After Tim McCarthy sold his marketing company for $45-million (U.S.), he distributed $8-million to key employees, the same proportion he shared with Uncle Sam, and went further by inviting senior managers to spend time at his expense in New York City. He rented a yacht so they could enjoy the ocean, treated them to Broadway plays, and sent them to Tiffany's, where he told them to buy something on him. But things went awry.
"They got cranky," he recalled in an interview. "I was so disappointed. I told them, 'I am taking you all on the trip of a lifetime, and you're all fighting. Why?'"
Today, he has a ready answer: Anhedonia. It's the inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable. Now semi-retired, living in his hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio, with more money than he really needs, he has been exploring our relationship to money and things, and what is the proper balance. His ideas have come together in a book whose title sums up many people's lives: Empty Abundance.
After spending many years in advertising, he is familiar with what he calls "the hamster wheel of consumption" that pervades our lives. But he is concerned with the emptiness we can feel after spending – or being handed $45-million for your company.
"Soon after I got the money, I was really struggling. Did I deserve this? Will I invest it well? Will I use it for good? I would have thought that after so many years of my life working my tail off, I would have been happy with $45-million, but I wasn't," he said.
What were his options? Buy a 100-foot yacht? He would rarely use it and it would require a crew to keep it up for such little sailing. A second home in Cannes, France? He has a lovely home now. A Porsche? He would probably worry about it being damaged or stolen.
At age 25, he had been moved by Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. His mother, who wrote for the Chicago Tribune, always advised him to pursue moderation in all things – including moderation. He had to find meaning and purpose amid great wealth, avoiding empty abundance.
He stressed that he far from an ascetic. His beautiful home is on a lake. He drives a Cadillac. He visits his three children and grandchildren when he likes. He took his daughter on a shopping spree to celebrate her new job and bought her four outfits. And he is taking his family – wife, children, spouses, and grandchildren – to Ireland to visit his sister. "I wouldn't get an apartment in Cannes, but I live well," he said.
He first experienced anhedonia as he was rising up the career ladder, gaining more and more income but not more fulfilment. In the book, he says the notion that money doesn't buy happiness has been backed by many studies. Gallup poll data show that residents of the United States are three times richer than they were in 1950, but the happiness ratings haven't shifted. A Princeton study in 2010 found that life satisfaction rises with income, but that everyday happiness changes little once a person reaches $75,000 a year.
He loves to tell the story of a billionaire he knows who, while sailing the Mediterranean on an extravagant yacht, excitedly called his business manager to describe its wonders and tell him he just had to acquire one. After taking a few moments to collect himself, the manager said to his friend, "Jack, you bought that exact boat four years ago, and it's currently docked unused in Miami."
Mr. McCarthy points to three non-anhedonians he knows:
A teacher who should be tired of kids at the end of the week but still volunteers at Bible school on Sundays.
A young executive making $150,000 a year who sits on a volunteer board that requires she invest five hours a week and significant money to their cause.
A friend of his wife's who has a very busy house-cleaning business yet also provides overnight home care for elderly people, often for no pay.
"These three people ironically strike me as among the happiest people I know, while my anhedonian friends seem to chase their tails," he writes. "Over time, I have found that the cure for anhedonia, at least for me, is service. Of equal importance is my work to become present in this moment. This moment, this time, this life – that's all we have, since there will be no other."
He has a foundation that pursues issues of importance to him. He also pays attention to warding off two other elements of empty abundance: Filling the void through unhealthy addictions, which is commonplace, and despair, which can consume us when robbed of pleasure.
He is familiar with addictions, recalling when he smoked three packs of cigarettes daily, one menthol since by the end of the day that was the only way he could taste anything. And he is familiar with despair, which leads him to want to be controlling. Perhaps, to an extent, that was what was happening in Tiffany's, since his managers were asking if they could pay extra from their own money to purchase something and he wanted the gift to be purely from him.
He closes by stressing you shouldn't avoid abundance: "Find your own abundance. Each person has a different view of abundance – it's very personal. Find what abundance is for you, and enjoy it."
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail email@example.com