Maggie and Me (a philosophical dialogue): The Happiness Question, part 3 continued

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Maggie: In the last blog post we talked about the need for external goods to be happy. Some of my friends asked me about this, especially because you said we only need a few material possessions to be happy. But this is exactly the opposite of the way most people live their lives. Most people want heaps of money, enormous houses, lavish cars, and swanky clothes, and they spend a significant amount of energy struggling to get these things. Even religious people who preach about the trials of the wealthy gaining access to heaven grab up as much as they can get.    

Before we move to our next discussion, can we revisit this topic? It is confusing to me, and my friends.

John: How curious that I so widely missed the mark here. I thought this topic would be the least controversial part of the Happiness Question, not the most controversial.

Let’s see what we can do to address your questions and provide a more thoughtful and thorough response.  

1.  People Come In Wonderful Varieties: The first thing to remember is that people come in wonderful varieties: they come in different sizes, shapes, and colors; they come from different countries, cultural backgrounds, and religious backgrounds; and, they have different needs, likes, fears, and perceptions. We shouldn’t seek to write a specific set of rules about the kinds of external goods or the amounts of external goods people need to be happy, because the rules will not evenly apply to everyone. Moreover, we shouldn’t try to turn our own experiences into rules for everyone else to follow. Rather, we should simply try to provide some beneficial guidelines that people can use to help them achieve happiness.

2.  External goods: We previously stated that we need different kinds of external goods to be happy, not wealth. This is important because most of what we need we can acquire without money, or at least with a minimal amount of cash. Let’s chat about the most important of these goods.

Family and Friends: Family/friends are a very important external good, and one we especially need to be happy. Human beings are by nature social creatures. We need other people to love and to love us back; we need other people with whom to share conversation; we need others to teach us; and, we need others to support us and help protect us. We cannot be happy when we are lonely and in need of human contact. As we discussed previously, we do not need a lot of friends, and extroverted people may need a few more friends than introverted people. But we all need a few friends.

Food and Drink: We need good nutrition to be happy. Our bodies and brains cannot properly function without sufficient calories and vitamins, and we cannot be happy when our bodies are sick and our brains are in a fog. We do not need a lot of food or drink, of course; and we certainly do not need as much as most of us eat. So we can, and probably should, skip the supersized fries and forty-eight ounce colas. But we do need to make sure we are getting nutritionally-balanced meals.

Clothing: We need some clothing to protect our bodies from the weather. The amount of clothing we need depends on the location where we live. In warmer climates we need less clothing and in colder climates more. We do not need expensive clothing or popular brands to be happy. We only need sufficient clothing to protect our bodies.

Shelter: As with clothing, we also need shelter to protect us from the weather. The type of shelter will again depend on the location where we live. We do not need large houses or fancy townhomes, just sufficient shelter to protect us from the environment.

Work: I could be wrong on this one, but I think most of us also need some type of work to be happy. The human mind is designed to be active. The same is true of the body. Work helps keep us active. It also gives us a sense of purpose, provides social interactions, and helps develop a sense of self-worth. I don’t think this necessarily means we need jobs in the traditional western sense of the word. But we do need something to do.  

Maggie: I can imagine people being happy without jobs; but like you, I think we need something to do. Buddhist monks, for example, don’t have traditional jobs. But, because of their constant prayer, they seem happy. Retired people who volunteer to help others seem happy. Grandma also comes to mind. She seems happy when she gets a chance to cook for us, because it gives her something to do and gives her a sense of purpose. So, I think you are right: we need something to do that gives us a sense of purpose and self-worth.

John: We can probably come up with a few other external goods that we need to be happy, but not many. In other words, we don’t need a lot of external goods to be happy; but do need to exercise our virtues.

Maggie: I understand what you are saying about external goods, and I agree. But you still haven’t answered the question about money and material possessions. If we need just a few external goods, why do so many people seek after money and material possessions?

John: Hang on now, I am getting there.

