I’m trying to figure out what a person needs to be satisfied. I’m thinking about this for a couple of reasons. One, because I know several people who are not satisfied in their lives and they’ve come to me for help, and two, because we have a problem in this world with our wealthy class seemingly not being able to feel that enough is ever enough, and I’d like to understand why.
Generally speaking, I’m a very happy man.
What contributes to my happiness? First and foremost, of course, is my family. My wife truly is my best friend, and while we annoy each other to no end and snipe at each other about household chores as much as any other married couple, we also love to have intellectually and emotionally stimulating conversations that help each of us grow together as human beings.
My four-year-old daughter, obviously, makes me happy.
I also have good relationships with my extended family. The fact that I live in a different state from them helps — as George Burns once said, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family living in another city.” I love all of them with all my heart, and I enjoy spending time with them whenever we get the chance, but I also enjoy not having to deal with the daily drama that would come from all of us being together for too long.
The second thing that contributes to my happiness is my job. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t go into the details, but from a general perspective, what makes the job so satisfying is that it is deeply and authentically meaningful to me. My company has a mission that speaks to my passions, and my input on the best way to achieve that mission is truly valued by my employer and my peers. Virtually any responsibility or task I want to take on is made available to me, allowing me to improve my skills and my understanding, and if things become too overwhelming, my colleagues are willing to let me adjust as necessary.
Could my wife and I make more money? Of course, but if we didn’t have our student loans and weren’t concerned about retirement or our daughter’s college tuition, we’d basically be making as much money as we’d need, so I don’t have much room to complain.
The third thing is my community. I live in a rural village of about 3,500 people. My wife works in the public middle school, so she knows virtually everyone, and we’ve lived in town going on 15 years, so essentially every face is a familiar face. It’s also a community where our friends are consciously thinking about and acting out the very concept of community — i.e., most of them are academics (even if not in an official sense) whose fields of interest somehow relate to the idea of creating a vibrant local ecology, human or otherwise — which means they try their best to stay connected to one another, to spend quality time with one another, and to support and inspire one another.
Family, career, and community. That’s what makes me such a satisfied person. My friends who are unsatisfied often find one of them is lacking. The challenge comes when the pursuit of satisfaction in one of those areas risks your satisfaction in the others. For example, if you don’t find meaning in your job but your family loves your community, do you take the risk of accepting a more fulfilling job someplace else?
When it comes to the 1%, however, I’m completely at a loss.
There’s a book I haven’t read yet (but is now on my “to read” list) called The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic Thinkers. While researching for this post, I found an interesting selection from it, which reads:
The idea of gain, the idea that each working person not only may, but should, constantly strive to better his or her material lot, is an idea that was quite foreign to the great lower and middle strata of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and medieval cultures, only scattered throughout Renaissance and Reformation times; and largely absent in the majority of Eastern civilizations. As an ubiquitous characteristic of society, it is as modern an invention as printing.
Apparently (according the author anyway), until the rise of the market economy in the 18th century, the vast majority of human beings did not even consider the possibility that through discipline and hard work they could improve their material lives, which would make sense given the feudal nature of the economy and a pervasive religious dogma that valued striving for success in the afterlife rather than success in the here and now.
It’s not until the market economy comes along that people start to get the sense that they can actually improve their lot in life, provided they can put in the time and effort to do so.
I’m not going to talk here about the flaws in this particular theory, neither the part that says people didn’t strive to improve their lives prior to the market economy nor with the part that suggests that all it takes to become wealthy is a healthy dose of Protestant work ethic.
What I will do is talk about the natural desire of homo sapiens to protect what they think is theirs and to pursue what they think could be, both of which prioritize the future over the present. In the future, we want to keep what we already have. And in the future, we want to get what, by all rights, can be gotten.
But when do we stop looking over our shoulder to see what might be coming for us and stop looking at the horizon to see what we might be approaching, and instead look our lives up and down to see if everything we already have is actually all we’ll ever need?
In other words, what drives a billionaire like Donald Trump to do yet another “big deal” that will net him millions of dollars? What drives bankers to screw over millions of homeowners just to put more money in their already overly filled pockets? What drives a company like ExxonMobil — which (even with a recent 50% drop in profits) still generates more profits than virtually every other company in human history — what drives them to choose their financial bottom line over and above their social and environmental ones? What drives a Russian oligarch who already has billions of dollars to rob his fellow citizens of whatever wealth they can generate? What motivates a sitting member of Congress (most of whom are millionaires) to sell out his or her constituents to the highest bidder?
One of the world’s richest richest men, Carlos Slim, told Larry King that his motivation was not to make money, but to fulfill his vocation for numbers. He said, “When you have a vocation for numbers, you have many activities, and you will develop yourself professionally…I like investments, creation of investments and economic activities that come with investments.” The world’s richest man, Bill Gates, said that, “You’ve got to enjoy what you do every day, and for me that’s working with very smart people, it’s working with new problems.” The CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, wrote recently that what motivates him and his team is “developing the social infrastructure for community — for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.”
Are we to understand that the wealthy continue to generate wealth because they’re passionate about something whose byproduct is wealth? That might be true for some.
But how does that explain an already wealthy political leader who knowingly does harm through his or her actions just to put more money in his or her pocket? How does that explain billionaires such as the Koch brothers actively working to destroy the environment for the sake of their bottom line? How does that explain a billionaire in Texas lobbying for six years for the right to store nuclear waste on top of a number of aquifers?
I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to understand people like that.