Am I Right?

How to live ethically

Happiness Depends Upon Close Relations

It is mistaken to think that you must first make yourself happy

The contemporary philosophy that maintains that first you must take care of yourself and then everything else will follow is sadly mistaken. When happiness is focused only on yourself, you find that you are no closer to having achieved it at the end of the quest than at the beginning.

Many people equate happiness with material well-being. Even more, wealth is taken as something good in and of itself. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wealth. The problem is that wealth is frequently stripped of its social and, therefore, ethical context, so that it takes on a life of its own. Rather than being the means toward a happy life, the pursuit of wealth and its accumulation become the goal itself.

When wealth becomes the ultimate goal, it doesn’t matter what you do to get it, and what you do with it becomes your own concern and no one else’s. If you need to work all day every day, if you cheat or lie to have things break your way, if you betray a trust in order to get ahead, if your new house is built over a fragile aquifer, well, that’s the price to be paid for success. That families suffer, friends are neglected, communities wither, and the natural world diminished is of secondary importance.

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How can anyone be happy under such conditions? Evidently, it is very difficult. “Once a person has achieved a minimal standard of living,” writes Robert Lane of Yale University, author of The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, “the level of income has almost nothing to do with happiness.” In fact, when most of the basics for material comfort are provided, income levels and happiness go in the opposite directions. What does make for happiness in developed market economies? “Close relationships,” Lane writes, “are the key to happiness. Indeed, the number of one's personal friends is a much better indicator of overall satisfaction with life than is personal wealth. One stands a better chance of achieving a satisfying life by spending time with friends and family than by striving for higher income.”

 

Arthur Dobrin, D.S.W., teaches applied ethics at Hofstra University. He is the author, coauthor, and editor of more than twenty books.

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