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The Pursuit of Happiness--Or the Quest for Wealth

The materialistic search for happiness is laden with paradox.

"Nothing is enough to the [person] for whom enough is too little." ~ Epicurus

Sadly, in our capitalistic culture today, the two aspirations denoted in the above title--to me, sharply contrasting--are frequently confused. They can be (and have been) viewed as virtually identical. And if in fact happiness is conceived in monetary terms, then the more money gained, the more material objects acquired, the closer you are to reaching this most enviable of goals. Right?

Hardly! As ironic as it may seem, materialistically pursuing happiness is doomed to fail. It's a goal that can never be achieved. As will be explained shortly, almost by definition it's not even reachable--ever. On the other hand, if happiness is understood from a more spiritual perspective, it's potentially well within your grasp.

By "spiritual," I'm envisioning this ideal state as emanating from a variety of non-materialistic attainments. Which would include a fulfilling sense of belonging or community with others--and all of nature; the development of warm, supportive, mutually self-disclosing relationships; an unconditional love, respect, and acceptance of self--one that's totally independent of environmental circumstances; and an almost unassailable state of well-being (having little to do with personal health, and even less with material abundance).

Once you experience contentment (not complacence) with your lot in life, neither financial assets nor physical robustness are pivotal to such well-being. Your peace of mind, your overarching satisfaction with your existence (despite its inevitable ups-and-downs) is secured. So the calmness and cheer of what's going on inside your head (i.e., the "buoyancy" of your thoughts and feelings) far eclipse the turmoil, the gloom and doom, that may be taking place outside.

And in your general acceptance of life you gain ultimate control over it. However much you might wish to see positive changes in the world, to bear witness to the betterment of humankind and society, you also accept that your ability to influence external events is limited. You do what you can, but you don't anguish over the current state of affairs, or about the unalterable framework of mortal existence. What is is good enough for you.

Moreover, happiness as an enduring state of mind is (at least potentially) available at any time. It doesn't need to be pursued (as, say, a luxury sports car, a bracelet from Tiffany's, or tickets to the Super Bowl). It's nothing that requires questing after since, once you've come to wholly embrace yourself and the world around you, it already exists safely inside you. In fully espousing the world--with all its inequities, injustices, and suffering--your happiness is removed from harm's way.

Achieving such a state of acceptance, or being, is really the ultimate "gift" to yourself. And again, it's not anything that requires being hunted down from the outside--then somehow "assimilated" from within.

On the contrary, chasing happiness through the acquisition of wealth, through amassing more and more things, is a fool's pursuit. For once such material appetites are aroused, at a certain point they become insatiable. Substituted for longer-term satisfactions, the pleasures and gratifications they yield are more or less fleeting. In addition, no amount of money can suffice when sooner or later fortune-seeking itself has become obsessive. When that critical line is crossed, the pursuit is no longer a means to some presumably fulfilling end. It is the end.

And once, paradoxically, the goal has become the pursuit of the goal you're left in the self-defeating position of hunting down that which can never be captured. Like an unquenchable thirst, not the riches but the lust for riches can never be satisfied. Materialistically searching for happiness through accumulating wealth invariably cries out for more of the same (and note here the quotation from Epicurus introducing this piece).

This incessant seeking for what can never be definitively achieved explains why many millionaires--and especially, billionaires--can be so aggressive, so merciless, in their ongoing exploits to accrue more wealth. Addictively chasing incalculable riches, a fortune going far beyond the dreams of avarice (as though such a radical pursuit must somehow vindicate their self-interested "cause"), they end up monomaniacal, megalomaniacal, inhuman and--to say the least--inhumane.

Their bullheaded endeavors become ever more competitive, mercenary, ruthless, and mean-spirited. Consider, for example, the billionaire Koch brothers and their latest underhanded but unmitigated efforts at busting unions, which stand in the way of their amassing yet even greater profits. Just as addicts typically require increasingly more of their "drug of choice" to get high, those who are already wealthy need ever greater wealth to feel--employing a phrase I regard as crucial--"good enough". And because, as the philosopher Eric Hoffer put it, "You can never get enough of what you don't really want," the key to lasting happiness is never accessible to them.

Having worked professionally with several multimillionaire malcontents, I can say that what they really craved were those things intrinsic to happiness laid out at the beginning of this post. The transient highs that accompanied their wealth accumulation were never much more than a hormonal rush anyway. And even though in the eyes of the world they were enormously successful, continuing frustrations and insecurities gave testimony to the fact that the blast of "feel good" chemicals their success yielded was all too easily exhausted.

Money can't buy harmonious, fulfilling relationships with others. And it certainly doesn't have the power to generate unconditional acceptance of self. For such an internal embrace bears little connection to your bank account. In fact, your monetary wealth, so far from securing this single most important relationship in your life, ends up making it all the more conditional. As long as you measure your self-worth in dollars and cents, it must rise or fall in accordance with the success (or failure) of your latest enterprise.

Moreover, people with extreme wealth tend to be tight-fisted, almost miserly. Statistics repeatedly show that the very rich donate disproportionately less to charitable organizations than do members of the middle class. And how could this be otherwise when contributing substantial sums of money to worthy causes cannot but be experienced by them as reducing their personal worth--which they've learned to appraise financially. However unconsciously, actually giving money away is precarious to their (monetarily-based) self-image.

At last, compulsive efforts to somehow "purchase" happiness is akin to reaching out toward a greased object that, even if momentarily snatched, is downright impossible to hold onto. Similarly, worshiping the false god of Mammon enslaves you to objects of desire that can never be held fast. Even when they do appear caught, they offer only temporary highs . . . never happiness. Still, seduced by what our society typically defines as success (watch enough TV commercials and you'll get an acute sense of how success is portrayed in the media), it's easy enough to lose your way and zealously embark on a path incapable of providing any real sustenance.

So, obsessively questing after wealth and all that it can buy ultimately sows the seeds of later frustration and disappointment. If your appetite for riches, or a super-luxurious lifestyle, is now threatening to become addictive, you may wish to reconsider whether pursuing such affluence is really a worthy goal. Remember, inevitably you have to "come down" from what, frankly, may be a terrific high. But if, instead, you devote yourself to becoming high on life--or rather, give up getting high for truly getting happy--a far more lasting state of well-being may await you.

© 2011 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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