Tag Archive: USA

The Misguided Pursuit of Happiness

It’s hard to imagine a single phrase that has had a more profound impact on human civilization than the one enshrined in the United States Declaration of Independence: “the pursuit of happiness.” The exercise of this unalienable right has served as a primary driving force of the entire American enterprise, which in turn has dramatically reshaped the rest of the world, both physically and psychologically. Through globalization, an ever-growing percentage of humanity is joining the chase, which might be a good thing if not for a few deep and related flaws in the Founding Fathers’ famous phrase.

The most obvious and dire problem is the widespread conflation of happiness with material gain, which can be traced back to the Founding Fathers themselves. However noble their intentions, they were constrained by Enlightenment values and blinded by their own privilege as wealthy landowners, and in some cases slaveholders. To be fair, they borrowed the phrase in question from the English philosopher John Locke, whose shortlist of unalienable rights included “Life liberty, and estate,” meaning property.

Another portion of the blame can be assigned to Calvinism, a Protestant denomination that has had—and continues to have—an enormous influence on American culture. In a near total inversion of traditional Christian morality, Calvinists regard wealth as a sign of piety and a mark of God’s grace, whereas poverty and rebelliousness indicate an individual who is hopelessly hell-bound.

Apart form these historical influences on the USA’s MO, there’s an important psychological reason why the pursuit of happiness remains married to material gain: we’re all constantly besieged by ads telling us that fulfillment lies in the acquisition of a certain product and the achievement of a certain lifestyle, and we have been since childhood. In fact, in recent years the advertising industry has been targeting ever-younger children, including toddlers, in a ruthless and highly effective campaign to instill consumerism in kids.

Of course, we’re also taught that money can’t buy happiness, but we refuse to believe it despite personal experience. Additionally, the old adage has received new support from scientific studies, such as one by economist Richard Layard showing that once people’s basic needs are met, greater income provides them no additional happiness, and in fact makes them more prone to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. The magic number, the salary at which happiness peaks, is about $20,000 per year.

(If your inner voice screams, “I can’t live on that!” then consider that half of humanity lives on $900/year, while one quarter squeaks by on $450/year. According to a recent Daily Mail article, the global average salary is $1225/year, and a salary of $32,000 puts you in the global 1 percent. And yes, these numbers are adjusted for purchasing power, so there’s no arguing about how much 32K would buy in Bangladesh.)

So if 20K is the optimum annual salary (actually, it’s far less, all things considered), then why do we continuously clamor for more? The simple truth is that once someone achieves a certain standard of living, she becomes attached to it and can’t imagine living with less. Former extravagances become necessities, and the pursuit becomes a vicious, unending cycle. In general, we underestimate the addictive nature of money and possessions, forever imagining that we’d be happy with just a little more.

Finally we come to the biggest bug in the operating system, a flaw so glaring that we generally fail to see it: happiness cannot be pursued. Clearly it cannot be found in some external object or future situation, in some other place and time. It can only arise here and now, and only when allowed to do so. This is because happiness is actually our default setting, our natural state, which gets obscured by the desire for more. In other words, happiness is prevented by pursuit, in the same way that a forgotten name or number won’t usually come to mind until you stop thinking about it.

The poet Guillaume Appollinaire put it succinctly: “Sometimes it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.”

As it turns out, happiness is not a product but a practice. It abides in the heart, a muscle that can be exercised through the cultivation of everyday contentment, gratitude, and generosity, which arise whenever the craving for more is relinquished. Indeed happiness comes not from having but from giving, and is borne from a deep understanding of human interconnection. Had the Founding Fathers understood this more deeply, they could have issued a Declaration of Interdependence based on life, liberty, and love, thereby saving everyone a lot of trouble.


The following article was originally published on elephant journal on March 29, 2013.

Surely you’ve heard about the “law of attraction.” It has appeared in many guises since at least the middle of the 19th century, when the movement known as New Thought first swept America. Another big wave hit in the early 20th century, when books like The Science of Getting Rich made explicit the connection between positive thinking and material wealth. If you buy into the 2006 movie The Secret that most recently popularized positivity, the law of attraction has been known and safeguarded throughout history by towering figures like Plato, Shakespeare, Newton, and Lincoln.

