Broken Reward Circuitry: Money vs Happiness

Unbelievable Stupidity

When I was in the military they would run these stupid drill where they would try to create as much stress and chaos as possible in a short burst of time, find someone who makes an error, and chastise them for it. That killed morale. So to make up for declining morale they decided to run more frequent test and drills. And thus being an enlisted nuclear power sailor in the US Navy is a horrible life that I wish on nobody.

At one point in time I was on watch when a new kid made a mistake during maintenance that killed all electrical power on the submarine. Later we had a discovery meeting where we found out what went wrong. Having been 5 feet from the maintenance, I knew that the kid's boss came over and told him "remember to trip close trip the breaker when maintenance is done." The kid listened to that wonderful tip and turned the turbine generator into a turbine motor.

But since the new kid was dumb enough to listen to the bad advice he took all the shelling and blame. It was as simple as that, but even the captain of the boat (along with everyone in the chain of command - including the guy who gave the stupid tip) were together in a huge group insult fest where they tried to one up each other insulting the new guy. It lasted for like an hour and a half and the lines were so bad that things like do you realize how stupid you are? were said to that kid. I thought that if the meeting lasted another 5 minutes they were going to start chastising him with questions like do you realize how fat you are?

It got so bad that the electricians had to set up a work area to change a light bulb, making each bulb about a half hour process. But since I wasn't an electrician (I was in reactor controls) I could go ahead and change the light bulbs in about 30 seconds each. But if I wasn't helpful to the next division what took me a half hour would have took them about a whole day. The solution to every problem is closer scrutiny, more testing, and more baby sitting.

On the same boat the leaders had us take out the flooring railing in the engine room to have them repainted. This flooring railing was never meant to come off and would not fit out of the boat's escape hatch. BUT someone was stupid and said it must be done. And so there we were using a hacksaw to chop up the floor supports (ruining their structural integrity and making the submarine far noisier and less safe in the process) so the floor supports could be freshly painted and look slightly better.

If you want to see a horribly run organization full of miserable people put them in a confined high stress environment where no matter how shitty they make someone else's life, they get no market feedback or pain for coming up with an endless array of stupid ideas.

The military is a rat testing lab.

You can learn a lot about yourself, what drives you, how to succeed, and how to fail by putting yourself through such a miserable experience...though I would not recommend it to anyone smart enough to be reading this blog right now! ;)

What Drives You?

I respond well to positive feedback and I simply shut down from negative feedback. One of the hardest things I have struggled with is someone I know giving me the wrong kinds of motivation. XYZ knows less than you, works less, sells far inferior products, and makes more so you must be screwing up.

This is true of a lot of direct marketer types who don't give a crap about the success of their customers but are willing to hype anything and everything they can put their name on - even if they make false promises and don't know what they are selling. But if you care about the quality of your product, use what you make, and actually provide real customer service you can't compete on hype without pulling in a lot of people who were not worth having as customers.

In the short run you can't compete with the top line numbers (especially the inflated ones before the affiliate commissions and the huge number of refunds & chargebacks associated with people realizing they bought into a scam), but after a decade of solid effort you can compete with the scammers on earnings (plus many of them get flushed out of the market, constantly replaced by a new breed). But are your goals short term or long term? What are your goals? What drives you? Is it money?

Money in Context

Money is just a tool for exchange. If it is your sole motivation you will end up losing motivation quickly. And as long as you are not printing the money supply and do not have lobbyists working CONgress for funds, it will almost universally hold true that someone dumber than you who doesn't work near as hard will earn more money. But it is not a relevant mindset that will lead to anything productive with your life. What good is money if chasing it makes you miserable?

After reaching a certain level of success an additional dollar of income doesn't provide much additional marginal utility and a singular focus on it can harm other aspects of your life. Money can buy a bit of happiness, but it can't buy a lot of it. And we often spend it incorrectly.

