A Guide to the Good Life.

August 7, 2015

In addition to being a great grandfather, James Virgil Vollmer was a good man.
Born and raised upon Iowa's farmlands, he came to manhood with those realistic expectations typical of the Midwest. That's not to say he didn't have dreams. But as the youngest of 18 children raised by Iowan farmers, Jim was destined to be pragmatic. And filled with integrity.
He graduated high school. Spent four years in the military. Took a job with Colgate. Which turned into a 40-year career. On occasion, I still wear the ring the company gave him upon his 25-year anniversary.
As a young man, he met the daughter of first-generation Dutch immigrants. Took her as a bride. Together, they raised five boys and a girl.
Jim did not harbor regrets. For his expectations were firmly codified by a belief system developed by multiple generations of Catholic, Iowan farmers. Get up. Work hard. Raise a family. And if luck intervened on one's behalf, perhaps spend some of one's old age reflecting upon and celebrating one's accomplishments. Like family. Faith. Friendships. And career.
Growing up one of 18 in a rural farming community, one was predisposed to be confronted, on occasion, by life's harsher conditions. Disease. Injury. Financial difficulty. The death of siblings. Through all of that, however, Jim came to believe that life's fineries were not gifts to be expected, but privileges to be cultivated and earned. Likewise, difficulties were among life's puzzle pieces. Accordingly, one should relish the good times. And stoically contend with the bad.

