Is optimism enough?

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Mr Micawber’s character was based on Dickens’ own father.  Dickens must have loved his Dad.

The Micawber principle (as the quote’s known) has been appropriated as an  encomium to thrift. It was even trotted out at a Tory conference as an endorsement of monetarism.

But Wilkins Micawber is a more than the talisman of  the balanced budget. Would monetarists embrace this shout out for financial insecurity …?

Welcome poverty!..Welcome misery, welcome houselessness, welcome hunger, rags, tempest, and beggary! Mutual confidence will sustain us to the end!

I remember a discussion about this at college

money is the root of all evil  

claimed the socialist

…the love of money is the root of all evil

said the Christian

the need for money is the root of all evil

I thought.

But this is a blog not a sermon.

In 30 years as a financial adviser I have yet to find a universal definition for financial security nor a financial model that generally secures happiness.

My rich friends are generally unhappy – paranoid about losing their wealth through taxes, theft or other assorted neuroses.

My “not so rich” friends are just as  frustrated – envious that they don’t have the wealth in the first place.

Money and happiness are not friends.

My friends who are happy are sometimes rich (like Happy Henry) and sometimes not so rich (like me and my brothers) . Whether rich or poor we find happiness from what’s around us, whether we own them or not.

Like Mr Micawber – Happy Henry, my brothers and I have an optimistic outlook – there is a link between happiness and optimism even when that optimism is  ill-founded .

Ever the optimist ,Micawber in the debtor’s prison, has no money. He’s deprived of the comfort of family and friends and has no prospect of releast, but his “mutual confidence” never escapes him.

His is the kingdom of the welfare state.

We are not facing poverty as Dickens knew it. Those who starve today, do so on the TV and internet not in the Fleet.

There is a saintly happiness among the utterly destitute but that comes from resignation – but resignation is not optimism and  the saintly poor don’t last long enough to tell their tale.

The truly destitute prey upon my imagination. Their images remind me that the conversations I have with my clients refer to “relative not absolute” poverty. Their desperate situations gives me some perspective (a sense of humour about the triviality of our plight).

When I think of Micawber and of those haunted faces on the TV, I question why I’m so keen on helping people grow old prosperously.

Once out of destitution, does increased income really equate to increased happiness

My work suggests that what people fear is not poverty itself but getting poorer. It’s  the prospect of a falling standard of living leads to unhappiness. This may be a pride thing but it’s none the less real for that.

I can give consolation to my clients that they need not suffer this drop in  living standards. I can convince people that by planning ahead and being smart , people can maintain happiness and dignity in old age.  

But in providing that  consolation, am I doing much more than  pandering to their insecurities?

Wouldn’t I be better encouraging them to enjoy today?

Am I dangling the prospect of future penury  to frighten them into deferred consumption? Perhaps what they need is an optimistic outlook like Mr Micawber’s.

Perhaps I should be advising them that “something will turn up”.


Despite such moments of uncertainty, I’ve ended up reckoning we do need to plan ahead; I’ve concluded that for most people (me included) , Mr Micawber’s outlook , likeable as it is, is a recipe for misery.

Most people want to smooth out their prosperity so that they do not suffer the  reversals that beset Micawber ,Dickens and their families.

If there is utility in the savings process, it is in the peace of mind – the consolation – it brings. Call it the comfort of financial security. It may be shaky – but it is consoling  and it makes people happy –that’s useful.

Is that why Micawber’s so beloved by those for whom his attitudes and lifestyle are an anathema?

My conclusion;- Micawber, the most feckless character in Dickens , is desperately happy and consoles us both in his desperation and his good humour!

The irredeemably feckless, of which I am one, do not want or need the comfort of financial security. The reckless spender who can argue over pennies and waste fortunes, will court financial insecurity. It provides a different buzz which can be as addictive as security is to others. 

Betting your house on a horse or buying a wooden boat, shopping at Prada or marrying a drug addict;- there are as many ways of destroying wealth as stars in the sky. Fortunately for the Treasury, the impecunious happy spendthrifts are a minority group. 

People like me save as a hedge against our own stupidity! That does not make our saving less valid.

We are the holy fools of the material world.

We offer a  sense of humour , a way of laughing in church. Ours is an awareness of the silliness of material possessions. We sense that there are deeper values that really drive happiness; that’s what we hanker for.

I suspect that my clients know that I do not practice what I preach. What  they  like is the conflict between my impetuous nature and my conservative advice.

Am I a hypocrite? 

I’d say no . I  – like Dickens –  am merely a commentator.

Though I am no Dickens and but a cog in the machine  of financial planning  I know that financial security is not what  drives happiness (though it can be its platform). Happiness  is a deeper and more precious commodity than either money or the things that money can buy.

I am optimistic.

Optimism is not enough but it is a central ingredient to the happiness cocktail .

And without optimism we will not be happy.

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About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen,, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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