We have all absorbed the message that money can’t buy happiness through popular culture, and to some extend, we believe it.
But only to a highly limited extent. The extent, that is, to which we are thinking of our own situation. It soothes us to think that people richer than us are no happier, or preferably, less happy due to their wealth. That’s why there is always a big demand for entertainment in which high status people endure terrible hardships.
That gives us the double pleasure of imagining we are them (status balm number one) while cutting off feelings of jealousy and rivalry by having these people be demonstrably less happy, either because fate is punishing them for the temerity of insulting our own status with their highness or because their wealth has made them morally inferior to us and they are their own worst enemy (status balm #1).
Incidentally, science only supports one of those, and it’s not the first one.
But the thing is, this applies to all citizens no matter their prosperity level, even very high levels. So before we go patting ourselves on the back because we are obviously at the correct level of status and prosperity, remember that there is someone who thinks you are too rich to be happy, and someone else who thinks people at your level must be miserable drudges…. unlike themselves.
But notice that in this scenario, we are only imagining ourselves to be in our current position. From wherever we are now, it is safe and comforting to think that money can’t buy happiness.
Hence this Beatles song :
But if we imagine ourselves in a much wealthier, more high status position, this belief that money can’t buy happiness vanishes. Ask someone to imagine that they have won ten million dollars in the lottery and ask them what they would do in that case, and you will find that people cannot help imagining that they would be far, far happier. Myself included.
As I have said before in this space, this is because that is what consumer society teaches us. The true deep philosophy of a consumer society is that there is no problem money can’t solve. So when we image ourselves with lots of money, we implicitly imagine all our problems disappearing and every pleasure we can think of being at our fingertips. Even if, consciously, we know that probably isn’t true.
But like I have also said before, money can’t make people love you. It doesn’t improve the quality of your relationships with others. It doesn’t get you recognized by your peers as something special in an of yourself. It doesn’t improve your self-esteem – shit with money is still shit.
In short, it does very little to improve the things that we know, scientifically, lead to happiness. And yet our need to believe that happiness is something you can buy (as opposed to something you have to acquire via other means) that all the scientific evidence in the world could not convince us of otherwise.
So we internalize this consumerist faith very strongly and from the age we first realized money got you things. It runs through to the very core of our being and one only has to question it lightly (by suggesting, for instance, that you – the person reading this – might not be any happier with a lotto win) in order to see hope deep this unquestionable faith runs.
In fact, odds are that right now your mind is busy formulating a response to my questioning of this faith that money would make you happier that would prove that it would, indeed. You are likely thinking of all the things you would do with the money, both selfish and worthy, and are ready to present this as proof that while other people might not be happier with more money, you definitely would because you know just what to do with the money, unlike other people who would do other, less intelligent things.
But that’s beside the point entirely. Everybody thinks they they would know how to use the money right. This is a necessary belief in order to maintain the faith in the power of money. The idea that you personally would not be any happier with millions of dollars is a profound heresy of the first order, and the minds of us products of consumer society simply refuses to even entertain the thought.
It might be true for other people…. but not us!
The faith runs so deep that we react almost as though questioning it will somehow make it less likely to happen to us. As if there is some god of money who might be listening in, and they will shrug and say “Well I was going to give them a ton of money, but it won’t make them any happier, so…. on to someone else!”.
That sort of clearly irrational belief is a sure sign that you are dealing with a deep faith, deep enough to inculcate deeply irrational but intractable superstitions in the population.
And again, I am very much including myself in that population. I feel it too!
Given all this, it is no wonder that so many people are unhappy in modern consumer culture. We are taught that more money would make us happier, and when that turns out not to be true (we’ve just established a new normal), we assume the solution to the problem must be…. still more money!
And people will live their whole lives via this delusion. They will pursue more money and status no matter how often it fails to make them any happier. Even after they have reached a level where they are very comfortable and not particularly unhappy, they will still strive for more.
Why? Because they are terrified of what would happen if they were to stop. If they stopped, they would actually have to deal with themselves. They would be forced to realize that the things they really want are simple not for sale and that in order to get them, they will have to do things like deal directly with people as human beings, and do things like wait their turn, negotiate, compromise, open themselves up emotionally, and all kinds of other things they have been avoiding by acquiring wealth.
In short, they would have to become human beings again, no different than any other.
And they would rather die.
I will talk to you nice people again tomorrow.