Tag Archive: wealth


The Misguided Pursuit of Happiness

pursuit
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.

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

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.