#56: Treating your hidden money addictions

11th October, 2021

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding the wiser way to treat your addictions (i.e. the ways you waste resources on stuff that doesn’t make your life better), including:

  • improving your choosing abilities;

  • breaking free of money-inspired tunnel vision; and

  • choosing to construct a world that affords living on easy mode.

Addiction – by which we mean a regular pattern of resource allocation that doesn’t make life better – afflicts us all. Typical attempts to tackle it are non-existent, or more likely to enable the behaviours they’re trying to stop. The wiser way – to improve the clarity of your vision rather than bemoan the compulsiveness of your desire – is less sexy, but more successful.

Last week, we looked at the flaws in the common view of (and consequently methods of treating) addiction – and what this means for all the stuff you do with and for money that don’t ultimately make your life any better.

In Idiot World, addiction is seen as a problem of objectively evil chemicals meeting morally weak minds, leading to a treatment plan based around bans and imprisonment.

In Clever World, it’s acknowledged that this approach hasn’t worked, but addiction is still seen as a problem of compulsive desire, rather than narrowing of vision, so Clever World’s treatment plans don’t work all that well either.

We concluded:

We’re not short of chances to earn or spend money in ways that make life better.

We’re not short of superb bonding opportunities.

We just choose to use our resources elsewhere.

We choose poorly.

We need to improve not our circumstances, or our ‘selves’, but our choosing.

So what does a wiser way look like? How do we improve our choosing in the face of the money-fuelled forces that make us so damn dumb?

Wiser addiction therapy: choose life

Wiser conclusions are never as catchy as idiotic, or even clever ones.

Preventative measures may sound wonderful to the cool-headed person we are when we’re making plans, but the hot-headed idiot that we become when it’s time to put them into practice is not such a fan. ‘Become wiser’ will never be as popular as variations on a theme of ‘always say yes (or no)!’

Firstly, unless death appears to be imminent, problems don’t appear nearly as pressing as they did during the planning stage. Despite anyone over the age of about 35 being able to confirm that the most common catastrophes are the ones that creep up while you’re busy pretending you’ll deal with them by radically changing who you are on Monday.

Secondly, we live in a world that – from brand-name paracetamol to fancy exercise equipment to cryotherapy chambers – believes that unless a solution is for sale (and the more expensive the better), it’s probably not that good anyway.

These hot-headed idiots we become don’t see that they not only live in, but created this world, and continue to re-create it every day, with just about every default decision that involves the opportunity to measure something with money… which of course is just about all of them.

What we want is not to make a cognitively draining series of isolated smarter choices, but to choose life – to choose to live in a world where we more reliably choose to allocate our resources towards the stuff that we really want – the stuff that makes life better, whatever that may be.

Above wanting to get richer, quicker, we want to be wiser.

As I wrote in the introduction to the book, when comparing it to intelligence and rationality, wisdom…

…is more a characteristic of a way of living than it is a definition of static state, choice, or even series of choices. It’s the cultivation of a dynamical system for countering the equally dynamical system of self-deception, and consequently for affording a flowing, flourishing, meaningful life.

‘Wisdom,’ wrote Socrates, ‘begins in wonder.’ The sort of wonder that opens you up to the possibility that aspects of your worldview, however well-engrained, and however well-enforced by internal and external guardians, could be bullshit. The sort of wonder that upon being open like this is motivated to challenge previously jumped-to conclusions, and, when they’re found wanting, to aspire to find a better way.

Disrupt your default distractions

In Addiction by Design, Natasha Dow Schüll explains the actions of gambling addicts as ‘dark flow’ – the downward spiral that’s the opposite of the creative flow that characterises a flourishing life well lived. This is crucial to understanding a gambling addict (and therefore other subtler addictions).

Because just as when you’re spiralling up, you don’t want to disrupt the flow, a gambler lost in a downward spiral doesn’t want to disrupt the flow either. They’re gambling to escape. To escape living… to escape everything.

Disrupting the distraction means having to confront what living means. It’s scary, and not nearly as under their control as pulling the lever or rolling the dice one more time.

