Down to Earth

Down to Earth November 19, 2008

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.

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