Frankly, I hope you don’t buy into The Secret and its dubious claims. Both the film and the book have been widely criticized for promoting materialism, victim blaming, and a political passivity that ignores or dismisses the deep flaws in the system. The suggestion is that if you’re poor or otherwise beset with misfortune, it’s basically your fault. If this loopy logic sounds familiar, that’s because it’s frequently espoused by Christian conservatives.

Which raises the question of why the law of attraction has been embraced by so many New Age liberals. Granted, the prescription has shifted from thinking positive to cultivating a “mentality of abundance,” and the focus is often extended beyond money to include meaningful work and loving relationships. Still, judging from the number of books and expensive seminars on the subject, the “think and grow rich” notion remains alive and well, especially among those who are already quite wealthy by global standards.

According to the Census Bureau, median income in the US is about $30,000 per person. This might sound fairly modest until we consider that half the world lives on less than $2.50/day (about $900/year), while a quarter live in “deep poverty” on less than half of that. The usual response to this disparity is to advocate raising the standard of living for people in poorer countries, and rightly so. But few folks in the so-called developed world would be willing to consider lowering their own standard of living. In fact, the resounding chorus of capital sings incessantly of economic growth, while most us either absentmindedly hum along or single-mindedly chant the mantra of “more money.”

The question rarely asked by moguls and manifestors alike is how much is enough? Well, thanks to author and activist David Ulansey, we can calculate an actual dollar amount by dividing the Gross World Product (about $80 trillion in 2011) by the number of people on Earth (~7 billion) to arrive at a figure of roughly $12,000 per year per capita. Since this GWP figure is already adjusted for purchasing power, 12K marks a particular standard of living in the US and its equivalent in other countries, NOT what that amount would buy elsewhere. Based on an equal distribution of wealth, then, 12K/yr is the amount to which each human being is entitled, meaning that a higher income involves taking more than one’s fair share. Ulansey is more blunt, stating that “any more than that represents institutionalized and socially sanctioned armed robbery.”

The kicker is that this amount is already unsustainably high for planet Earth, which has been in resource overshoot since 1986. Since then, humanity has been living off of its ecological credit card, taking about 130% more than can be replaced, essentially borrowing if not stealing from future generations. Accounting for this overshoot as well as the increasing global population, the figure in question should be more like $6000/yr. This is the acceptable level both ethically and ecologically, given that the more money you make, the more resources you consume. Collectively, we Americans use about 1/3 of the world’s resources, yet comprise only about 6% of the global population.

Thus most Americans, rather than increasing their means, need to decrease them, in many cases dramatically so. This is the secret law of attrition. It’s a secret not only because most folks don’t know about it, but also because they don’t want to know about it. By and large, we have become so attached to our material comforts that we can scarcely imagine living without them. Little do we realize that our possessions have come to possess us, that our houses are like so many prisons built upon foundations of scarcity and fear.

Although based on compassion, the law of attrition is not about making some difficult and noble sacrifice but about extending the concept of wealth beyond the material realm into the natural, social, artistic, and spiritual realms. It’s about shifting from quantity to quality, and from making a living to making a life, along with the time to enjoy it. It’s about actually embodying the maxim that less is more, and about finally learning the lesson of the world’s wisdom traditions that the key to happiness—the true secret, if you will—lies not in getting but in giving, not in having but in sharing, not in holding on but in letting go.

America the Addicted

The following article was originally published on The Mindful Word on November 12, 2012.

Uncle Sam Addicted to Oil
Soon after his awakening, the Buddha gave what would prove to be his most popular and enduring teaching, known as The Four Noble Truths. After first establishing suffering or stress as intrinsic to life, the Buddha then posited the root cause of this dis-ease as tanha, meaning “thirst.” More common translations of this ancient Pali word are attachment, craving, clinging, and grasping.

