by Mandy de Waal
“I never realised that I had a problem until quite recently. Before this I thought it was normal. I thought that everyone thinks (about money) the way I do,” says Charles Hugo (not his real name) on the phone from an upmarket seaside resort on South Africa's Cape coast.
“It doesn't matter how much money I earn, I always feel I need more.” As Hugo describes his relationship with money, his speech is carefully measured. The forty-something year old former banker-cum-currency trader pauses for a while during our conversation, and then adds: “It was only recently I realised I have a problem.”
For as long as Hugo can remember money has featured as a complex protagonist in his life. The dominant force in his decision making, this man measures everything in terms of what it will cost him and if the value he'll be getting from the transaction will be worthwhile. It doesn't matter if the transaction is an emergency trip in an ambulance or going into a restaurant for a sirloin.
“Every time a decision needs to be made, the first thing I think about is the financial impact. It doesn't matter what it is. I will always find a money angle to each and every decision,” he says. “If someone has a problem I won't think about the person or the emotion.” For Hugo cash is cognitive king.
“I used to think everyone was like this. That money came first in everyone's lives. It's only during the past couple of years that I've realised this is not the case.” Today Hugo – who doesn't want his identity to be revealed publicly – is in his early forties. Hugo talks about having a problem and about being obsessed with money. A couple of times the word ‘addiction' enters the conversation. “I have an addiction to money,” he says, adding that his ‘obsession' with money causes problems in his interpersonal relationships because he thinks very differently from those he cares about.
MONEY – THE EARLY YEARS
To understand how Hugo's relationship with money evolved, the writer of this article asks him about his early memories – about the events that shaped his formative years. “I didn't ask for things often because I knew the answer would always be about money,” says Hugo, who was told by his father that money was something one had to work very hard for. Hugo internalised the idea that extreme effort and difficulty was associated with financial reward.
“When I was about eight years old and in standard one I went through a period at school where I always had a pain in my stomach. The teacher would get sick of me and send me to sick bay, and then my parents would be called and I would be sent home. I didn't realise it then, but thinking about this now I understand why this happened. I guess I thought that if I wasn't at school my dad wouldn't have to pay for me to be there. At that time I had a strong sense of wasting my dad's money and of definite guilt. I didn't fully understand it then, but if I think about this now, those same guilt feelings arise. To be honest, if I spend money on something now, I still feel guilty about it,” Hugo says.
As Hugo's school career progressed he found he thought about money often. ” It was constant. It was a worry,” he says, adding that the thoughts mostly related to how he was going to earn money or get by once he left school. “Whatever I was busy doing at the time… well, I wouldn't think about what I was doing, but rather about money.”
When it comes to psychological disorders that are related to money, what's evident is that—gambling aside—there are no easy definitions or neat borders for containment. Money is an indispensable part of our daily lives – as integral as sex and food. Most people wake up in the morning and go to work in order to make money, and this is never thought of as pathological. Far from it – it is an activity that's characterised as very healthy. It is a responsible citizenry that gets up and keeps the cogs of the consumerist machine moving. More so, society lauds those who rise up through the capitalist ranks to become captains of industry or breakout entrepreneurs.
SHUFFLING BIG MONEY
Hugo describes a time in his late twenties, when he shuffled funds around for a financial institution and was earning some R300,000.00 a month. “I was working in a bank and there were retrenchments. I was put into an admin role where I was dealing with money,” he says, explaining that the designation he found himself in wasn't supposed to be a money-making position.
“I turned this into a massive money-making division for the business. All I was doing was moving money around. I started this admin function with some R100 million, but when I was done I was dealing with R20 billion,” Hugo says, adding: “This put me in my element. It was like a dream come true. Every day I could get up and move money around. I never realised it at the time. I didn't know it was what I could do or how to do it. But I just fitted into this role perfectly. The longer I did this the better I became at doing it. My whole focus was on the money – moving the money around and making more money.”
When the bank realised what a boon Hugo was, he was given financial rewards, which only served to intensify his drive to make more money. “The bonuses just spurred me on. At that time I had calculations going in my head non-stop. All I thought about every day was how much I would make and what it would take to make this grow,” he says.
A defining moment for Hugo at the time was going on leave, and spending his entire vacation consumed with the thought about how to make more money. Being away from the day-to-day minutiae enabled Hugo to review how he was working for the bank. “I looked at the bigger picture,” Hugo says, declaring that in the month after he returned to work he'd made more in that month than he'd made the whole year. “It was non-stop thinking about how to make more and more,” he confesses.
