The wealth of “having” vs. the wealth of “doing”

There is a big misconception out there. Especially upon the rise of capitalism and consumerism, the term “wealth” has been often understood as the amount of goods with monetary value that are possessed by a certain individual or organization. As such, in modern language, wealthy person is that who either has large sums of money in their bank account, possesses expensive (usually luxurious) goods, or follows a financially affluent lifestyle. Unfortunately, our modern definition of wealth is very limiting and, needless to say, materialistic. Our contemporary view of wealth means that we can only be wealthy as long as we have access to possessing more than what the average person could. We prize the ability to own and we use that as a measurement to assess whether the person is successful or not. Society at large prizes those individuals who amass fortunes. Moreover, the social understanding of wealth goes to believe that financial wealth equates happiness, and the more we are able to own, is the happier we are.

wealthIf having more financial assets means that we are happier, why would we ever worry about anything else? If our purpose in life is to achieve happiness, and the key to happiness is to accumulate more money and possessions, why not pursuing money for the sake of money? If the ends justify the means, we could keenly pursue money and possessions no matter how we get them. Even breaking laws and bypassing ethics would be justifiable -stealing, defrauding, or whatever not- as at the end, we would achieve both success and happiness.

Once upon a time, however, the understanding of wealth was a much different one. In the ancient world, people valued possessions and power as we do today – however, there was also a huge perception of value in knowledge. Scientists, philosophers and teachers, among others, were thought of as people with a whole “wealth” of knowledge. Musicians, sculptors, and writers were valued for their talents and intellectual contributions to society. In those times, people were valued for what they did, and not so much for what they had.

The modern world, however, is a much different place. Our aspiration as a progressive society should decidedly not be to become just as we lived and thought centuries ago. Money is not evil, and neither are possessions nor financial ownership. It is important to acknowledge that they are a result of our evolution as a civilization and have become tools to foster our development as a society. Whether we fully embrace them or not, we cannot deny that they constitute a part of our lives as well and, they way mankind’s collective mind has evolved, our very belonging to this civilization creates a need to have money and possessions.

As money and possessions are part of our lives, we should acknowledge them by what they are. Amassing them is not ultimate happiness, but they are important tools to achieve happiness. Money can be (and is) a great vehicle to access food and learning, to raise families, to procure warm clothing and housing, and more importantly, to provide well-being to ourselves and all members of society. Money is also a great tool to develop research, medicine, to promote arts and to create a legacy that could impact every person and even future generations.

As such, we must acknowledge that the real power of money and possessions are not in themselves, but rather in what we do with them. For instance, an individual can choose to buy an expensive car with their money, or to donate this money to a charity. Which one would create a longer lasting impact? Which one would provide more satisfaction to this individual? Which one would provide more happiness? Likewise, if a person decides to either spend a large amount of money partying in Las Vegas, or to use that money to take his family to an educational trip, which one would create more satisfaction, happiness, and a longer lasting impact?

True wealth then should not be understood as the capacity to own something, or to have more financial assets than someone else. A wealthy person is not simply an individual who has lots of money in a bank account. A truly wealthy person is that who makes the most out of the financial means they have. An important piece in the big puzzle of happiness resides in understanding this very simple but powerful concept.

Photo credit: StockMonkeys.com / IWoman / CC BY

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Materialism and consumerism through the eyes of “The Little Prince”

A few days ago, I published in this blog a speech delivered earlier this year by Jose Mujica, President of Uruguay (click here to visit that post). In that speech, he mentioned very inspiring thoughts regarding the responsibility of mankind to look after its own happiness, the importance of looking after environmental policies and sustainable economic practices, and the urgency to counter a culture of consumerism.

One of the key ideas (and quotes) of his speech was that “ancient thinkers -Epicurus, Seneca, the Aymara people- defined that ‘a poor person is not he who has few goods, a real poor person is he who needs infinitely a lot’, and wants and needs more and more and more”. This idea, of course, is consistent with philosophies that maintain that happiness does not come from the amount of possessions or wealth we may own, but real happiness comes from within ourselves.

Apropos of these ideas, I would like to cite an excerpt of one of my favourite books: The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

The fourth planet belonged to a businessman. This man was so much occupied that he did not even raise his head at the little prin

“Good morning,” the little prince said to him. “Your cigarette has gone out.”

Business Man“Three and two make five. Five and seven make twelve. Twelve and three make fifteen. Good morning. FIfteen and seven make twenty-two. Twenty-two and six make twenty-eight. I haven’t time to light it again. Twenty-six and five make thirty-one. Phew! Then that makes five-hundred-and-one million, six-hundred-twenty-two-thousand, seven-hundred-thirty-one.”

“Five hundred million what?” asked the little prince.

“Eh? Are you still there? Five-hundred-and-one million–I can’t stop . . . I have so much to do! I am concerned with matters of consequence. I don’t amuse myself with balderdash. Two and five make seven . . .”

“Five-hundred-and-one million what?” repeated the little prince, who never in his life had let go of a question once he had asked it.

The businessman raised his head.