The problem isn’t money, it’s us. For deep-seated psychological reasons, when it comes to spending money, we tend to value goods over experiences, ourselves over others, things over people. When it comes to happiness, none of these decisions are right: The spending that make us happy, it turns out, is often spending where the money vanishes and leaves something ineffable in its place.

Measuring Success

In time smart efforts (combined with a bit of luck and a lot of learning) produce results. So long as you are honest even dumb or failed efforts produce wisdom. But you can't be #1 at everything.

You have to decide what you view as success and stick to comparing yourself against only yourself, or else you will get burned out, singularly focusing on an arbitrary goal while your health and happiness erode. Until the past week I basically had chronic back pain which is just now lifted and I feel like a kid again. That was only made possible because I decided to temporarily close off the site to new members to make enough time for exercise. And it is already working. Paying customers are still getting great customer service, but for now I am not stuck doing as much admin stuff as new members cycle in and out of the site. That leaves a little bit of time for sanity, which I hear is important. ;)

Giving Praise

  • If a person who is gifted but lazy is praised they will just become more lazy and arrogant and worthless, feeling they deserve the world even if they did nothing to earn it.
  • If a person is doing their best and you keep telling them it is never good enough (like the Navy ORSE testing regime) you are just going to make them miserable, shut them down, beat them into submission, and kill their happiness. Such policies kill motivation and drive away talent.

You shouldn't praise the results, but praise the right kind of effort:

Those who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score—by about 30 percent. Those who’d been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning—by about 20 percent.

Social Clustering

Much like you are what you eat, many of your good and bad traits are driven by (and drive) the people who are in close proximity:

When a Framingham resident became obese, his or her friends were 57 percent more likely to become obese, too. Even more astonishing to Christakis and Fowler was the fact that the effect didn’t stop there. In fact, it appeared to skip links. A Framingham resident was roughly 20 percent more likely to become obese if the friend of a friend became obese — even if the connecting friend didn’t put on a single pound. Indeed, a person’s risk of obesity went up about 10 percent even if a friend of a friend of a friend gained weight.

So if you are living an unbalanced lifestyle and sacrifice other aspects of your life for a singular (and often short-sighted) view of success, it will likely harm you AND the people around you.

The Frequent Failures of Self-Help Groups

Many well established organizations built around causing change eventually become stuck in their ways, fearing change and becoming yet another bureaucratic institution. How much harder is it to create lasting change that creates growth if they bond is built around a weakness?

When people go to support groups they often create bonds around their weaknesses with others who share the same weaknesses. Perhaps this makes the weakness become more ingrained in their identity, makes it seem more normal, and makes it harder to change. If this is true then perhaps the support groups that work are those based around doing something positive, rather than those based around not doing something negative.

And, from an online publishing perspective, if you write about having a specific personal problem (not being able to quit smoking, being overweight, etc.) then that can attract people with similar flaws into your life...recalibrating your sense of normal and making it harder to change the behaviors which create the undesirable results. It is no wonder that most sites in some such self-help categories are scams - anyone who legitimately cares often surrounds themselves with negative influences - making it harder to build and maintain lasting change.

The more you try to erase me, the more that I appear.

Synthetic Happiness

Dan Gilbert has a great talk about how we can synthetically create the happiness that we seek. If our fears or ambitions are not limited then it is hard to be sustainably happy. But by overcoming our fears and limiting our ambitions it is much easier to be happy sustainably.

Do You Realize How Lucky You Are?

Speaking of happiness, I saw the following video on Kevin Kelly's blog, which really helped add perspective.

Now that I have enough spare time to think and grow I see some of the errors in my ways from as little as a month ago. Life is great :)

BTW, this free Clive Thompson article on how social networks work is probably the best marketing article I have read in the past year. It is 10 pages, but well worth the price of admission.

Published: September 16, 2009 by Aaron Wall in marketing


September 16, 2009 - 1:57pm

Keep it coming...