3.  Money and Material Possessions: I want to be clear about one thing: there is nothing inherently wrong with making money or having material possessions. There are a lot of good people throughout history who have been able to maintain and practice their virtues while also being wealthy. And wealth, when properly used, can give back to people and communities in many beneficial ways.   But I do believe that the quest for wealth and the possession of wealth can be challenging to us on many levels, including on an ethical level.

Let me ask you this: Why do you think people want to be wealthy?

Maggie: Lots of reasons, I guess. But the biggest reason is because we want to buy large houses and expensive cars and designer clothes.

John: I think that is right. But why do we want these things when the less expensive versions of the same things provide for our needs?

Maggie: I don’t really know.

John: Well, let’s start with an easier question: why do you want these things?

Maggie: I think it is because they make me feel good about myself; and, I like it when people tell me my clothes look nice or that they wish they had shoes like mine.

John: Yes, we like it when people compliment us on our clothes and other possessions, and there is nothing wrong with this by itself. Compliments make us feel good. I like it when people compliment me on my books, for example. I try to act like it is no big deal, but it makes me feel good.

Why do you think our possessions and compliments about our possessions make us feel good?

Maggie: I am embarrassed to say this, but deep down in my heart I think it is because they make me feel like I am in some way better than other people who do not have these things.

John: That is a wonderfully honest answer and one that most people would give if they truly engaged in sincere self-appropriation. You have perfectly identified the chief problem with wealth: it leads to judging other people as less than ourselves based solely on material possessions. Let me see if I can explain this a bit more clearly.

We naturally compare ourselves to other people. Every person does this, whether they admit it or not. But, a serious psychological problem arises when we judge our self-worth and the value of others based on these comparisons: we end up feeling good about ourselves to the extent that we judge ourselves to be better than others, and bad about ourselves to the extent we judge others to be better than ourselves. This ties our self-worth to the vagaries of the communities in which we live and the people with whom we associate, and disvalues both us and others as individual human beings.

The problem is even worse when we use money and possessions as the basis for making these value judgments, because wealth has nothing to do with the inherent value of a person. Feelings of superiority and power slowly steal their way into our souls, creeping in dollar by dollar, coat by coat, car by car, and house by house, and before we know it, we have come to consider ourselves as better than those who struggle to buy school books for their kids, put food on the table, or fill their cars with gas. Even the generosity of the rich is sometimes driven by a need to feel more powerful than those to whom they give.

So, to answer your question, the need to feel better about ourselves in comparison to others is a prominent reason why people seek after wealth, especially extreme wealth. This includes many priests and pastors who frequently issue warnings about the accumulation of wealth. And it includes you and me.

We all have a real need to feel good about ourselves. But we shouldn’t use wealth and material possessions as a means to judge ourselves better than others. Does this make sense?

Maggie: Yes it does. We want to be rich and have nice things because these things make us feel better about ourselves. But these good feelings only come from disvaluing others in comparison, and that is immoral as a practice. Is that right?

John: Geez I feel foolish. You summed up perfectly in two sentences what took me hundreds of words to say.    

Maggie: That’s okay. You are both a philosopher and a lawyer, so discussing lengthy nuances is exciting to you.

John: Wow. What a nice compliment. Wait… What?  I think that is a compliment. I tell you what, I am just going to take that as a compliment.

Before we end this blog post, there is one last topic we should talk about: the use of wealth to express virtue. This is an important point, if not the most important point.

4.  Wealth and Virtue: We should feel lucky if we are fortunate to have money and possessions, because these things provide us with a grand opportunity to actively practice our virtues and achieve our own happiness.

For example, we can use our wealth and possessions to actively practice generosity and friendship by visiting our elderly friends and neighbors, providing food to our local foodbanks and shelters, buying a coke for a needy peer, sitting with a lonely classmate at lunch, or giving a coat to a homeless young person.

By doing these activities we make the lives of those around us a little bit better. Moreover, because happiness requires that we actively express our virtues, in doing these and other activities we also facilitate our own happiness.

Maggie: Because happiness is an activity, right?

John: Yes, yes. You are getting it. Money and wealth–in any measure–are simply tools to assist us in practicing active virtue; and, actively practicing our virtues is how we achieve happiness.

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