Posted by: spiritthrive | August 23, 2012

The Present Value of Happiness

In finance, the present value of money is how much something is worth today, based on the estimate of what it will be in the future.

For example, if you believe that an interest rate of 5% per year is what you can get for an investment or loan, then you loaning me $100 today is equivalent to you being repaid $105 one year after you make the loan.

Of course, if this is below the rate of inflation, or I do not repay you, then this “time value of money” equivalency no longer holds or is at least not a very wise path for you to take.

But what is the present value of happiness?

One of my favorite parables goes as follows:

A farmer in 5th century China gives birth to a healthy boy. All his neighbors rejoice, saying, “You are so lucky! Someday you will have a great helper for your farm!”

But the farmer replies, “Perhaps.”

In the late winter of the boy’s 14th year, a strong storm strikes the village, and the farmer’s only horse escapes its pen, never to be seen again.

The farmer’s neighbors say, “You are so unlucky! Now you cannot plow your fields and you will surely starve to death!”

And again the farmer answers, “Perhaps.”

A month later several wild mustangs are running near the farmer’s land, and the farmer and his son corral six of them into their pen.

The villagers observe, “You are so lucky! Now you have all the horses you need to plow your fields, and you can even sell some horses for extra income!”

“Perhaps,” the farmer repeats.

While helping train one of the wild mustangs, the son has an accident and breaks his leg.

“You are so unlucky! Now your son cannot help you with the farm chores!” cry the neighbors.


Two months later the local khan comes into the farmer’s village proclaiming that all boys 14 and older are conscripted for service in a war. Upon visiting the farmer, the khan observes that the farmer’s son, with his broken leg, will be of no good use on the battlefield, and exempts him from service.

“What wonderful luck!” say the villagers.

By now you know what the farmer replies…

The villagers are acting according to human nature, of course. It is a natural instinct to predict what good or bad may result from any event. The farmer in the parable, on the other hand, seems to greet each event on its own merits, with little to no regard for its future consequences.

Perhaps the farmer understands that living fully in every moment will bring him much greater value than any projected, unrealized future returns.



  1. […] Over time (perhaps not as instantaneous as eating a piece of fruit) people learned they could assign a value judgment to events, and began to do so with increasing anxiousness. (See the Chinese farmer’s tale.) […]

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