The blog-turned-book When to Rob a Bank, by authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (of Freakonomics fame), is a compilation of short missives that are meant to stoke our curiosities about mundane topics. Levitt and Dubner challenge us to ponder questions like:
- Why Don’t We Tip Flight Attendants? (p. 19),
- Is the Endangered Species Act Bad for Endangered Species? (p. 165), or
- Why are Kiwifruits so Cheap? (p. 77)
On the train this morning, I was entranced by Levitt’s essay, “What is the Most Addictive Thing in the World?” In the essay, Levitt talks about a conversation he had with the late Nobel laureate Gary Becker. Becker believed that “People,” like you and me, are the most addictive thing in the world. But, to understand exactly what Becker meant, Levitt had to first understand what “addiction” meant.
Levitt created four criteria for an addiction:
- Once you start consuming it, you want to consume more and more of it.
- Over time you build up a tolerance to it; i.e., you get less enjoyment out of consuming a fixed amount of it.
- Pursuit of that good leads you to sacrifice everything else in your life to get it, potentially leading you to do ridiculous things to try to get the good.
- There is a period of withdrawal when you stop consuming the good.
Chemical addictions nicely illustrate these four criteria at play. A person’s first inhale of keyboard cleaner is often a pleasant experience. He or she wants to get high again, and again, and again.
But, if you inhale too much, you will build a tolerance. Soon, you will need to huff the aerosol to simply get back to “normal.”
Taken far enough without intervention, the obsession to obtain that sweet, pressurized mist becomes the only priority in life, and causes the addict to beg, borrow, steal, and swindle to get more.
When the chilled, atomized chemical is ultimately taken away, the withdrawal is devastating.
When Levitt thought about Becker’s idea that “people” are the strongest addiction, he surmised that the love we possess for another fits the above four criteria equally well. Try it; it works.
Are People Truly the Greatest Addiction?
Becker and Levitt’s proposal of “people” as the greatest addiction seemed reasonable to me. But, I thought of something else that was even more addictive.
This thing is desperately sought after by nearly every person alive, especially us Americans. And, once you have it, it becomes common to you, and suddenly, you need more of it all the time.
We’ll do crazy things, and we give up crazy things, to continue to get it. And, once we stop getting it, we feel deprived, withdrawn, vulnerable…
What is it?
Your Paycheck: The Greatest Addiction
Once you start getting a paycheck, you want more and more.
Raise your hand if you’ve been unemployed.
Yep, mine is up. Twice. I’ve been involuntarily unemployed twice as an adult. Each stint on the government teet lasted about six weeks, and as any unemployed person can attest, that is a LONG six weeks. You feel worthless, helpless, guilty, emasculated, weak, meek.
To compound that feeling of helplessness, the longer a worker is unemployed, the more unlikely he or she is to find a job. Desperation becomes palpable, and you wear it on your sleeve in interviews, and interviews go worse. Each time you don’t get a call back feels like a defeat. It’s a very tough cycle to stop.
Until it finally does.
That first paycheck feels like you’re walkin’ on sunshine. Finally, money is coming in rather than only going out. Your confidence gets restored and the world looks brighter each day. You wake up early, you show up early, and you’re happy to be working.
As time passes, just as above, your paycheck slowly becomes inadequate. It becomes spoken for long before it hits your account. Soon, like 25 million American families, you’re living paycheck to paycheck. You’ve forgotten what life was like when no money was coming in, and rather than prepare yourself for the inevitable period where you cannot or do not want to work any longer, you take the one you have for granted.
Over time you build up a tolerance to your paycheck.
It’s no secret.
I remember standing in my bathroom at the age of six and brushing my teeth. My grandma had just given my brother, sister, and myself $1,000 each. When my brother came in the bathroom, I said to him in an overwhelmed way, “I’ve never had this much money.” I felt numb.
My parents decided the best use of most of that money was to buy a computer (which we got enormously good use of). You youngin’s might not know this, but back in the early nineties, computers cost several thousand dollars, were the size of a small vehicle, and took about three hours to “boot up.”
The moment kept with me; $1,000 was an insane amount of money back then. Now at age 31, I make $1,000 every three days. I would need considerably more than $1,000 today to feel as wealthy as $1,000 made me feel at age six.
This is universally true. Learnvest asked people of various income levels how much money they would need to feel wealthy. As you can expect, as incomes rose, the amount needed to feel wealthy also rose.
A Fidelity study echos the same principle. When asked what income would one need to feel rich, those making $40,000 would need $80,000. Those making $10 Million would need $20 Million. It’s called the Doubling Up Theory, and it works no matter your financial station in life. Whatever you make now is never enough.
This hearkens back to that old Kurt Vonnegut parable:
At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, the late Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, the author Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch 22 over its whole history. Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have . . . Enough.”
We call this the hedonic treadmill, or hedonic adaptation, or a benchmarking bias. They’re all the kinda the same. Once we get a paycheck, we grow accustomed to that amount hitting our checking account each month. If the amount goes up, it feels good for a moment, but we quickly adopt a new normal. Despite studies showing that income above around $75,000 brings no additional happiness, we endlessly pursue larger and larger paychecks believing that that next increment is our panacea.
Pursuit of A Paycheck Becomes Life’s Priority, Leading You to do Ridiculous Things to Obtain it.
