092 - On Life's Necessities - Moral Letters for Modern Times
There is a great deal of disagreement on all the things that make for a happy life. Rather than tackling this tough question head on, Deuteros, let’s soften up our resistance with something easier. That is, what are the things that are necessary for life, without which a happy life would not be possible.
Consider money. Here we have some science on our side, or at least psychologists. Would you be surprised to learn that we have supposedly found the optimal amount of money a person should earn for emotional well-being? According to the Purdue University Department of Psychological Sciences, it takes an annual income of between $60,000 to $75,000 to achieve balance in one’s feelings about oneself. Researchers combed data from the Gallup World Poll to tease out this idea. They suggest two more interesting conclusions, and the second may surprise the avid pursuer of happiness.
First, achieving life satisfaction requires a greater amount of money than simply emotional well-being. The reason is that while well-being is subjective and personal to the individual, perceived satisfaction is comparative. In other words, we are happier about ourselves more easily than we are when we compare ourselves to others. Optimal life satisfaction, according to these researchers, kicks in at around $95,000 in annual income. At least in regard to money, science now supports the claim that it is easier to satisfy yourself than it is to satisfy others. This is consistent with what philosophy would teach us.
The more surprising conclusion is that increasing income beyond these amounts is associated with reduced life satisfaction and lower levels of well-being. The further people move from meeting basic needs, it seems, the more likely they are to be pursuing material gains for the sake of the gain itself because they are engaging in social comparisons. And comparing yourself to others seems to lower your sense of well-being.
As interesting as all this is, my dear Deuteros, I wonder if you have picked up on something far more significant. Do you know how many people on the earth today earn $60,000 a year or more, to say nothing of $95,000? Well, as you are thinking over your answer, let me tell you that the median annual global income is a little over $2,000 per person, and the mean income is about $5,500. To be in the global top 10% you need to earn a bit shy of $15,000. The percentage of the world’s population earning more than $60,000 a year is tiny. Must we draw the conclusion that though well more than 90% of the world’s population have leapt across the international poverty line, still all but the top 1% are necessarily living lives of impoverished well-being? As prepared as I am to accept the idea that more money ultimately brings only unhappiness, do we really think that none can be happy without incomes 30 times the global median?
Will you quibble with me that maybe it is not $60,000, but only half that sum which will suffice? Or perhaps you think you can be satisfied with the mean amount below which three-quarters of the earth’s inhabitants make do? I tell you, measuring happiness by what’s in your wallet is like measuring the worth of a person by how tall they are. Would you tell me a person five feet tall is twenty percent less happy than the six-footer? Would you tell me that a Buddhist monk living on no income but by alms alone is 100% unhappy? Something is wrong with our formulas if these are the conclusions our calculations lead us to.
Having raised the idea that height is no reliable indicator of either depth or worth, I suspect you will have no trouble dispensing with similar physical attributes like hair color, weight, straight teeth, or freckles. Are blondes blessed to not only have more fun but be more happy? I suppose if we accept that ignorance is bliss, we can entertain the idea. But no, we can easily see that physical perfection is no requirement for perfection of spirit.
“Not so fast,” I hear you say. “Will you rush in your judgment past good health as well?” Let us not rush but linger, Deuteros, and I will go so far as to turn the question around. Will you tell me that the one-limbed and one-eyed are doomed to half a measure of happiness compared to their full-bodied companions? That happiness is the birthright only of the able-bodied, and stolen away at the first limp, squint, or cough? When I run my legs sore and blisters adorn my toes, have I subtracted a quantum of happiness from my soul? “Easy for you to say. What of the child facing terminal cancer, or the patient told to set their affairs in order?” Tell me if you believe that no true joy can be found in the hearts of those in hospice or the intensive care station and you will have your answer.
In your wisdom I hear you saying, “I grant you that happiness can be found among people in all the situations you describe. So it seems that wealth, material things, and even health are unnecessary preconditions for happiness. Will you dispense with immaterial things as well: friendship, love, and power?” It is not me that dispenses with them, Deuteros. We are each of us as free from burdens as we are willing to let them fall away. Do I prefer good friends, a true love, and sole dominion over my affairs? Of course, just as I would expect of most anyone. But will I tell you that I need them to be happy, to the extent that I would be burdened with unhappiness by their absence?
This is how I would say it, because here is how I see it: you are not made ten times happier by having ten friends. A single one will do. And there is one person from whom you can never be estranged, though it is the person people often pay the least attention to – yourself. I would fill an auditorium with admirers, but if I am abandoned by all, still I am not alone and thus I will not make myself unhappy for lack of companions.
Next, I will agree that a true love is a true blessing. But would you go on to say that those who have lost a loved one to an accident or illness or other misfortune are henceforth barred from happiness? A memory of good times is not the same as good times, but does that mean the one who relives good memories does not enliven their spirit and make themselves happy again?
I must give separate attention to power, because it is a slippery thing for all its hardness. The pursuit of power drives some people to commit foul deeds. Can its attainment wash away the damage wrought on the journey? And even if another’s elevation was untainted by impure motives, merely possessing power puts one in a precarious position. Understanding the very word provides the reason why, for power exists in relative terms only.
You have power over someone or something. This brings us inevitably back to the hierarchy, which means comparing one thing to another. And comparison is the source of dissatisfaction as frequently as it yields up its opposite. For as happy as you think you are to have advanced beyond your peers, do you rest your eyes as easily or turn your back without wondering? As the great bard Shakespeare said, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” And as far as you have come, is there none above you who intrudes upon your thinking?
For all the risks that possessing power brings, lacking power or coming under the subjugation of others does not seem to be a path to happiness either, does it? Though you will resist me, I will tell you that the slave is in no way prevented from being happier than the master. That despite being cast in chains and whipped, the soul can roam free, tortured less than the torturer. What is the thing that makes this, and indeed all happiness, possible? It is, of course, the well-ordered mind pursuing reason.
In all circumstances where others judge good or evil in themselves, the wise person sees value in their own judgment alone. Can you see the proper value in things, and direct your thoughts and your actions accordingly? You will be happy regardless of the circumstance, and regardless of what others think or say.
It is only when you understand how little you need to be happy that you are free to enjoy what you have. It is none of wealth, health, possessions, or power that you need. It is rather control over your thoughts that creates the conditions for a happy life. The rest are distractions, as likely to leave you unhappy for lacking them as they are to bring you temporary peace. Make your happiness a lasting and unshakeable one by making it of your own reason.