Down to Earth

I had rather be shut up in a very modest cottage with my books, my family and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked, than to occupy the most splendid post, which any human power can give.

—Thomas Jefferson, letter to Alexander Donald, 7 February 1788

What should we seek to get out of life? To a secular humanist, what is the goal toward which our labors should point?

As atheists, we don’t believe in a heavenly reward, so that path is foreclosed to us. There are no gods we can please through our piety. Likewise, asceticism seems a pointless, even self-contradictory pursuit: since there is no life other than this one, and no good karma to be accumulated through self-denial, there is no sense in forsaking happiness now in hope of later reward.

What, then, is left? The riches of the world are the obvious answer, and an ever-present temptation. If this life is all we have, hadn’t we better get while the getting’s good? Should atheists be hedonists, chasing after wealth and fame whatever the cost? Should we seek worldly power, the flattery and approval of our fellow human beings? Is it true, in the final accounting, that he who dies with the most toys wins?

Well, no. A simple example suffices to show why this is false. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that my net worth is a million dollars. (It’s not.) Now consider a man who’s been far more successful than me, with a net worth of a billion – a thousand million – dollars. If money or possessions buy happiness, then that billionaire must be a thousand times happier than I am. But this, as I hope we all agree, is absurd.

From what we know of human psychology, it’s extremely unlikely that people have such a wide range of emotional variation. Of course you can be happier or sadder than another person, but not to such a grossly incommensurate degree. Rather, comparing millionaires to billionaires provides a clear example of the theory of declining marginal utility. When you have no money, a little money can make you very happy indeed. But as basic needs are satisfied, the amount of happiness bought by each additional dollar declines steadily, until you reach a point where no amount of additional wealth would make you any happier. (Incidentally, this is part of the reason I’m not a libertarian – since money is not closely tied to happiness, I don’t consider it at all outrageous for the state to implement a program of reasonable redistribution.)

And even this analysis leaves out something crucial: acquiring such extreme wealth is a pursuit that by definition only a very few can succeed at. Most people who set out to become billionaires will fail, and have nothing to show for all the labor and effort invested in the quest. Even for those who succeed, life won’t become a bed of roses: if anything, wealthy and powerful people have a whole new range of challenges and problems in their life which ordinary people never have to confront. Material possessions don’t bring happiness; we get that from the love and friendship of our fellow human beings, and ironically, due to the isolating effect of wealth and power, the rich and famous have less opportunity for that than the rest of us. It’s far more difficult to relate to someone when there are such vast disparities in status between the two.

If happiness in life comes neither from piety, nor asceticism, nor wealth and indulgence, what’s left? The answer, as Thomas Jefferson knew, is a life of rich simplicity – what Buddhism calls the middle way. Rather than always chasing after more, we should learn to be content with what we have.

Trying to gain happiness by acquiring possessions is as futile as trying to get somewhere by running on a treadmill. When happiness consists only of getting more and more, then the quest is its own undoing. As soon as you successfully acquire something, it will no longer bring you any satisfaction, but will only remind you of what you still don’t have – and so on, ad infinitum. This endless striving brings no contentment, only misery.

Instead, I believe that goodness in life consists in gaining experience, having love and friendship, the acquisition of knowledge, the pleasure of creating things through artistry or craft, the practice of virtue toward others, and participation in meaningful and satisfying work. Accumulating possessions plays no part in this (although, I admit, I may have to make an exception for books: I don’t think you can ever have too many books.) There’s nothing wrong with owning a big house in the country, but I would rather live in a small and cozy home filled with warmth, light, laughter and the fellowship of good friends than live in the largest and grandest mansion on earth and be alone.

Some people seek to acquire wealth and fame so they can stride the earth like a colossus, but humanist philosophy leads me to conclude that they are misguided. They are staking their lives on an all-or-nothing gamble, and when you only have one life to wager, that sounds to me like a foolish bet. I’d much rather live down to earth, seeking the simpler pleasures that are available to everyone. They’re far easier to come by, and yet, ironically, they are by far the ones more worthy of acquiring.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://thehappyhuman.wordpress.com Nollidge

    Let me say first that I don’t really know much about hedonism except in broad strokes, so forgive my lack of scholarship, but I think I am qualified to speak about it as it is commonly viewed – the selfish pursuit of pleasure.

