An uncommon source for common ground

By now, we should all be more than aware  money doesn’t by happiness. Whether it’s Paul McCartney and the Beatles singing “Can’t Buy Me Love” or Benjamin Franklin eloquently professing the nature of work, the message has been heard loud and clear.

So here’s my question: Why don’t we act on it?

Why do we continue to place the blame for our current woes not on our misunderstanding of the human condition and all its complexities, but rather on economics, or a lack of growth and prosperity.

There is all this talk about money not leading to happiness, yet I see no evidence of this being put into action. There are plenty of individuals sharing this message with the world, from writers and artists to Buddhist monks and politicians. But the message isn’t downloading. It isn’t reaching our core. Rather, it remains floating on the surface of our consciousness as an accepted fact but unachievable reality. We theoretically accept happiness is more than money and that money is simply a means to an end, yet “money as an instrument” remains at the center of our actions to achieve happiness. Isn’t that just the same thing as saying we need money to be happy? When I get to this point of reflection, a simple yet jam-packed question crawls to the tip of my tongue: why?

The answer is surely far from simple, and it is probably tied up in the muddled mess we call our minds, hiding from plain sight. To me, though, this contradiction arises because no one is talking about what happiness without money might look like. Very few are able to translate this abstract idea into the physical reality that is the world around us.  Our only tools on hand are our thoughts, opinions, cries for help, and complaints—all useful in helping to shed light on the situation, but less useful in offering real ways to convert a known truth into lived reality.

I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers, but I am going to share with you some things I have done in my life to try and embrace this concept. There are things we can do every single day to shift our search from happiness away from the material and towards the human. Is it difficult? I don’t know—the jury is still out on this one. It is difficult in the sense we might have to break some habits deeply engrained in our existence, but it’s easy in that we would be acting more rationally than we ever have before. We would be rejecting what we have been told is in our best interest—our own personal well-being— and choosing instead what is actually in our best interest—the well-being of all. Once we see the benefit that comes from turning our attention off physical, tangible wants and needs that can never be satisfied, the journey should become easier, and it should bring joy.  Here are a few things to consider:

Acceptance

The first thing we can do requires nothing more than a shift of mindset. We must embrace the reality that material pursuit sends us chasing down the wrong path. To illustrate this, I turn to what I am calling my most unlikely ally, Representative Mark Sanford (R-S.C). A member of the “Freedom Caucus,” the two of us could probably find little common ground politically. In fact, it doesn’t really feel right to align myself with this gentleman, but he pointed to something in President Trump’s budget very few people are talking about: the assumption the economy can achieve three percent growth for 10 years.

The backlash coming from the president’s budget focuses, understandably, on the proposed massive cuts to social programs, the tax relief offered to the wealthy, and the attempts to shrink the welfare state in the name of big business. But very few are talking about what Mr. Sanford brought up: the plan is based on everyone getting three percent richer each and every year. This would be an unprecedented occurrence in the recent history of the US economy, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest this just simply isn’t realistic. So while the logic behind the Trump budget is flawed on its own, our reaction to it indicates a flaw in our understanding about the role of pursuing wealth in our lives.

Now Sanford is a budget hawk, so his real goal here is reigning in the deficit, thinking such an act will make life better for all. From an ideological standpoint, though, what he is really saying is that improving living standards comes first from living within our means. It comes from accepting we can’t always get richer and richer, so we must instead live in a way that protects us from the shocks and crises inherent in a global growth economy.

This is not a Democrat or Republican thing; it’s not even really a political thing. The Trump budget, administration, and movement supporting it is based on growth, regardless of the social and environmental costs, but Democrats have an equal love affair with growth. They just have a different approach to achieving it. Official party platforms center on job creation, but more jobs comes from expanded economic activity, or growth. Let’s strip away the cloud surrounding growth and call it what it is: material pursuit.

Growth in this context is nothing more than jargon meaning “to get richer,” and fundamentally, our focus on it represents our belief that more money will mean a better life. For proof of this, simply look around at how many leaders have a message that doesn’t include our typical understanding of growth, more money. Even liberal sweetheart Bernie Sanders won’t go this far.

Part of this is out of our hands.  Our financial system is set up in such a way that our money is meaningless and loses value every day, a phenomenon known to politicians, the news media, and the general public as inflation. If we do nothing, we get poorer simply because our money loses value, and since we know our lives will likely get worse if we get poorer without choosing to do so, we have to get richer just to keep up. In this sense, we’re getting richer to stay the same. We have trapped ourselves in a vicious cycle where our lives get worse because of material pursuit, and the only solution we have to make them better is grounded in material pursuit.

There’s a much deeper, more nuanced argument around this concept. I encourage you to investigate on your own. Critics of this standpoint would say a properly run banking system does not do this, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say our banking system is far from “proper.” The underlying argument remains the same—we seem to be chasing something forever out of our reach.

So the first thing we can do to help guide our quest to happiness is to simply end our love affair with growth. To reflect on where it has brought us and to say no more. It works for some, but not for all, and if it doesn’t work for all, it doesn’t work at all.

Using the words of Representative Sanford is not to support his political ideologies. In reality, politics have become absurd to me and have lost most of their significance in my life. Instead, I use them as an example that common ground can be found in the most unexpected places with the most unlikely people. If we could just get beyond politics and discuss what’s at the core of our problems, I think these barriers we put up would disappear faster than we think. But that’s just the opinion of one hopeful young man. Am I alone?