Transcending pure marketing-speak/thought is a beautiful thing and leads to true success...

September 16, 2009 - 2:44pm

Thank you for having the spine to write about issues beyond search tactics and online marketing in a compelling way.

Love that rant from Louis C.K.

I second Hugo's comment - keep it coming.

September 16, 2009 - 4:09pm

My favorite line: For deep-seated psychological reasons, when it comes to spending money, we tend to value goods over experiences, ourselves over others, things over people.


I spent a couple of years as a service missionary in some of the poorest areas of Mexico. I was truly happy doing that work, and I didn't have enough money for so much as a new set of clothes during the whole time I was there. I learned to value experiences, others and people. I highly recommend doing something similar to anyone who is interested.

Now being in the rat race, I tend to forget that from time to time. Thanks for the reminder.

September 16, 2009 - 6:34pm


I actually haven't been reading too many posts lately because I got caught up in the negative side of blogosphere, and was feeling a little bad for it. Too much of that can be toxic to our lives and our businesses; that is, unless you're in it for short-term success. It can also spread similar to the the your example of obesity.

This post was a reminder as to why I like your blog so much; you understand true success is not just about SEO.

September 16, 2009 - 6:55pm

If this post had been about SEO/marketing/business it probably would have about 15 responses by now...just interesting to me.

This is what these types of blogs should be. Give me the info, give me the business advice, give me the heads-up tips, but balance it. Show me who you are and why I should really listen.

I know enough to know that life is a passing thing. The successes of this world are fleeting and at the end of the day can consume you for 0 return. How's that for some sweet ROI.

A bit of exposure to who you really are (assuming this isn't more marketing :)) goes along way for me wanting your advice and trusting it. Heck, as sad as it is to say, I'd almost be willing to pay $100/month just to know someone who isn't afraid to expose who they are at a more inner level.

Keep it up, and I hope your back continues to improve.
September 16, 2009 - 8:57pm

with or without responses, this post just leaves us flabbergasted :) The seobook subscription is well worth it indeed. I'm a member for more then a year, it feels like the right thing every day.

September 16, 2009 - 8:15pm

The spending that make us happy, it turns out, is often spending where the money vanishes and leaves something ineffable in its place.

Thats probably the most valuable sentence I've read this year. Simple, universal advice.

thank you
September 16, 2009 - 8:49pm

I find this article so humane. And a joy to read. Thank you.

September 17, 2009 - 12:39am

I value these sorts of posts more than the SEO ones, to be frank. Glad you're enjoying life :-) Wait 'till you get a baby, and then you'll get even more perspective :-)

September 17, 2009 - 3:22am

I am a student of excellence. That's why I am a member here.

Off subject. Have been a Louis C.K. fan for over ten years. Did not like his HBO sitcom. I prefer his stand-up and ponderings like the clip. Thanks.

September 17, 2009 - 4:37am

100% true

September 17, 2009 - 8:04am

Makes you sit up and think about your own position. There are a number of important concepts explored, motivation, money, success, society.

We may not (be able to) think at this level every day but
I appreciate that you have helped me step back and get perspective, today.

September 22, 2009 - 2:53am

Great post Aaron. It's cool to see someone else sharing the same struggles. I've even started buying books studying the science of happiness.

So much of this stuff is based on the frameworks we see the world through. I've got a two year old and he's reminding me every day about how good the simple things are in life, and how money often doesn't really fit into that. I know it sounds cliche, but there is something more to it under the surface that words can't really get a handle on.

I was reminded yesterday when I bought home some flowers for my wife from a florist I walk past on my way home from the office. They were a beautiful big bunch of flowers. I gave them to her and was obviously pleased with me.

I went and had a shower and came out and she had them in a vase on the table. Beside the vase was a tiny little white bowl you normally put salt flakes in.

