There is a longstanding disputation between the acquisition of material comforts and possessions and the attainment of personal and interpersonal happiness; but even as we might write about or think about these things symmetrically, they are not at all in symmetry. It is possible to attain material possessions while having little or no personal or social happiness; on the other hand, it is impossible to attain happiness without some reasonable, though often small, measure of material comfort and safety. This difference is at the root of a terrible confusion.
Because some level of material ‘wealth’ is necessary for happiness, a weakness in human logic accepts the possibility that increases in wealth might be the very basis of that happiness: if a little wealth is required to be happy, then perhaps greater wealth will allow even greater happiness…because, ultimately it is happiness, in all its various forms, that we desire to be the primary condition of our lives.
Who would not agree with this: “If I could be fully satisfied with the conditions of my life, comfortable with its past and happy with its continuing form, there is little more that I could think to wish for beyond perhaps having these experiences with a pleasurable passion.” Since this leaves out any detail of what might insure these forms of happiness, I might be led to assume that any opportunities in life that would lead to the greatest personal satisfaction would be our most desired options.
But, you can imagine that many people would say: “If I had to choose between the perfect new car and being really happy, I’d pick being happy for sure!” Then they go right on doing a wage-slave job with an authoritarian boss, damaging their health with stress and lack of sleep, and try to soothe their discomfort by getting the perfect new car.
Their neighbors see the early moments of excitement and pleasure and assume that the new car really made them happy, since even though they live only a few feet away they have never talked about anything of personal importance. Its ‘Joe Versus the Volcano’ without the (unhappy) rich guy sending Joe on an ocean trip with a (unhappy) beautiful woman.
Of course, it is not this simple, while, of course, being just this simple. First, the not so simple part: the complexities of the world that we have made – for we have made it, there is no getting away from that – have made the discovery of and the recognition of happiness and satisfaction difficult, even without the temptations of material possessions. A remarkably large number of people don’t even know what happiness is or what they might do to pursue it.
This has come about by both accident and design. The accident is that humans have the capacity to change faster than they can keep up, but do not have the capacity to realize it or to slow down; of course, some individuals do, just not the species as a whole. The design is that a confused, unhappy public is much easier to prey upon than an engaged, informed public. The accident is that as the world gets more complex due to our numbers, technologies, economics and politics the effort required to keep the public grounded in reality grows exponentially and finally beyond possibility. The design is that the power of the masses is nullified by their confusion and disarray to the studied advantage of an elite; an elite no more grounded in reality, but more organized to dominate – controlling the world is their ‘new car.’
And just as simple… The life in the body is the same life that animated a Cro-Magnon, the same life that first crossed the Bering land bridge, the same life that buried the dead of the black plaque, the same life that marched with Grant or Lee to Appomattox, the same life that gave birth to all the billions born and the same life as in all the billions born.
We cannot live life for another, we never could. If we take the abundance of life that we are born with and demand that it have opportunity, we will be living in a way to honor those that carried life to us through the struggles of time. We are born without a promise other than the chance to live as the species that we are; the rest is peacock feathers and foolishness.
Understanding in this way will not change the world, but may change your life; and changing your life is the only way to change the world. If you stay the same and most others follow suit, then how ‘in the world’ could there be any change? If change is left to others, then the changes will derive from their understanding, needs and desires, not yours.
See your life as large; it has come to you from 4 billion years of unbroken struggle and determination, through the billions of individual lives and the millions of species that formed it and allowed it to be. Realize what it is for; it is not to be miserable, but blissful, and if it is not blissful – and in these times it will often not be – then begin the process of discovery to make your life as happy and blissful as possible in this time. A hint to begin: blissfulness will not come by doing more of what makes you miserable.