THERE'S NO PATHOLOGY
Trying to deconstruct what presents as an obsession with lucre is something of a challenge because an addiction to money is not a pathology that is officially recognised by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Published by the American Psychiatric Association, the DSM codifies mental conditions and is a diagnostic standard used globally by mental health professionals. The only addictive disorders associated with money recognised by the DSM is gambling disorder, which is defined as a process disorder, or an addiction to an activity (like sex, for instance, or internet gaming.)
“We have a situation where the leading diagnostic manual isn't prepared to commit to a behavioural addiction as something that they are willing to codify,” a psychiatrist who used to practice in London, and who asks for his name to be withheld, tells me. “If this is not even codified as a disorder, where do we start decreeing that something is beyond norms, or even pathological? Do we make that judgement from our own value-set?” he asks, and then answers his own question: “For many people this behaviour might sit well within their own set of values,” the psychiatrist explains.
The psychiatrist continues: “One of the requirements for codifying a disorder as pathological, the criteria is that it must have negative consequences for a person's physical, mental, social or financial well-being. In other words, there must be some form of tangible destruction going on, in one or more of these key areas. In fact most clinicians would be reluctant to commit something as pathological if no damage has been done.”
We live in a society where amassing wealth is simultaneously revered and reviled. Greed was classified a vice as far back as the 4th century when Christian monk Evagrius Ponticus penned a list of what he called ‘evil thoughts' in Greek. This list became the ‘seven deadly sins' two centuries later when it was revised as such by Pope Gregory I, based no doubt on Matthew 6:24: “No-one can serve two masters… You cannot serve both God and mammon” (or “God and riches”).
THE RELIGION OF GREED
Fast forward to the 21st century and you'll discover a time when greed had all but become a religion. I'm talking about the excessive eighties, that period personified by Gordon Gekko – the protagonist in Oliver Stone's ‘Wall Street'. Gekko sums up the spirit of this capitalist period without a conscience: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” A ruthless corporate raider, Gekko tells a packed annual shareholder's meeting in a seminal scene from the film: “Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
Gekko epitomises the capitalist ideology of the latter half of the twentieth century, a time when America's economic growth was on the ascendancy and materialism was rampant.
In 1983, sociologist Philip Slater saw what was happening in the States, and called for caution by labelling money “America's most powerful drug.” In his book, “Wealth Addiction” he examined consumerist American society. Slater described what he saw like this: “Our economy is based on spending billions to persuade people that happiness is buying things, and then insisting that the only way to have a viable economy is to make things for people to buy so they'll have jobs and get enough money to buy things.” Thirty years on, its interesting to see that status is no longer as important as it once was to Americans.
SUCCESS = MONEY?
An Ipsos MORI Global Trends Survey of more than 16,000 people across 20 states showed that people who took this global survey in the US largely no longer measure success by what they own. However attitudes in Hugo's home country are quite different. By way of contrast South Africans are fairly materialistic but are much more likely to feel under pressure to make money or be successful than the global average.
The Ipsos data revealed that 33% of South Africans surveyed say they measure their success by the things they own in contrast to 21% of Americans. This compares with 71% of respondents in China, 58% in India and 16% in Britain. The research also shows that 66% of South Africans feel enormous peer pressure to succeed. For people surveyed in the US this figure was 46%.
In South Africa, Hugo struggles to work with his obsession with money. “I am currently trading on the financial markets in my personal capacity, and it is a huge challenge to get my emotions out of the way when it comes to making a decision about entering and exiting… about taking a trade or not taking a trade. Often my emotions start overtaking the rational reasons why I am doing this,” he says.
Hugo describes how he often needs to wrestle with himself internally to ensure that his decision-making isn't hijacked by his emotions. “Managing my emotions so that they don't impinge on what I am doing takes huge effort. This would be an ideal vocation if I could take money out of the equation, but what I do now to make money is directly related to money. But now I try to manage this in a different way,” he says.
Hugo isn't going for professional counselling but spends time speaking to people, and works on trying to be mindful and conscious of his thoughts, thought processes, decisions and actions. “Typically I try to take a step back. To do some breathing exercises for three to five minutes. I try to be mindful of the present moment in the hope that I can walk away from the situation at hand with a new light, or a new insight or perspective,” he says.
PENNIES AND PRINCIPLES
The moral of this story? Understanding our psychology and the role that money plays in it, requires an appreciation of complexity. On an individual level, what we think of as dysfunction, may not be. On the contrary, what we think of as sick could be the projection of our own value system flexed in judgement of another.
On a macro or systemic level Hugo's advice makes sense. Isn't it time we stepped away from the means we use to measure success in order to re-examine how useful this is to our lives and to society? Don't we need to become more conscious about our relationship with money in order to really understand how our ties to financial transactions hinder, harm or help us?