminal
behaviour, and they were fatter. Not
surprisingly, the kids capable of delaying
gratification were the opposite. They were
also more ambitious and positive in their
expectations. They could see how success
came, not from luck or good fortune, but
mostly from their own efforts and their
ability to resist the temptation to get
The virtue of hard work and delayed
gratification as a recipe for happiness
is very unfashionable nowadays. "Life is
short," we are told. "You can have it all now.
Just reach out and take what you justly
deserve." It now seems very odd to save
up until you can pay for something
outright, as our grandparents did. And
why would you spend years training in a
skill or a trade if the bank will loan you a
million dollars anyway?
Self control and discipline are the hard
currency of contentment, but they can
still be taken too far. Delayed gratification
is not a goal in itself. Its purpose is that we
get a much bigger reward later, and we
shouldn't forget that. Contentment is a
very rational skill. It comes from doing the
right thing to the right degree at the right
time. When it is time to work, we work,
but when it is time to party, we party.
Ulysses, alone out of all his crew, had
the cunning and dogged determination
to make it home to Ithaca. But he also
indulged himself for years with the
goddess Calypso on the way. You don't
pass up a chance like that.
There are simpler routes to content-
ment than self discipline and effort.
The most obvious is to be content with
what we've got, and to give up those of
our cherished dreams that are frankly
impossible. I always wanted to own a
house with a big backyard in walking
distance from all amenities. That dream
is now dead and buried, but it still niggles.
Most of us would like to be richer,
healthier, more successful or more skilled
than we are. We can also see, in our lucid
moments, that for a multiplicity of reasons
it is not likely to happen anytime soon, if
ever. If we accept this, we can be happy. If
we don't, we are likely to be perpetually ill
at ease and dissatisfied.
Contentment is about being happy
with our lot, with what life has allocated to
us, imperfect as it is. It is about accepting
that this is as far as we are likely to get,
and it is actually more than enough. It can
still be hard to truly appreciate this. Most
of us now live like gods, in terms of the
resources available to us. Most of us have
achieved a degree of luxury and safety
that would have been unimaginable 50
or a hundred years ago, but habit makes
us blind. It seems part of human nature
that we tend to hanker after images
or memories of perfect happiness and
ignore the more humble possibilities at
'The inclination to
regard debt as equity is
what caused the Global
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