“Japanese are among the stingiest people in the world,” says Josei Jishin (Aug 19-26).
It’s in the genes, it seems. Genes don’t determine character but they predispose us to certain patterns of behavior. Psychologist Eiichi Takumi, who among other things helps business firms devise psychologically effective marketing strategies, tells Josei Jishin that, broadly speaking, the Japanese have anxious, fearful genes.
It’s a question of serotonin, he explains. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of optimism, relaxation and well-being. The Japanese genetic makeup is such that serotonin tends to circulate poorly, to such an extent that 80% of Japanese have “genes that are sensitive to anxiety” – as against 45% of Americans and 28% of South Africans, who must be very easygoing indeed.
Anxiety breeds stinginess. It’s hard to be generous when you’re fearful of the future, distrustful of others, and distrustful even of yourself – another byproduct of anxiety. Anxious people distance themselves from friends who might betray them, from lovers who are sure to be unfaithful, from opportunities at which they are bound to fail. In an uncertain and malevolent world, only one thing can be depended on: money.
The trouble with an article like Josei Jishin’s is that being told you’re genetically predisposed toward anxiety and stinginess can only make you more anxious and, therefore, more stingy. Nobody wants to be stingy – it’s not an attractive trait. The proverbial vicious circle comes into play: anxious genes produce anxiety, anxiety produces stinginess, being warned that you’re stingy and can’t help yourself makes you still more anxious, which makes you still more stingy, and so on.
Just how stingy am I, and how stingy are you? Josei Jishin provides the inevitable checklist, and if honesty compels you to check five items or more, you’re “dangerously stingy,” three or four being about average for Japan.
It’s an interesting list. The first item on it is predictable: “You don’t like associating with people.” The second isn’t: “You believe in fortune-telling.” Item 5: “You’re prone to anger.” Well, naturally – a stingy person would be. But item 4 is, “You save the tastiest part of your bento for last.” Surely lots of people are “stingy” to that extent!
What’s the connection between fortune-telling and stinginess? “Psychological studies have shown that people who believe in fortune-telling tend to be worriers,” says Takumi. “Fortune-telling is an extremely effective tool for calming anxiety. If you’re anxious about the future and you get a clear reading about the good and bad in store for you, it can be a relief.”
Fair enough – but saving the choicest bento morsels for last? It’s symptomatic, Takumi explains, of valuing possession over enjoyment, and shows that, even while it’s still on your plate, or in your bento box, your anxious mind is already fast-forwarding to the time when it no longer will be.
So what to do? How to escape the vise of gene-facilitated, serotonin-challenged stinginess? Takumi’s advice is to cultivate a long-term view of things and crack your egoistic shell by means, for example, of volunteer work. Awareness that you have a problem is half the solution. Reform, Josei Jishin promises, will lead to true happiness. No doubt it will. As with much expert advice, however, Takumi’s leaves you with a nagging doubt: If the solution is so simple, how come it’s so elusive?