Most of us are familiar with the idea of the American dream, and of the great acts of history that came from it. Thomas Edison lit the modern world, the Wright brother taught us to fly, John F. Kennedy took us to the moon, and a man called Martin Luther King had a dream that will likely resonate through human existence for the next thousand years.
And yet, somewhere in all of that, the idea of our shared cultural dream was diluted into something tamer. Ever so gradually, through political slogans and advertising campaigns, the right to freedom was replaced by the entitlement to comfort. The American dream became two cars in every garage, a chicken in every pot, and a white picket fence to keep the world at bay.
Here we are, turning the corner of the eleventh year of a century that has only just begun to lose its shine, and already still we feel there’s something missing. It’s no wonder. Our bookshelves are full of self-help and inspiration, but no poetry. We know the most intimate details of the lives of film stars we’ve never met, yet are completely ignorant of the world we live on. We have a dozen potted plastic flowers, but have never planted a tree. Our houses are as full as our souls are empty.
How is it that the more we take, the less we have? The answer to that lies in the distinction between consumption and creation.
Power and the Pursuit of Money
The phrase “you can’t buy happiness” is so familiar because it must be said so often — and because it is so often ignored. Those of us fortunate enough to live in relatively prosperous conditions often confuse prosperity with happiness, for the simple reason that we are taught from childhood that happiness is something you “have.” We are taught that, because we are all beautiful and unique snowflakes, we are entitled to happiness. If we are not happy, we strike out for something or someone to blame. Often enough, that turns out to be the people closest to us, such as our spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends, siblings, parents, friends. Often, too, we blame our “lack of happiness” on our conditions–our job, our house, the fact that the Joneses across the way have a fifty-six inch HD television and ours is only forty-eight.
And because we believe that happiness is a sort of possession, we assume that we could in fact buy it, or at least its essential ingredients. Life would be so much better, we think, if there was only one little extra zero on that check we get every other Friday.
To think this way is first to misunderstand happiness, and second to misunderstand money. Happiness is not something you can receive. Happiness is a state of being, and because being exists in time, happiness is a continuous act. As an act, happiness can be trained; more on that in a future essay. For now, just think of happiness as a way of living, not as something you have or can be given.
The second misconception is our main focus here; the relationship between money and living, or, using the definition above, the relationship between money and happiness. If you’ll recall from the essay about the social game, money is best viewed as means of influence. Divorced from its power to direct human cooperation, money has absolutely no value, and so cannot be a basis for happiness.
Most people recognize that. The problem is that such recognition usually translates to “money is only as valuable as the toys you can buy with it.” This is the crux of the misunderstanding.
Consumption vs. Creation
Imagine a man whose life is a series of acquisitions. His parents pay for his college degree, and after he graduates, he gets a job in advertising. He buys a car. He gets married and has a couple of kids. He buys a house. He gets promoted. He buys a better house and a second car. He climbs the corporate ladder; along the way, he picks up a new television, a below-ground pool, a purebred poodle, and a closet full of fine clothes. His kids grow up and stay amiable. His wife stays by his side, or maybe doesn’t.
Then, one day, he dies.
What is the sum of this man’s life? A pile of things that, in his absence, have lost their purpose. They’ll be passed onto his kids, who will use them for the same things, and in the same way. All bought, all mass-produced, all devoid of real memory, the part of them that was him is negligible. When people ask his kids about him, they’ll shrug sadly and say, “I don’t know … he worked a lot.”
Now imagine another man, whose life is a series of humble creations. This man doesn’t go to college, and begins his career on a construction site. As his talents mature, he starts a carpentry business. He gets married; he has a few kids. He buys a car, the best he can afford, and builds his own house. He fills it with his furniture, which, as he matures, begins to have a disciplined elegance that is his signature as a craftsman. His kids grow up, and wait tables to work their way through college. His wife stays by his side, or maybe doesn’t.
Then, one day, he dies.
His home and possessions, too, sit for a short period in transit between meaning and meaning. But this time, it’s different; this is not the gap in the conveyor belt of consumption, but rather the leaping through air of sound between symphony and audience. The carpenter’s rough-hewn table, his hand-carved headboard, are passed down to children, and on to their children. When his great-grandchildren ask about the table, they are told stories about him, stories they will pass on to their own children. The carpenter’s pattern of effect persists because his actions have made a meaningful change — a creation — in his little corner of the universe.
And this is only a carpenter (though how dangerous the phrase “only a carpenter” has proven to be); consider the truly great works of creation. Homer ate bread and wore out sandals like all the rest, but it was his acts of creation that made him immortal.
Poverty and Prosperity
Because wealth is so often confused with consumption, a certain respect and even yearning for poverty has arisen in the world, especially among those to whom prosperity is unavoidable. That is not what Euthoria is about (though no truly good way has an entrance fee). It bears being said once more: money is power. The use of money for only consumption is not evil, but is simply without meaning, without resonance, and without happiness. Such use of wealth is not to be hated, but rather to be pitied.
The use of money for creation is something else entirely. Money guides cooperation, and human cooperation in an act of creation is among the most powerful of the forces in our little world. If only a few wealthy individuals were to realign their minds to realize that fact, the possibilities would be endless.
That kind of cooperation and joint creation, especially as it compares to what we usually call “charity,” will be the subject of a future essay.