Think not? How many other intelligent species on earth do you know of that leave their abode in the wee hours of the morning, leaving their only living offspring in the hands of an unrelated party, only to trudge an hour into the woods to sit down somewhere for eight hours?
And, it’s not only the commute. Two years ago today, former PIMCO CEO Mohamed El-Erian resigned from his position after his daughter provided him a list of 22 things he had missed as a result of his obsession with work—things from ballet recitals to trick-or-treating. Prior to his departure, El-Erian had a net worth of $2.3 Billion and was making about $100 Million per year.
Do you think he needed the money?
The pursuit of a paycheck leads us to do unimaginably foolish things—it only doesn’t feel that way because those otherwise-unimaginable things have become socially acceptable.
Foremost, the whole daycare construct is just a little bananas to me. Those are your kids for goodness sakes.
Second, is your job really what you want to be doing? For some, if the paycheck stopped maybe they’d keep doing the same work. But, for most, it would not. When British Airways asked it’s 40,000 employees to work for free during the great recession, you can imagine the response.
While this sounds like just annoying complaints about my job, it really isn’t. In a historical context, workers today have it pretty damned cushy compared to even a few decades ago. I’m on a train right now heading into work, typing on a laptop and watching the scenery. It’s not like I’m not commuting to a coal mine, either. I work in a climate-controlled building with a coffee machine.
What’s more, my bosses, coworkers and clients are very decent, hardworking people. I enjoy their company. But, do I enjoy them more than I enjoy Wife29, Toddler29, and BunInTheOven29?
Certainly not, nobody can compare to them—not that anybody is trying. And, it’s always sad kissing them goodbye in the morning.
I also enjoy my work managing accounting projects and audit advising. But, I would rather be watching a documentary, laying some compost on my lawn, reading, or keeping this WordPress editor open so I could complete this essay.
But, I’m addicted to my paycheck, so those aren’t options right now.
Once the Paycheck Stops, We Feel Deprived and Vulnerable
Being unemployed is like withdrawing from meth while doing a piece in county—it’s lonely and it’s painful. I’ve been let go twice in my life: in 2010 and 2012. While many years have passed since then, in both cases I still recall the exact moment I was given notice. Even though I’ve never been paycheck-to-paycheck, the sudden pull of the rug left me feeling like a failure.
My motivation to find additional work was strong at first, and then the rejections started rolling in. When I was actively employed, I felt like I was turning away recruiters right and left. Once I was out of the loop, it felt like the whole accounting industry stopped hiring. Perhaps the most insidious aspect of unemployment is the feeling it gave me that I was never doing enough. There was always another job board or company career site. Another network contact or old friend. But, you can only search for so long each day. But, when I wasn’t looking, the guilt and self-loathing was palpable: “Eric, do you realize how many jobs you could have applied for instead of watching six episodes of Dexter?”
And that was my situation; I was only unemployed for a month! Imagine being one of the 2 million Americans (one-fourth of the unemployed population) who have been out of work longer than six months—what we call long-term unemployed. While we can collectively rejoice the precipitous fall of unemployment over the last six years (both long-term and otherwise), such comprehensive statistics mean nothing to those who are currently in the suck.
When I was unemployed, every guilty dollar I spent felt like five, and every worrisome day that went by felt like ten. I felt myself getting dumber in day-to-day conversations. If I wasn’t going to work, then I didn’t need to shower—a week out of work and I was dirtier than a Frenchman. Depression was common, and anger was quick. It is little surprise that men who are unemployed commit suicide at four times the rate of those who have jobs (and for women, eight times!). It’s a bad place. In fact, even Dr. Seuss mentions unemployment in his famous Oh, the Places You’ll Go! He calls it, “the slump.”
“You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed.
You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead.
Wherever you fly, you’ll be the best of the best.
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.
Except when you don’t
Because, sometimes, you won’t.
I’m sorry to say so
but, sadly, it’s true
can happen to you.
You can get all hung up
in a prickle-ly perch.
And your gang will fly on.
You’ll be left in a Lurch.
You’ll come down from the Lurch
with an unpleasant bump.
And the chances are, then,
that you’ll be in a Slump.
And when you’re in a Slump,
you’re not in for much fun.
is not easily done.”
Frightening, I know, but that’s what unemployment is. You long for the day when the paycheck returns. But, when it finally does, you feel electric, like a familiar draw of cocaine coursing through your arteries.
Make Your Own Paycheck
A paycheck addiction isn’t like a nicotine addiction. You need money, at least some of it, to live. Like my dad would tell me every time he dropped me off for another long shift at McDonalds, “Smiles don’t pay the car note**.” So, what’s a paycheck addict to do?
Make your own paycheck.
Whether that paycheck comes in the form of small, frequent dividend payments, sustainable withdrawals from a large base of assets, rental property income, affiliate and advertising revenue from a struggling personal finance blog, or a combination of those and many more, it’s all good. Even if you decide to keep working, achieving financial independence takes the susceptibility of paycheck addiction away, as you become a fully self-sustaining entity immune to the whims of finicky employers.
It’s about control, or as addicts know from the Serenity Prayer, the knowledge to know the things they can change. Paycheck addicts rejoice, this is one habit we all can break.
Thank You for Reading and Sharing,
**Note: Just kidding, Dad. I totally made that up.