    Taking that superficial view of hedonism, it seems totally flawed. And not only because it would may lead to moral collapse – even more importanly, because it does not achieve the ends it seeks! As I understand it, it’s supposed to be the pursuit of pleasure. But doggedly pursuing sex and money, which are the activities it seems most associated with, doesn’t seem like the best way to achieve any sort of long-term pleasure.

    Can’t there exist some sort of intellectual, mindful hedonism, in which one pursues true lasting happiness by rationally considering exactly what sort of decisions would lead to it?

    For example, being altruistic really makes me happy, and I suspect it’s the same for anyone other non-sociopathic human. Apologizing when I’ve committed a wrong is tough at first, but always ends up making me happier in the long run. Loyalty to my friends and family makes me happy as well.

    But it doesn’t seem as if traditional hedonism (or at least, the traditional view of hedonism) includes altruism, atonement, or loyalty. Why can’t it?

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    I’m with you most of the way, though I would like to have mansion, if only to be able to provide shelter to those I care about when they find themselves in hard times.

  • Stephen

    While I agree with this post, I would qualify your comments on acquiring possessions, such as “as soon as you successfully acquire something, it will no longer bring you any satisfaction, but will only remind you of what you still don’t have”.

    You qualify this in the case of books, and so would I. But I would go further. An old Chinese vase purchased on a whim by an overpaid executive might indeed provide only a few minutes of pleasure. But the same vase purchased by a connaisseur of fine porcelein might provide years of pleasure.

    The purchase of an expensive camera is a folly if carried out by someone who doesn’t know a bracketed exposure from a tripod (and has no intention of learning). But for someone else it might be the gateway to a fascinating hobby or even a career.

    In my younger days I collected stamps, and to some extent I did fall into the as-many-as-possible syndrome. But I also learnt a great deal about the geography of the world, not to mention the history of the last century and a half. And I still get my stamps out from time to time to, for example, muse on the extraordinary collection of territories that have ever issued stamps: Ajman and Alaouites, Fiume and Danzig, Dhar and Duttia, Oubangi-Chari and Mayotte.

    To me the pitfall is not the acquisition of possessions; it is acquiring possessions without also acquiring the ability to appreciate them.

  • http://www.myspace.com.driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    If you find the aquisition of shed loads of money fulfilling then you will probably be good at doing it and gain pleasure from your success. As Ebon points out, most of us would find the task difficult, stressful and so probably would never get there. Not to say I wouldn’t appreciate a Lotto win though, if only to give me more time to do the things I do enjoy.

  • Ric

    I even got rid of the books I’ve already read. They were just weighing me down and were a pain to haul when I moved. The library is right down the street.

  • Brad

    Indulgence does make people happy. I like my simple bacon as much as Jefferson, if not more. Problem is, nothing alone makes people happy, and never permanently. Hence there are a myriad of other avenues for creating meaning and attaining happiness.

  • http://dbzer0.com db0

    I posted my reply here. Unfortunately my trackback does not appear to have been received

  • jack

    This is a subject near and dear to my heart. What I care most about in life, and what gives me greatest happiness, are my wife, close friends and family members, science, nature, and my effort at doing the best I can with the talents I have to create something of value. My wife and I have lived beneath our means for many years and have done fairly well at saving and investing. Had we learned how to do this when we were younger, we would have been financially independent ten years ago. As it is, we’re almost there. We now understand that it is fairly easy to accomplish, and almost anyone with a median income in a developed nation can do it, given the will, financial literacy and some discipline.