Localize not globalize

The next thing we can do to translate our rejection of material pursuit as a means of obtaining happiness into practical action is to reintroduce the concept of community into our lives. Specifically, in the work we do and the things we buy.

I can understand where this “localize” perspective might seem to fit into the anti-globalization movements wreaking havoc across Europe and the US, specifically the UK and the US. But this is not the same thing. It’s not grounded in fear and hate, but rather in compassion and connection.

If we look at almost any university, we see economics is rarely, if ever, a field of study in business schools. Instead, it is usually a part of Colleges of Liberal Arts or Social Sciences. This is because the economy, at its core, is a social activity. Every action we take in an economic space is akin to a social interaction. It is far more than a matter of dollars and cents, or value to price. In every product we buy, there is a series of people behind it who stand to be affected by our decision to buy. If we buy cheaper and cheaper clothing, we are essentially telling someone the wage they can earn, or the life they can live. It’s an odd form of enabling. We are frustrated with the actions of corporations, yet we purchase their products, one might even say we depend on them, giving justification to what they do and encouraging more of the same.

The answer to this is to simply change how and what we buy. We all need things, of course, but instead of viewing things for their utilitarian function—what they do for us—we should be viewing them for their social function, asking ourselves: What does buying this thing do to the world around me? How does it affect the way we interact with each other?

It goes without saying this isn’t easy. In the US, it is borderline impossible to find truly locally made products, especially food—a consequence of a society based more on individual consumption than social well-being. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. There are also things like Fair Trade that, although small, guarantee the product you buy is having a positive effect on all those who participated in its production. Not a perfect system, by far, but a step in the right direction.

Some may say buying this way is too expensive. My first response, buy less. It is incredible how much we buy we do not need, but it makes sense in that we rarely stop to think if we need it or not (I am just as guilty at this as the next person). So instead of buying five sodas from the vending machine each week and two $10 cocktails on the weekend, why not save for a few locally-produced beers so that a local entrepreneur can enjoy the fruits of his or her labor?  Or instead of buying new clothes, jewelry or home décor, why not use that money to order something from a nearby artisan? Or better yet, why don’t we look for things we could repurpose or reuse so that we don’t have to buy anything at all? There’s much more at play here, but the idea is simple. If we just pay attention to what we buy and do so thinking about how it affects us as a society and not as individuals, we can begin to re-root our economies in people, not Dollars, Euros, or Yen.

To borrow from economics language, it’s a simple matter of supply and demand. Local, socially-conscious products are more expensive because there’s no supply, but there’s no supply because there is no demand. All any successful business, whether it’s Apple, GM, or Space X, does is create demand to justify their supply. So all we need to do is turn this process upside down. Instead of creating supply and searching for demand, we need to generate demand and allow supply to catch up. Prices would go down, and jobs would be created—jobs based on what people like to do. You like to paint, sell your art. You like to write, sell your words. You like to sing, sell your songs. You like to cook, sell your food. Imagine a world where the economy moved by people’s passion and not by their need to meet rent. I long for it, and I don’t think I am alone.

Admittedly, with these last examples I am forecasting into a future where this mindset is acted upon by many, which in its nature moves me beyond the practical. But all I am trying to do is show how simply analyzing what we buy and making smarter choices is something we can do right here, right now as a vital first step towards transforming our lives into something much richer, much fuller, and much happier. I’ve written before on the transformative power our food can have if we treat it as the vital ingredient to life that it is. This is the same, but it applies to the materials we use every day. Start small. Remove a few things from your life you’ve been thinking might be excessive. See how it feels, and then little by little, take more away. There are some things we can’t get rid of, but you’ll quickly see how less is more.

So happiness derived from non-material pursuits might look like this: a rainy afternoon at home with your loved ones, a warm sunny day at the beach, a day in the garden planting vegetables for your family, a bike ride through the woods, a puzzle with the kids. In a word, time. Our current approach asks us to dedicate our lives to earning money, employing the logic that we can earn enough to be able to spend the precious time when we’re not working in the way we please. My critique to this approach lies in what I see around me, which is that this is simply not the case. Do you have enough time to dedicate to what makes you happy? To the people you love? Perhaps, but if you do, you are one of few.

When we talk about growth, we should be talking about growing opportunities to experience moments like these, or growing the amount of time we have to spend enjoying this beautiful thing called life, not growing our bank accounts so that we can afford these opportunities. We can say money doesn’t buy happiness, but if we keep pursuing it the way we do, this strong contradiction will harshen the imbalance we feel in life, sharpening our suffering and hurting our hearts.

Making this shift isn’t hard, I swear. It just takes courage. Courage to admit we’ve perhaps gotten it all wrong and that we need to head in a new direction. But more importantly, it takes the courage to look at ourselves more deeply, to ask the questions we might not know the answer to, and to take the steps others aren’t willing to take. In other words, the courage to be the change we want to see in the world.

How do you reconcile economic needs with happiness? How do you define growth? Should we keep it as a priority, or shift our focus elsewhere? Leave your comments below to start the discussion, and as always, share this if you found it useful or interesting to read.