Although each of these interpretations comes close, none of them quite hits the mark. First of all, thirst is generally a healthy desire, especially in our chronically dehydrated culture. (Have you had your eight glasses of water today?) “Attachment” works better, except that there are healthy forms of attachment, such as love between mother and child. Cravings are usually unhealthy, though they may also indicate a nutrient deficiency. And while grasping and clinging definitely cause distress, these tendencies are so common and subtle as to be mostly undetectable.

As I see it, the best diagnosis is “addiction.” If not the most accurate translation, it’s certainly the most applicable to our modern industrial culture in general, and to America in particular, where highly addictive drugs like nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine are perfectly legal and widely available. (Meanwhile, many non-addictive substances, some known to actually cure addictions, carry long prison sentences.) Topping the list of socially sanctioned, addictive drugs are prescription painkillers, which have surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death in the US. Our country’s obesity epidemic bespeaks an addiction to unhealthy convenience foods, many of which are engineered to keep us hooked. Our collective addiction to shopping is evident in the fact that the US comprises only 5% of the planet’s population yet consumes about 1/3 of its resources. Our addiction to TV keeps us glued to the set for almost 6 hours a day on average, and the time spent staring dumbly at our smartphones and computers is steadily increasing.

Yet these are just our most obvious addictions, merely symptoms of a problem that goes much deeper. Instead of blaming the victim, we must realize that addiction lies at the very core of American culture. We are, after all, a country predicated on “the pursuit of happiness,” which too often means grasping after fleeting pleasures. This is certainly the message of advertisers, who endeavor to sell us the next trendy gadget designed to fall immediately into obsolescence. Indeed, if consumer culture were to provide us with lasting happiness, it would render itself obsolete.

Is the media to blame? Only partly, for they exist mainly to serve corporations, which in turn exist only to make money, a fact well understood by the CEO who must either remain in the black or be given a pink slip. But the buck doesn’t stop there, because the necessity of profits is dictated by a monetary system based on usury. Due to banks’ ability to charge interest on money created from thin air, there is never enough money in existence to repay debts. This generates the need for GDP to rise exponentially.

Thus at the heart of the system lies a constant demand for more, at any cost. This is the impulse of the addict, who will lie, steal, and even kill in order to obtain the next fix. On the collective scale, the politicians and pundits do the lying, the corporations and banks do the stealing, and the government does the killing—all in the name of maintaining business-as-usual, even in the face of global warming, mass extinction, ocean collapse, continents of plastic, rising cancer rates, decaying social structures, and other crises we are encouraged to ignore.

Addiction is, by definition, unhealthy and destructive. Taken to its extreme, it is suicidal, aligned with what Freud called the death instinct. Apparently, this is part of human nature, but it is not the better part. As members of the Earth community, we are also driven by a strong instinct for life, which includes a desire for growth, healing, and spiritual realization. This is the essence of the Buddha’s third Noble Truth: recovery is possible.

In the realm of addiction, the desire for life often manifests only at death’s door, or at the point of utter despair known as “hitting bottom.” This is where humanity seems to be headed. In some cases, however, the addict is prevented from hitting bottom by an intervention, which on the cultural scale might look like revolution. Unfortunately, interventions and revolutions often meet with limited or temporary success, mainly because the impetus for change originates from an external source and leaves the underlying motivations intact.

In the best instance, the bottom can be raised, as it were, by the addict’s own realization of where his behavior will lead. Not only will it destroy him physically, it will not and cannot bring the emotional security he so desperately seeks. As our spiritual traditions tell us, true and lasting happiness must come from within. Wealth, power, fame, status, good looks, and other externalities that our culture peddles are nothing but fool’s gold—artificial substitutes for the real thing.

Despite what the old ads say, Coke is not the real thing. The real thing, that which we want most and fear most, is intimacy—with others, with our selves, and with our own emotional states, however difficult they can be. Essentially, addiction is a way of avoiding intimacy in all its forms, a turning away from reality. But we have turned away long enough. It’s high time for us to look squarely at our predicament, to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of our culture and our selves, and to take steps toward true freedom.

“My name is Uncle Sam, and I am powerless over my addictions. My life has become unmanageable…”