    There are good reasons to accumulate wealth, up to a point. When you have enough that you can live off your investment income, you have bought your freedom. You can work at whatever you wish, whether or not it pays a salary. Money = Freedom. Of course I would love to have billions (I don’t and never will), but only so that I could donate it to efforts to preserve wilderness from destruction by the human population explosion.

    A few people who know me have accused me of being greedy, obsessed with money, etc. But I donate more to charities than they do, I have owned 1/10th as many different automobiles as they have, I lack most of the electronic toys they have, and, unlike them, I have no need to worry about losing my house in a financial mess like the one into which our society is now plunging.

    One final thought for you, Ebon, from a gray-haired boomer struggling to figure out what to do with all those dusty, moldy college books: public libraries are wonderful!

  • jack

    I just remembered another point I wanted to make. It’s interesting that you cited Thomas Jefferson for this post. Jefferson was a great president, being architect of church/state separation, etc., but he had some serious personal failings. One of them was his lack of financial self-control. He lived beyond his means (in part because of his love of books!) and ran up huge debts. Those debts made it impossible for him to free his slaves, some of whom were probably his own children.

  • Mathew Wilder

    Of interst might be that Jefferson elsewhere described himself as an Epicurean. That doesn’t need to mean a crass materialism or gluttunous, self-destructive hedonism. It seems rather that you, and Jefferson, (and I agree with you) are espousing what might or has been called “rational hedonism.” I think hedonism has a bad name, but it need not be bad in practice.

  • Christopher

    For those seeking happiness: get out of the mainstream workforce (you’ll just end up like Sysyphus – pushing the proverbial boulder with no end in sight), move away from large population centers, acquire a sizable portion of land, fortify it and declare it your own little nation-state. Then live as a king in your own private kingdom – unless you’re the type that wants to be controlled, you’ll find ample opportunity to do as you will; and in that freedom you will find happiness.

    It worked for me, and I have no reason to think it won’t work for any one else who enjoys independence.

  • Leum

    Thank you for a great post. Oddly enough, I suspect that, if asked, most people would say they agree with this post, even though their actions would indicate otherwise. So why is it that people do so clearly run on the treadmill? Also, how do we avoid the treadmill, since it evidently takes more than realizing that it’s a bad idea?

  • Christopher

    So why is it that people do so clearly run on the treadmill? Also, how do we avoid the treadmill, since it evidently takes more than realizing that it’s a bad idea?

    So many people stay the course because they have been conditioned to do so – they’ve become like the main character from “Fight Club” at the beginning of the book: always looking for that sofa that defines him as a person, that table that has hi personality, the missing piece of furnature that will finally make his life complete. In his case, it took the development of multiple personality disorder for him to realize that it was all meaningless.

    Avoiding such circumstances as the book’s protagonist aren’t that difficult – but people have been conditioned to accept the status quo in our culture and lack much drive to anything about it (which is why our culture’s values are rotting from the inside out).

  • Don Pope

    Mmmmmm, bacon!

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    I’d much rather live down to earth, seeking the simpler pleasures that are available to everyone. They’re far easier to come by, and yet, ironically, they are by far the ones more worthy of acquiring.

    Now there’s a claim I will never contest.. Great post.

  • Mathew Wilder

    you’ll just end up like Sysyphus [sic] – pushing the proverbial boulder with no end in sight

    Ah! But, “There is no fate that can not be surmounted by scorn.” (Camus)

    “I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” (Camus)

    We must imagine Sisyphus happy! He has taken ownership of his task. His fate might be tragic, but it is his own, and he laughs at the gods!

    This, seems much more likely a response than buying up land and reigning as king of one’s domain. Very few people can afford any significant amount of land, much less live self-sufficiently thereupon.

  • Curiosis

    Incidentally, this is part of the reason I’m not a libertarian – since money is not closely tied to happiness, I don’t consider it at all outrageous for the state to implement a program of reasonable redistribution.

    I agree that money can’t buy happiness, but a certain amount is usually necessary to feel secure. Since you believe that it’s acceptable for the government to take anything above that amount, I was wondering what that magic number might be. Is it the point at which you are no longer required to pay any taxes?