Even winning is a disruption. Because when you’ve kidded yourself you’re playing to win… and you win… then you’re more likely to question if you should keep playing… but of course you’re really playing to stay distracted… but admitting that is almost as painful as stopping.

This is also, incidentally, part of the reason why retirement is such a shitty goal for so many people.

Look at the language through which you see the world

Our brains spend their whole time trying to predict the best thing to do, based on their assessment of various inputs such as vision and emotions, and the past experiences that have created neuronal highways in our heads.

It’s a beautiful process. But, as we saw in Idiot Money #32, the very machinery that means we can operate at all also leads us astray.

Mostly by leading us to shitty simplistic substitutes for irreducibly complex things.

Making predictions about what to do every freakin’ second is hard. The brain loves a shortcut. When constructing its model of the world, it pays to make as much of that world as possible predictable.

The more of the modelled world that’s controllable, the better.

As this excellent review of Addiction by Design demonstrates:

I used to think that gambling addicts ‘lost control’ when they gambled excessively. But the addicts in the book use machines as a way to gain control in their lives. In front of a machine, the world is simple: they place bets and lose a little bit of money on each turn. The gamblers are in control of this machine world. It is the world away from machines where the prospect of losing control in frightening ways looms. Away from the machines, life is long and full of terrors.

Something similar is at work when we use money to measure everything. Not too troublesome when comparing identical cups of coffee. Very troublesome just about everywhere else.

Tunnel vision makes life choices such as what you do to earn, and how you spend money simpler, but it doesn’t make them better.

The aim isn’t to have simplicity. That’s inhuman. It’s to become better at dealing with complexity. To complexify is human.

The aim isn’t to have a predictable world. It’s to become better at predicting.

As we’ve seen (especially in Idiot Money #31 and #32), addiction – regularly allocating your money, time, and energy resources towards stuff that makes your life worse – isn’t about compulsive desire, but about seeing no alternatives to doing these silly things.

The most common misreading of ‘attachment’ is to believe it’s about compulsive desires. It’s not. It’s about a narrowing of your vision.

The implication of this understanding goes way beyond giving up smoking, say. It’s too damn easy and too damn idiotic to read the word ‘addiction’ and decide that because you’re not shooting heroin into your eyeballs, it isn’t relevant.

If you misunderstand the problem, your solution is bound to fail, and you won’t know why. So you’ll keep trying the same dumb thing over and over again, wasting your money, your time, your energy, and therefore your life, in the process… none the wiser why you never became what you could have become.

Which explains why, despite a consumption-based solution to an existential unease never having worked before, people will keep on trying it again, and again, and again…

A wiser treatment plan, therefore, isn’t two weeks in the Priory. This can help to hit the reset button of course. But if it doesn’t alter the narrowness of the addict’s worldview wiring, how do you think they’re going to operate in the world when they’re back in it?

The key to a preventative approach is based not on playing addiction whack-a-mole, but on a way of living that starts with more conscious use of the language we use around money.

When you pay attention, you’ll probably start to see a ton of places where you use the language of addiction to talk about things you could’ve sworn you weren’t addicted to.

  • ‘Just one more’

  • ‘I’m not perfect, but I’m not nearly as bad as proper addicts’

  • ‘It brings me pleasure’

  • ‘It’s a treat’

  • ‘It’s the best (only) way I destress’

Every time you use the word ‘treat’ to describe something that lightens your wallet and poisons your insides, you’re working against living better. Every time you use the word ‘treat’ as a trigger to catch yourself, and quickly question your default decision-making, you’re doing the opposite – almost regardless of what you then actually do.

From waste to wisdom

The premise of the book is to investigate why, when it comes to turning our resources into the Good Life, we don’t do it as well as we could. Why we systematically allocate resources to stuff that makes our life worse (what we’re addicted to) rather than stuff that makes it better (what we want, when we’re seeing clearly).

Our problems are not ones of too few resources. They’re ones of too little wisdom in how we allocate them.

We don’t ‘want’ stuff that makes our lives worse.

We want to make life better!

We want to live in a world where we automatically align our resources with what we want because we’re great at predicting what will work.

When we’re seeing clearly, we tend to do this. We see the shitty substitutes for the cons they are.

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