What’s Keeping You Poor This Month? Your Bathroom
“A million years of natural selection shaped human nature to be ambitious to rear successful children, not to settle for contentment: people are programmed to desire, not to appreciate” — Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist (2010)
We human beings are amazingly resourceful. We can thrive in nearly every environment on earth, from the disease-prone tropics of Brazil to the uncompromising winters of Norway. The reason for our success is not our body, but our mind’s ability to solve problems imaginatively and to find comfort in any circumstances.
Our minds adapt to our reality easily, even when that reality is different from the one we expect or anticipate. One of the downsides of living in a time of unprecedented wealth and luxury is that these evolved abilities sometimes go to waste, and even cause more problems than they solve.
Most of our ancestors evolved in extremely harsh environments, living in constant fear of attacks from predators, famine, and disease. They survived because of their ability to hold two conflicting beliefs in their head: (1) My reality is difficult and (2) My future will be better. This endless optimism allowed us to survive against all odds, and continues to do so today. But our ancestors’ had a very specific idea in mind of what a better future meant: lower stress levels and greater security.
Today, we live in a world of abundance. What we take for granted (cars, air conditioning, cars with air conditioning) was unimaginable excess as far as previous generations were concerned. Yet our minds, never satisfied, still push us to strive for a better life. There’s nothing wrong with building a better future, as long as it results in less stress and greater security, but these days we spend a lot of time and money for comforts and convenience that spoil us or distract us momentarily instead of contributing to our overall wellbeing.
One of my favorite examples of being spoiled by luxury is the attached bathroom. I run Monte Largo out of a home office, and for a while I was working in a spare bedroom because my bed was in the much larger master bedroom. One day I realized that it was silly to be working in the smaller room, which needed space to accommodate clients, when I was using the largest room to do nothing more than sleep.
Soon after the transition I had some guests at the house and decided to show off the new office. Their concerned reactions surprised me. “But the master bathroom is attached to the office now!” they gasped. “You have to walk into the hall and across the office to go to the bathroom? That must be very inconvenient.” They even suggested that it would be better to rent commercial office space, because home ownership apparently comes with certain unalienable privileges, like having a bathroom attached to your bedroom.
This illustrates the problem with how our minds have evolved to work. Once we have something, it is very difficult to give it up. Many studies show that we hate losing things about twice as much as we like getting new things. This phenomenon is called Loss Aversion, and it often plays tricks on our minds in unexpected ways.
Growing up, I lived, as most children do, without a bathroom attached to my bedroom. I never expected to have an attached bathroom, so I never wanted one, and was perfectly happy walking down a hallway to do my business (I didn’t even have to go outside!).
If you’re lucky enough to go to college and live in a dorm, you probably had a shared bathroom at the end of the hall. That may have taken some getting used to, but your amazing brain was quick to adapt, and you became perfectly happy to walk down the hallway past all of your friends’ doors to pee (and you still didn’t have to go outside!). Later you probably moved into to your first apartment, and this is the key point in the story. If your apartment had an attached, private bathroom, it soon became a “must have” rather than a “holy cow I’m living in unimaginable luxury.” You quickly adapted to this new convenience, and an attached bathroom became a requirement in every future living space.
If you were the roommate without an attached bathroom in your first apartment, you continued to live a healthy and happy life, blissfully ignorant to the luxury taking place just across the living room. Suddenly you had a priceless advantage. You could always adapt up to an attached bathroom if need be, but you’re perfectly happy without one. It’s much harder for your roommate with the luxury to to adapt “downwards,” and even difficult to understand why he would want to do so. This social pressure from others adds to the negative feelings associated with a move down the luxury ladder.
Luckily, there is a cure for these negative feelings — your evolved sense of adaptation. Human beings can still call almost any circumstances “normal.” One of the lessons of survivors of horrific circumstances, including prisoner of war camps, is that all the serenity and comfort we will ever need can be found between our own two ears. I’m happy to report that I’ve been walking across the hall to use the bathroom for several months now without any regrets. I’ve done the same thing at various points in my life with a dresser (I didn’t have one for a long time), living with others (my husband and I have gone back and forth between living by ourselves and living with roommates), a television, and more.
Some things in life are necessary. We need access to clean air and water and a KitchenAid Stand Mixer (still kidding on that last one), but an attached bathroom just doesn’t make the list. When we allow our minds to trick us into “needing” the luxuries in our lives, we set ourselves up for future disappointment. So let’s laugh in the face of luxury. With a little effort, we can set ourselves free from the things we want today and “need” tomorrow.
What luxuries do you avoid that others can’t seem to resist? Let us know in the comments.
Nathan is the CEO of Monte Largo Financial Advisors LLC.