A View of Prosperity and the Meaning of Happiness

This article by Bob Rogers is being reprinted from Just One Opinion for the convenience of visitors to New Bohemians. It received positive and negative comments. What do you think?

For a varied selection of timely articles, go to:  http://justoneopinion.com

For more from our adventures in Fiji, New Caledonia and Vanuatu, seeSonglines

We are the most prosperous people in the world; it’s our birthright. At least that is what we thought until recently. It is a new day. Angst has replaced arrogance, and we have a new uncomfortable understanding of limits.

Americans, particularly the middle class, are suffering with varying degrees of wealth loss, and our sense of personal security and prosperity has taken a big hit. Consumer confidence levels are at historic lows, our stress levels high; not a recipe for happy citizens.

Tough times bring angst, depression and anger. Tough times also offer a great opportunity to reexamine our core beliefs, our basic assumptions, about how we define prosperity, happiness; how we perceive the good life.

Now is a great time to ask some challenging and potentially rewarding questions: Would we be less happy without all the possessions we have come to assume are the necessities of modern life? What if the reverse were true, that one might be happier with less?

This idea that limiting our possessions could lead to more life satisfaction is akin to religious blasphemy, the religion being consumerism. It’s a religion that has made us wealthy in material things, but hasn’t made us happy.

The very nature of a consumer economy is that we are forever dissatisfied with our station in life, as defined by our possessions. We learn at an early age that he, or she with the most toys stands at the top of the social order. The problem is, no matter how hard one works, no matter how wealthy one becomes, there is always someone with more wealth, more cars, houses, yachts, club memberships, more toys.

While hiking in the mountains around Tucson, I notice that the higher on the mountain, the more expensive the lot, and the larger the house. It is a very literal representation of our need to place ourselves above others to show that we are superior beings, perhaps closer to our god, because we can afford to live higher than others.

Having once owned a house with spectacular mountain views on one side and an island dotted strait and snow capped volcano view on the other, I know something about expensive lots, and expansive views. The novelty wears off; just the same as it does for the new luxury car, the third and fourth houses, the larger yacht, the fawning of the spa staff…

Most people work fairly hard to achieve a high plateau of consumption, and might reasonably think the reward ought to be great happiness. Not so apparently. The rich are happier than the poor, no surprise there, but that difference probably comes from knowing they have a cushion of security; great health insurance comes to mind, that the poor lack. But their possessions have little or no relationship to level of life satisfaction.

On the World Database of Happiness, America is currently at number 23, a somewhat humble number considering our wealth. The happiest people now live in Denmark, a small European country known for it’s somewhat unique balance of capitalism and socialism. They have a vibrant capitalist economy, combined with cradle to grave social system. No one is extremely poor but no one is extremely rich either. No one pays for excellent healthcare or education, but few have opulent lifestyles. They are the 11th most-free market economy; not remotely socialist.

It’s not as if Danes with more education and drive don’t get ahead, they do, but their rewards are more likely to be in professional and social prestige, rather than things. They take pleasure in community and social interaction, not individual aggrandizement.

All this capitalist freedom lives sided by side with the highest taxes in the world. That goes against all we came to believe in 20th century America: low taxes, small government and a loose spending populace are the only route to prosperity. We may have to reconsider that premise. We may no longer be able to sustain the consumer driven model. Many have come to the end of their rope; they just can’t work any harder. Couples have to work long hours, sometimes at multiple jobs to provide the American Dream, only to find they are spending their happiness, sense of security and even their health for a dream that, by its very nature, must always remain out of reach.

The Danes know how to be thankful, and how to be satisfied with fewer possessions, but more time to enjoy them, more sense of security and more happiness. That might not be the trade-off some would want to make, but the American middle class may soon realize it is they who are doing the real work, and benefiting the least. It is seldom the poor who start revolutions, but the middle class. This last election could have been the first shot fired in a bloodless war against worn out ideas. The middle class may no longer be content to be the spending engine of an unsustainable economic model.

Of the countries we have visited, mostly by bicycle and sailboat, our overall impressions of the people’s sense of well being, their smiles and eagerness to interact, follows the happiness list fairly well, like tiny Vanuatu, at number 24, just below the U.S.

bailing out to swim for home

Sometimes it is the poorer peoples who understand happiness best. When Claire and I crewed on the catamaran Songlines, we anchored off remote islands in Fiji, similar in lifestyle to Vanuatu. The people grew their food and lived in shacks smaller than many garden sheds in America. One afternoon as we strolled a beach, we were invited, in sign language, to join two ladies for tea, in the shade of their windowless home. We drank strong tea from inexpensive but ornate mugs, an obvious source of pride, ate home made scones and jam, shared photos and “talked.” After an hour of warm communication, we reluctantly left to row the skiff back to Songlines, a modern sailboat probably worth more than their entire village. No money changed hands; it would have been an insult to their hospitality. As we parted, their faces showed the joy they had received from the giving, and our faces beamed our genuine appreciation.

It is a moment we will not forget. Human happiness is a far more complex idea than having great success, many possessions. Happiness is sharing, the giving and receiving, of that most precious and limited of possessions, time.

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