I think most of the developed world has been having a pretty limited conversation when it comes to formulating questions about the conditions necessary to bring about happiness. I don’t mean to suggest that people don’t think about happiness very much. I believe pretty much everyone believes they want to be happy. But I think the breadth and scope of modern man’s ideas concerning what will make him happy have been pared down considerably. For many of us, ideas of happiness have been shaped to a great extent by the needs and language of commerce.
The advertising discourse in which we’re immersed informs us that we need more or better, bigger and newer, sexier or stronger. It lures us into the trap of valuing our lives by material possessions. Before we know it, the yardstick becomes more like a riding-whip urging us on in the pursuit of more and more until our possessions become synonymous with who we are. At this point, the tangible transmogrifies into a representative of even the most intangible aspects of our lives, such as our personalities. In other words, the material aspects of our lives become a measure by which we value who we are as people. This can be viewed as the ascendancy of the tangible over the intangible (the psychic, emotional, and spiritual). Children, in our society, learn this lesson very young on the school playground when they’re made fun of or shunned for not wearing the right clothes, shoes, or for not having the latest smartphone.
But it’s all a fake-out. Like idols of times past, we’re fooled into believing that the possession of a certain thing will somehow bring us closer to the idea(s) and underlying reality with which it’s associated. The implication is that the tangible thing will deliver the ultimate intangible we all thirst for–happiness. This view of the world places less emphasis on achieving happiness through the individual’s personal development of their own ineffable qualities, like fortitude or grace, through internal struggle and triumph than the dogged pursuit of material wealth at whatever cost is required. The shift is away from a focus on a spiritual journey balanced between the internal and external worlds to one wholly transfixed on the brass ring the individual apprehends with snorting, bleary-eyed intensity. Consequences be damned. Everything will fall into place once the brass ring is finally grasped.
In time, practice dictates thought; form influences substance: giving rise to the mistake that the outer is the path to the inner. But this misconception isn’t unique to modern times. What’s new is the breadth of the types of physical things that we allow ourselves to be judged by and the extent to which we allow ourselves to be judged. Unfortunately, our judges don’t stay on the playground. Like the Furies of antiquity, they pursue us unceasingly. And there are more places for them to exist than ever before: Facebook, LinkedIn, not to mention the tv that lives in our phones, computers, and automobiles. They surround us on all sides relentlessly encroaching on what scant refuge remains.
Unless you have certain possessions by certain ages, the Furies claim you’re less worthy than all the countless peers who do. The judgement is self-evident. You either possess the thing or you don’t. You’re either acquitted or found guilty. It’s an excruciatingly bright line. The discourse doesn’t allow for any appeals based on any of the intangibles you possess. It doesn’t matter how noble or generous or kind you are. What matters is whether you make a certain amount of money or have a prestigious job. Then, of course, the car, clothes, house, address, etc., etc, etc. You either have them or not. You and everything that your skin encompasses will be judged by these things and these things only.
For what kind of world would we inhabit if the defendant were allowed to bring arguments about their inner beings into play? Next thing you know they’ll expect you to prize them just because they’re nice. Or magnanimous. But what cost is there to these things? It’s not as though they need to be purchased? These intangible qualities aren’t constrained or regulated by money. Anyone willing to strive for them can possess them in varying degrees. Such a society, as even kings and queens of old knew, has little economic value. We live in a world whose economy literally depends on production and consumption levels that, in turn, require the type of mind-set and motivations outlined above.
So here we are with our material possessions and our misery and little else. We come back to the question of what does it take to be happy? How much and what kind of material wealth is required? Moreover, what else is required? This is a trickier question. Our movies usually end at this point. Thelma and Louise; Bonnie and Clyde have just about made it. Just about to make the big score. Then they can retire to palm trees and paradise. If they can just get there, they can finally consume and have happiness.
So, let’s assume Bonnie and Clyde make it. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, they go riding off south of the border into a sun-drenched future. Will the palm trees and sand be enough for happiness? Or can we just as safely assume sunburns and hangovers? What, other than sex, money, and sun, will Mr. and Mrs. Clyde need to be happy? The next post in the happiness principle series will take this up.