Perspective: A Lifelong Search for Enough

02:47AM Aug 06, 2014
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John Phipps

One of the more curious trends to become a full-blown cultural idiosyncrasy concerns our obsession with the American work ethic. Basically put, high incomes are strongly correlated with long hours of work. "Well, duh," we think. But as with many correlations, cause and effect can be difficult to demonstrate (or misidentified).

In a recent study published in Psychological Science, researchers found evidence that high incomes instigate longer working hours, not the expected reverse. Consider the nearly insane hours that seven-digit-income finance and legal executives routinely work. Seventy-hour weeks are common. In the last three decades, working hours have flipped, with those paid the most working longer than low-earners.

While few would pass up the chance to capitalize on such earning power, why doesn’t extreme compensation buy more time off instead? Psychologists are trying to find out why there never seems to be "enough." Farmers are beginning to wonder as well.

Researchers documented what they call "mindless accumulation," a tendency to earn far more than can be spent. Like overeating, this inability to experience enough is new. Until modernity, overearning was simply unrealistic. 

Perhaps we are pre-wired for relentless gathering. Faced with enormous compensation, we respond in a way that is economically parallel to eating an abundance of calories—a kind of financial obesity. But the real kicker is that the accumulation of excessive resources brought no additional happiness or security, and it might be addictive. 

Out here in the fields, an analogous scenario is unfolding. The Big are becoming The Bigger, and competitors wonder why they can’t stop at enough. Like high-earners, we have ready excuses, all of which are reasonable.

We push to grow because of future uncertainty. Acres come and go, so having more acts as an insurance policy. We accumulate to provide for future generations, though this is essentially a form of self-worship. We add acres to compete with the omnipresent Even Bigger. We think we can lower fixed costs by spreading them thinner, though the effectiveness of this strategy is tricky to prove.

Until a friend asked several years ago if I would ever have enough, I never placed myself in those ranks. But as I view my finish line, I am discovering how difficult it is to stop and say, "enough."

Perhaps we are not so different from other high-earners and overeaters. We have constructed powerfully self-justifying arguments. Hard work is a virtue, and you can’t be too virtuous, right?

I still have no answer for my friend, but I am beginning to understand that enough would be a welcome respite. And one unsettling discovery of the scientists reinforces my thinking.

Basically, they found the solution to mindless accumulation is a cap on earnings. When told they had earned their maximum, experiment participants stopped working, felt happier and relaxed. As abhorrent as a limit sounds, this function used to be provided by rural community norms. To be accepted by the community—the primary source of human interaction—you recognized vague but real limits on ambition. Landowners "took care" of tenants by renting in ways to level competition. Farmers were more sensitive to losing friends by "taking" land. You didn’t work until midnight or on Sundays because your neighbors didn’t.

But that was another time entirely. Our system would no longer countenance such restrictions, however informal, despite the evidence it produced more personal security and satisfaction. We have not just chosen a life without enough; we have embraced it. Luckily, oncoming generations might not be as invested in this model of success. 

In the end, too many of us who never found enough may see that we sacrificed too much of our limited time needlessly for unusable wealth.

John Phipps, a farmer from Chrisman, Ill., is the TV host of "U.S. Farm Report." Contact him at [email protected] . For local station listings, log on to