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Yup.

    The one thing I would add is that — for me, at least — an essential component to happiness and meaning: making a mark. Working to change the world and make it better, for others as well as myself.

    I don’t want to be a queen in my own little queendom. I want to be connected to this world, to participate in it. I want the world to be different — better — than it would have been if I hadn’t been here.

    It’s like that thing Hillel said: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, then who am I?”

  • MS Quixote

    Great post Ebon. I’m with you on the books too. Libraries are fine, but there’s nothing like your own, worn copies of your favorites.

  • MisterDomino

    This post made met think of the powerful role that modern advertising campaigns have over the public. Accumulation of material goods has always been a symbol of power or economic prestige, and that prestige increases the more superfluous an object is (flashy clothing, fast cars, pretty mistresses, name your cliché).

    However, many of the ads that we see in newspapers, on television, or online try to convince us that we need a particular object in order to be happy – or in some cases, they imply through scare tactics that it wouldn’t be an acceptable risk to live without one.

    This rings especially true during every holiday season. I remember that when I was in grade school, a child’s popularity was directly linked to how many Christmas presents he or she received. It’s difficult to teach someone to be happy with what they have when they grow up in a world where everyone is screaming “buy, buy, buy!”

    So this part really hit home for me:

    Trying to gain happiness by acquiring possessions is as futile as trying to get somewhere by running on a treadmill. When happiness consists only of getting more and more, then the quest is its own undoing.

    Those who market the product don’t care if you run that treadmill for the rest of your life; in fact, they’re banking on us doing exactly that. As long as we keep buying, they’ll keep telling us we need something, even if we already have a dozen of them. “Disposable culture” is an incredible oxymoron, but that’s the reality we’ve come to face.

  • Brad

    Books are great. But let’s not forget the internet! Even greater potential here in the 0101 realm, methinks.

    Then live as a king in your own private kingdom – unless you’re the type that wants to be controlled, you’ll find ample opportunity to do as you will; and in that freedom you will find happiness.

    It worked for me, and I have no reason to think it won’t work for any one else who enjoys independence.

    While freedom is an invigorating feeling for me, isolation inevitably bores me. I am a social animal. I won’t, can’t, and don’t want to change that. Plus, I don’t find dependence to be in and of itself bad, nor do I think dependence is always equivalent to being controlled. I like the idea of loose mutualism with reasonable personal security. I dislike the idea of doing a crappy job because one is basically closed-minded and blindly accepts the status quo. However, fitting into the “mainstream” is not necessarily a blind move, nor one of being controlled.

    Personally, I don’t make my philosophy to aim for happiness. I just sail by my windy whimsical nature wherever it goes, whether into storm or calm, horizon or harbor, Arctic or Tropics, etc. Bliss, hatred, depression, mania – I’ll welcome it all, because why do any other?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Incidentally, if you’re looking to clean out your old books: I can recommend Paperback Swap, a very cool idea for a site that my fiancee turned me on to.

  • Christopher

    Brad,

    While freedom is an invigorating feeling for me, isolation inevitably bores me.

    Who said anything about isolation? While you may be living far from mainstream civilization, you’re never completely cut off from other people (although there are some days I wish I could do that, but I digress…).

    Plus, I don’t find dependence to be in and of itself bad, nor do I think dependence is always equivalent to being controlled.

    It is 9 out of 10 times – the less dependent you are on outside powers, the lesser the chance that a social order can get its hooks in you.

    Personally, I don’t make my philosophy to aim for happiness. I just sail by my windy whimsical nature wherever it goes, whether into storm or calm, horizon or harbor, Arctic or Tropics, etc. Bliss, hatred, depression, mania – I’ll welcome it all, because why do any other?

    To quote the cheshire cat “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.” While I do love the winds of chaos, I like to harness them to my own ends rather than get blown about by them.

  • Entomologista

    My mom always says there’s no shame in being poor, but there’s nothing noble about it either. And I’ve found that the people who say money doesn’t bring happiness already have a good job, a nice home, and enough to eat. Money gets you security, which I find to be essential to happiness.

