Every waking moment of every day we pursue gratification. All of us. This is not controversial or insightful. Do you doubt it?
Many of us wake up and begin our day by heading straight to the bathroom, where we gratefully relieve ourselves. On a typical day, many of us then shower, brush our teeth, and get dressed for work.
Perhaps, we head for the kitchen to turn on the coffee pot. While the coffee is brewing, we check our phones, if we have not already done so. We drink our coffee/tea/water and eat our breakfast. Perhaps we greet our significant other and hug and kiss our children. Maybe we watch/read some news and talk a bit about the onrushing day before we leave the house to meet it.
We have been awake for an hour or so and already we have gratified our body’s call of nature, our vanity, our thirst, our hunger, our curiosity, and our need for love and affirmation.
Oh, and why are we going to work? Why else than to gratify our desire to be safe, fed, and sheltered from the elements?
We are veritable gratification pursuing machines. Frustratingly, and it seems this is so often the case in life, there are pursuits in which the opposite of our instinct is usually the better course of action. It is often the ability to defer gratification that will predict our success in so many worthy things.
Why must we be so beset by contradictory motivations? Why is it that the food we like best is almost always bad for us? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if pizza, cheeseburgers, and fried chicken gave us six-pack abs and a healthy heart?
Or the opposite? Would it not be equally great if we were designed by nature to constantly crave kale and cucumbers? “It’s crazy, I can never stop at eating just one bag of arugula,” said no one. Ever.
The paradox lies in our evolutionary biology. Most of mankind’s life on earth was harsh, brutish, and short. Food was not guaranteed and came at unpredictable intervals. We could be killed by the elements, injuries, or animals at any moment. Owing to these factors, we evolved a preference for near term rewards.
When food was abundant, we were well served to gorge ourselves and “fatten up.” It might be a long time before we had the chance to do so again. We had to get it while the getting was good.
It is true that what we think of as advanced civilizations, those that include things like written languages, architecture, agriculture etc., have been around for several thousand years. However, until only a hundred or so years ago, most people living in those civilizations were never more than a couple of days on horseback ahead of starvation, so to speak.
Abundance is a recent thing. We were all born equipped with drives and instincts that increase our chances of survival in a world of caloric scarcity that no longer exists.
We are well designed to endure famine. Feast, perhaps less so. According to research, a third of the U.S. is overweight and another third is obese according to the Body Mass Index. Food is more available, accessible, and delicious than at any time in human history. And, though we all know overeating is not healthy, many of us behave exactly as we were designed.
With these kinds of hardwired preferences for instant gratification, it is no surprise that most people in our country are also heroically under saved. We mostly prefer spending to saving.
An article that came out prior to the recent pandemic stated that 40% of the country would have to borrow if they incurred an unexpected expense of just $500. Again, this was before the pandemic!
While all this may be interesting, the crucial question is - what can be done about it? I believe the first thing to do is understand and acknowledge that our biology, at least with respect to diet and saving, could be nudging us in a self-defeating direction.
We should also understand that advertisers and marketers know this well and do all they can to turn this instinctive nudge into a full-fledged shove toward the products they sell. Ironically, our gorging keeps them well fed and our spending makes them rich.
Thomas Harris’s book, and Academy Award winning movie, The Silence of the Lambs, is famous for its chilling character Hannibal Lecter.
But there was another character, Jack Crawford, who was significant. Crawford was the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Division. Though he is a fictional character, I found myself empathizing with him as, no doubt, the author intended.
Crawford was nearing the end of a long and distinguished career, but he was not happy. His wife had recently passed away and he was filled with regret. The truth, he understood too late, was that he had been married to the FBI.
Though he knew there would be the obligatory retirement ceremony, he understood that he would be replaced and forgotten almost instantly. Crawford mused, “You fall in love with the Bureau, but the Bureau doesn’t fall in love with you.” He deeply regretted spending all his time with a cold bureaucracy and not more time with his devoted and loving wife.
It is another paradox of life that, no matter how long we live, there is less time than we think.
We might just as well say: We fall in love with spending but spending never falls in love with us. Intuitively, we know this to be true. The term “keeping up with the Joneses” does not carry a positive connotation. Again, we know this, but then our biology kicks in and we buy something new and shiny anyway.
One way to defeat our hardwired behavior is to strike first. We must be proactive rather than reactive. How, you ask? Simple. Save first, spend only what is left over.
How best to save? Make it automatic.
Whatever amount we choose must go toward saving automatically, on the same day(s), every month before we have a chance to spend it or even see it. Someone once wrote “We first begin to eat with our eyes.” That is also how we begin to spend.
Am I suggesting that you never spend any of your hard-earned money or that you defer gratification forever? Not even close. What I am advising is that we strike a more effective balance between instant gratification and long-term happiness. This is a simple reminder of what you already know. Future you is going to want to do cool stuff that costs money every bit as much as current you does.
If you would like to defer a small bit of gratification now to make your future more gratifying, consider speaking with a financial planner you trust, to help you.
Scott R. McGimpsey August 31st, 2021
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