I doubt James Vollmer had an established life philosophy by which he abided.  Though, through the means by which he lived, he may as well have one. For, even given the hardships and humble beginnings, his path to happiness was rarely obscured.
If only the road to contentment was so clear for everyone.
Today, many human beings find themselves in a perpetual state of discontent. Unhappy, if for no other reason, because that which we perceive to be our needs and desires appear insatiable. Each time life bestows gifts upon us, we quickly thereafter lose that joyful feeling of receipt or accomplishment. Almost immediately focused upon something else. Something bigger. Better. Or that we simply don't have.
Psychologists Shane Frederick and George Lowenstein have studied this widely seen phenomenon. They call it "hedonic adaption." By way of example, they point to lottery winners.
People often believe that winning the lottery represents the quickest means of achieving life's dreams and ambitions. One minute, you're worrying about bills, jobs, kids and all of the other responsibilities that accompany adulthood. Then, you hit the lottery and presto! All your problems dissipate. Your finances no longer concern you. And you can buy every one of your heart's desires. Which you do, in mass.
Huge home. Ferrari. Vacation house. Around-the-world travel. Favors for friends. An abundance of material possessions and good times.
Yet, following the initial exhilaration, lottery winners turn out to be no happier than they were previously. Much like their old two bedroom home, Honda Accord and tedious job, they soon begin to take the mansions, sports cars and global travel for granted. That's hedonic adaption. What we once coveted, we soon tire of.
We feel unsatisfied when we detect an unfulfilled desire within us. So, we work hard to fulfill that desire. Believing that, upon its fulfillment, we will be satisfied. The problem becomes that, once the desire is fulfilled, we adapt to its presence in our lives. Resultantly, we stop desiring it. Or, at least don't find it as desirable as we previously did. Leaving us exactly where we began.  Unfulfilled.
Think about the most recent purchase you made. Be it a book, a car, a new handbag, a fly fishing rod or anything else you'd dreamed of owning. Following the initial exhilaration of ownership, you soon realize that life is no better nor worse for having attained the object.
Inhabiting a consumer-oriented society, as we do, human beings repeat this pattern of hedonic adaption throughout their lives. Spending equal facets of our waking moments in the acts of, initially, coveting some object, only to then spend the same amount of time disappointed over that object's inability to enhance our lives.
Sadly, human beings often incur hedonic adaption over more than simple consumer purchases. Why do over 50 percent of U.S. marriages end in divorce? Hedonic adaption. Why do parents sometimes find themselves taking children for granted? Hedonic adaption. When we lose appreciation for our jobs, families, cars, homes -- even respect for ourselves? Hedonic adaption.
In fact, each time we find ourselves believing that "the grass is greener" on the other side of where we are? Hedonic adaption.
The pleasure of attainment is temporary. As is the despair over discovering that, once again, we've attained another objective, only to find our lives little changed. Yet we suffer through this interminable cycle throughout our lives. To the detriment of our relationships, careers, egos and contentment.
The key, it would seem, lay in forestalling, and then reversing, the hedonic adaption process. Proactively preventing ourselves from taking for granted the things we've worked so hard to attain.
The Stoic philosophers of the Greek and Roman eras believed they had a cure for this dilemma. Recommending that we spend time imagining that we've lost the things we value. A spouse. A job. A home. By carefully imagining the loss of these once-precious objects, the Stoics believed that we would return to appreciating those same objects.
William B. Irvine, author of A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, refers to this technique as "negative visualization." Finding that the technique was employed by the Stoics going back as far as Chrysippus. Irvine believes that negative visualization was among the most valuable techniques in the Stoics' psychological tool kit.
The technique was advocated by the three most famous Stoic philosophers. Those being Seneca, Epictetus, and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  With each of these brilliant and accomplished men using the technique to endure and overcome difficulties during their own lives.
Seneca once wrote of the tool to a friend, stating that we should remember that all we have is on loan from fortune, which can reclaim it without our permission at any time.
"We should love all of our dear ones," Seneca wrote, "but always with the thought that we have no promise that we may keep them forever -- nay, no promise even that we may keep them for long."
Thus, he counseled, we should enjoy the companionship of friends and loved ones. But periodically stop and reflect on the impermanence of those relationships. On the possibility that these relationships could, at any time, come to an end.
Every time we kiss a spouse, hug a child, say goodbye to a friend, we should remember our good fortune to have such an opportunity. While remembering that no opportunities last forever.
Further, the Stoics advised students to live each day as if it were your last. As if you knew you would never repeat the activity in which you're engaged. Would never return to the spot you inhabited. Would never again see those with whom you stood. Accordingly, we should approach every moment as if it would never be repeated.
Some might assume that such a practice is license for hedonistic excess. For, if we won't be around to pay the consequences, why not engage in all those activities society so frowns upon? Such thinking, however, completely misses the point.
The Stoic philosophy is predicated on the attempt of each and every human being to become the best possible version of themselves. So, rather than granting a free pass to party, pillage and partake without consequence, the Stoics believed that living each day as if your last was simply an extension of the negative visualization technique. As we go about each day, we should periodically pause and reflect on the fact that we will not live forever. That this day could be our last. Rather than converting us to hedonists, such thinking will make us appreciate how wonderful it is to be alive. To have the opportunity to fill the day with such activity -- whatever it may be.
This makes us less likely to squander our days. For the goal is not to change our activities, but the change the state of mind we bring to those activities. To enjoy each and every moment, such as it may be. This doesn't mean that you stop planning for your future. Quite the contrary. Plan well! But as you do so, remember to appreciate today.
As Irvine notes, most of us are, in fact, "living the dream" -- living, that is, the dream we once had for ourselves. We may be married to the person we once dreamed of marring. Have the children and job we once dreamed of having. Have the home we once dreamed of inhabiting. But, thanks to hedonic adaption, as soon as we find ourselves living the life of our dreams, we begin taking that life for granted. Instead of passing our days enjoying our good fortune? We spend them forming and pursuing ever-bigger dreams. Consequently, we will never be satisfied.
Negative visualization can help to end to that endless cycle of suffering and dissatisfaction. Can help you to look around and appreciate the things you have. Without forgoing those truly important, lifelong plans.
Early American poet, writer and Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau never mentions Stoicism in his masterpiece, Walden. Yet the Stoic influence is present. He mentioned stoic philosophers in his journal. And like the Stoics, Thoreau was interested in developing a philosophy for life.
Thoreau scholar Robert Richardson explained that, "His was always the practical question, how best can I live my life?" And his life can best be understood, says Richardson, as "one long uninterrupted attempt to work out the practical concrete meaning of the Stoic idea that the laws which rule nature rule men, as well."
Thoreau went to Walden Pond to conduct his famous two-year experiment in simple living in large part so that he might refine his life's philosophy. Thereby, he might avoid misliving.
A primary motive in going to Walden, Thoreau explained, was his fear that he would never otherwise become that which he was truly capable of becoming.
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms."
So might we, as did the Stoics, Thoreau, and a young Iowan farm boy, conduct our lives in such a way as to ensure that, when we come to die, we had never truly lived. That we sucked all the marrow of life. Living, and dying, with no regrets.

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