In the tiny bowl was a splash of water and three little pink flowers. Apparently my 2 year old son had gone out in the yard and picked them picked them for her all by himself. He very carefully carried them in and said "I picked these for you Mummy".

Strictly speaking, those 3 little pink flowers were actually weeds. But somehow, they made the bunch I spent all that money on look somewhat banal.


September 22, 2009 - 2:07pm

Thanks for the great comment Jay :)

Yeah...a lot of those deep meaningful connections / almost indescribable human interactions simply can't happen at the computer. Most of them cost nothing (or next to nothing) and only have deep meaning with a few people. It is only when we step away from what we are doing that it makes sense and fits together.

I still sit too much at the computer (but a bit less than I used to before I closed the site to new members). And that extra bit of time to be human is worth FAR MORE than a bit more cash would have been.

Another thing I struggle with is a lot of the stuff that makes a lot of money doesn't add a lot of value to the world, and it gets kinda boring even if it is working well. After you have no debt and enough to be comfy for a few years money is sorta meh.

I too have a collection of books on happiness, but I am still trying to let my workload drift down a bit and have not read them yet.

Our dog gets more attention than many children get. I wonder how having a kid will change me...probably more ways than I could ever guess. ;)

September 23, 2009 - 2:54am

"Yeah...a lot of those deep meaningful connections / almost indescribable human interactions simply can't happen at the computer."

You're so right, but I've never thought it about it quite like that. I can hear my wife clapping and saying "bravo Aaron!" now. :D

This is such a big topic and I've been grappling more heavily with it than usual in the last few months. Lots of similar stuff to what you've discussed. Especially the points about adding value to the world, making money from other people's dreams (hype driven etc), how much money is enough, why am I working - is it to build something great or to get rich, how do I balance cash flow generating activities with long view growth activities, how much of this is about ego etc.

One ugly question for a father to ask is:

"Is this activity more important that spending time with my kids and family".

Especially given that they are the source of most of my joyful moments.

One exercise that has really helped me is to imagine what my life would look like in a perfect world. Not just generally, but very specifically. So going through an entire day and explicitly describing what you would be doing at various points of the day.

I did that with my wife and then tried to reverse engineer my goals around that. Especially to answer the question of when enough money really is enough and locking those goals in, rather than letting it being a sliding scale.

In my particular perfect world, I'm still working about 2-4 hours a day. But more on my terms and it's more about creating cool speculative stuff that isn't bastardized by cash flow objectives. :)

If you love your dog like it sounds like you do, you'll be a good parent if you choose to go down that road. I've now got two kids (a 2 year old and a 4 month old). My experience with having them has been more challenging, yet way more rewarding than I was ready for. And you're right, it has been in ways I wasn't expecting!


September 25, 2009 - 11:23am

I wonder how having a kid will change me...probably more ways than I could ever guess. ;)

Aaron, I don’t know why you and Giovanna are delaying this, but you guys should try to become parents ASAP.

The more you delay the more you miss the quality time to enjoy with your children. (As life has a time limit.)

I have a wonderful one year old daughter. She just learnt to walk and it seems she is enjoying this new freedom.

I want you and Giovanna to see this sweet video (43 seconds) of her enjoying her new found freedom. I hope you will get some joy out of it!!!

September 25, 2009 - 6:03pm

Wow that is quite young to be walking :)

September 22, 2009 - 10:28am

A fantastic read. Now have I to read those articles you cited.

Oh and yes, the army must really suck. I have never been in it, but enjoy watching films; and that's as far as I will go unless we are drafted, which is unlikely to happen (hopefully). The military are a bunch of muppets. They don't do anyone any favours, they break people down, and sometimes, screw people up for life.


September 22, 2009 - 1:49pm

They actually made my life ;) They were such bastards that they motivated me to never allow myself to be put in such a horrible situation again :D

September 26, 2009 - 3:32pm

I would never have realized how blessed I am now. All I need to be happy now is the basics. The years on the boat were most miserable years of my life for sure.

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