Everything you can't have

I recently read a post by Morgan Housel on the Collabfund blog about the psychology of want and value. I think the article makes too much of being a slave to dopamine.

I like the article because it clearly articulates a psychological process that we all experience. I think that the mechanisms described in the article are a default condition that we can grow out of if we are wise, and that the article assumes implicitly that we are all slaves to our selfish wants, or need for dopamine.

The beginning of the article is such a nice description of the foolishness that we begin with, that I have copied it here:


Nothing is as desired as much as the thing you want but can’t have.

In fact for most people there’s a hierarchy of wants that goes something like this:

If you don’t want something and don’t have it, you don’t think about it.
If you want something and have it, you might feel OK.
If you want something and don’t have it, you might feel motivated.
If you want something and can’t have it, you drive yourself mad.

A few years after leaving office, Richard Nixon mentioned that the richest people in the world are some of the unhappiest, because they can afford to never struggle.

“Drinking too much. Talking too much. Thinking too little. Retired. No purpose,” he said.

To ordinary people, it sounds amazing. To those who can afford to do anything, it often falls flat.

Nixon elaborated:

You feel that, gee, isn’t it just great to have enough money to afford to live in a very nice house, to be able to play golf, to have nice parties, to wear good clothes, to travel if you want to? And the answer is: If you don’t have those things, then they can mean a great deal to you. When you do have them, they mean nothing to you.

This is a little exaggerated. But the idea of valuing only what you’ve struggled for is real.

In 1905, author William Dawson wrote in his book The Quest for The Simple Life about how the hardest thing to understand about money is the thrill of the chase. Something you can easily afford brings less joy than something you must save and struggle for. “The man who can buy anything he covets values nothing that he buys,” Dawson wrote.

He went on:

There is a subtle pleasure … in the anxious debates which we hold with ourselves whether we can or cannot afford a certain thing; in our attempts to justify our wisdom; in the risk and recklessness of our operations; in the long deferred and final joy of our possession. But this is a kind of pleasure which the man of boundless means never knows. The buying of pictures affords us an excellent illustration on this point. [Ordinary people] … have to walk weary miles and wait long weeks to get upon the track of their treasure; to use all their knowledge of art and men to circumvent the malignity of dealers; to experience the extremes of trepidation and of hope; to deny themselves comforts, and perhaps food, that they may pay the price which has at last, after infinite dispute, reached an irreducible minimum; and the pleasure of their possession is in the ratio of their pains. But the man who enters a sale-room with the knowledge that he can have everything he wishes by the signing of a cheque feels none of these emotions.