  • Mathew Wilder

    @ Entomologista: Exactly.(cf. Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs)

  • Leum

    It’s not that money doesn’t buy happiness, it’s that once you have enough money to have a good job, nice home, food, etc additional money won’t make you any happier. The same studies have also revealed that once you reach that point, knowing that other people are relatively poorer than you will make you happier, but only for a short time. Once you hit the sufficient funds point, more money won’t do much.

  • bbk

    Yes, it’s true that there is a huge body of data from around the world that indicates that beyond a certain income, people stop getting any happier with more money. But the same data also shows that wealth still has a stronger correlation than anything else. Above a middle class income, the overriding hurdle to happiness seems to be a simple question of mental health.

  • abusedbypenguins

    Is Hugh Hefner happier than Bill Gates?

  • bassmanpete

    Those who market the product don’t care if you run that treadmill for the rest of your life; in fact, they’re banking on us doing exactly that. As long as we keep buying, they’ll keep telling us we need something, even if we already have a dozen of them. “Disposable culture” is an incredible oxymoron, but that’s the reality we’ve come to face.

    Our whole education system is designed to turn out factory & office fodder who are also consumers. It’s what keeps the whole economy going but most people don’t realise it.

  • http://www.myspace.com.driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Is Hugh Hefner happier than Bill Gates?

    Have you seen the three women he shares his mansion with? He damn well ought to be!

  • http://obsessedwithreality.com Freidenker

    I think the unifying factor that makes everyone happy is the somewhat vague term “accomplishment”. I give a lot of weight to evolutionary theory when addressing general issues such as “happiness”, “fear” etc. Since the pursuit of happiness is practically a universal “habit”, you could easily agree that it has evolutionary origins. It gets trickier for humans as we often do not operate for rewards, but to potential rewards. A lot of people might think they’re happy or even be “mistakenly happy” just because they’re sure they got what they needed or wanted.

    I think the only way to be happy for a long span of time is to constantly make sure that tomorrow is somewhat different than today. People can enjoy a lot of earthly things, but they’ll never feel satisfied without purpose, and purpose can only be maintained so long as you haven’t achieved what you’re aiming to do. That’s why I think even the wealthiest and hedonistic individuals can feel completely void of meaning, simply because they have nothing new to aspire to (and it doesn’t have to be more wealth, just something different).

    Luckily, I take pleasure in learning as much as I can, and knowing the severe limits of my intelligence, I know I’ll never run out of things to learn. I may not be as content or as happy as I’d like, but I will always have purpose.

  • Christopher

    bassmanpete,

    Our whole education system is designed to turn out factory & office fodder who are also consumers. It’s what keeps the whole economy going but most people don’t realise it.

    So true – I wasn’t in college more than 2 years when I became dissolusioned with the system: yes, I finished just to say I got my degree and get what I once thought of as a decent job, but it wasn’t long before I realized that I was acting as little more than a puppet to push other peoples products and ideas into the marketplace.

    Thus the reason I moved out of the city and back to my little border town and, with the help of some associates, established an alternative socio-economic system – one that doesn’t prize the production/consumption of products so much as the continued use of existing resources. None of of make all that much money (I get between $40 and $50 thousand on an excellent year), but barter and salvage goes a long way towards closing that gap. But our social order doesn’t want people to realize this: should people come to the knowledge that they can live without excessive consumption, people wouldn’t work so hard to generate the income used to purchase all those extra goods – goods that manufacturers tend to produce on the cheap and sell at inflated prices. Should people learn to be happy without the excessive consumerism, the whole mainstream economy would completely unravel!

  • Leum

    True, we’re in the unfortunate position of having an economy based on the theory that people will irrationally buy more and more and more, an economy in which long-term thinking is punished, an economy which must grow in order to not die. This is inherently unstable, of course, and will crash. Hopefully someone in office will realize this and…*laughs hysterically at own naïveté*