“During the fifty-four years that I have inhabited this planet, I have been disturbed only three times. The first time was twenty-two years ago, when some giddy goose fell from goodness knows where. He made the most frightful noise that resounded all over the place, and I made four mistakes in my addition. The second time, eleven years ago, I was disturbed by an attack of rheumatism. I don’t get enough exercise. I have no time for loafing. The third time–well, this is it! I was saying, then, five-hundred-and-one millions–“

“Millions of what?”

The businessman suddenly realized that there was no hope of being left in peace until he answered this question.

“Millions of those little objects,” he said, “which one sometimes sees in the sky.”

“Flies?”

“Oh, no. Little glittering objects.”

“Bees?”

“Oh, no. Little golden objects that set lazy men to idle dreaming. As for me, I am concerned with matters of consequence. There is no time for idle dreaming in my life.”

“Ah! You mean the stars?”

“Yes, that’s it. The stars.”

“And what do you do with five-hundred millions of stars?”

“Five-hundred-and-one million, six-hundred-twenty-two thousand, seven-hundred-thirty-one. I am concerned with matters of consequence: I am accurate.”

“And what do you do with these stars?”

“What do I do with them?”

“Yes.”

“Nothing. I own them.”

“You own the stars?”

“Yes.”

“But I have already seen a king who–“

“Kings do not own, they reign over. It is a very different matter.”

“And what good does it do you to own the stars?”

“It does me the good of making me rich.”

“And what good does it do you to be rich?”

“It makes it possible for me to buy more stars, if any are discovered.”

“This man,” the little prince said to himself, “reasons a little like my poor tippler . . .”

Nevertheless, he still had some more questions.

“How is it possible for one to own the stars?”

“To whom do they belong?” the businessman retorted, peevishly.

“I don’t know. To nobody.”

“Then they belong to me, because I was the first person to think of it.”

“Is that all that is necessary?”

“Certainly. When you find a diamond that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you discover an island that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you get an idea before any one else, you take out a patent on it: it is yours. So with me: I own the stars, because nobody else before me ever thought of owning them.”

“Yes, that is true,” said the little prince. “And what do you do with them?”

“I administer them,” replied the businessman. “I count them and recount them. It is difficult. But I am a man who is naturally interested in matters of consequence.”

The little prince was still not satisfied.

“If I owned a silk scarf,” he said, “I could put it around my neck and take it away with me. If I owned a flower, I could pluck that flower and take it away with me. But you cannot pluck the stars from heaven . . .”

“No. But I can put them in the bank.”

“Whatever does that mean?”

“That means that I write the number of my stars on a little paper. And then I put this paper in a drawer and lock it with a key.”

“And that is all?”

“That is enough,” said the businessman.

“It is entertaining,” thought the little prince. “It is rather poetic. But it is of no great consequence.”

On matters of consequence, the little prince had ideas which were very different from those of the grown-ups.

“I myself own a flower,” he continued his conversation with the businessman, “which I water every day. I own three volcanoes, which I clean out every week (for I also clean out the one that is extinct; one never knows). It is of some use to my volcanoes, and it is of some use to my flower, that I own them. But you are of no use to the stars . . .”

The businessman opened his mouth, but he found nothing to say in answer. And the little prince went away.

 

The world did not end, but are we slowly ending with it? President Jose Mujica explains

December 21, 2012, will be remembered as yet another date when the always feared “end of the world” failed to happen. Theories ranging from massive earthquakes to floods, fire, and collision with massive asteroids and planets circulated proved to be wrong. It looks that the world is still spinning, and our duty to elevate this world to make it a better place is still valid and in place – and will remain as such for a while.

The rumours about the end of the world, then, turned out to be only that – rumours. But here is an interesting perspective to reflect upon: Why should the world end violently as a result of a natural disaster? Unfortunately, our species has taken a materialistic and selfish view of life, which has resulted in greed, war, and consumerism. Are we not, then, slowly contributing to the end of the world as it was meant to be?

On this regard, Jose Mujica, President of Uruguay, shared his views about this subject earlier this year during the Rio+20 conference. His views helped to deliver one of the most beautiful, memorable and thought-provoking speeches recorded. I invite you to analyze his speech not from a purely economical/political perspective, but from a humanistic point of view. What should be our life priorities, as individuals?

The speech is in Spanish and it’s worth to listen from beginning to end. I have translated the full speech further below.


“Authorities attending from every latitude and organization, thank you very much. And thanks very much as well to the people of Brazil and its President. And thank you to all preceding speakers for showing their likely good intentions.

We, as governments, express the most intimate will to support all agreements that this, our poor human kind, can sign. However, let us ask loudly to ourselves some questions. This whole evening we have been talking about sustainable development, and about rescuing immense masses of people from poverty. What do we have in our minds? The development-consumption economic model observed by rich nations?

I wonder, what would happen to this planet if people in India had the same ratio of cars per family than Germans do? How much oxygen would be left for us to breathe? To be clear: Does the world today have enough material elements to make possible that 7 or 8 billion people can have the same degree of consumerism and waste that the most affluent western societies have? Is it feasible, or we might have to have a different type of discussion someday? Because we have created a civilization that is product of markets, product of competition, which has doomed itself to a purely materialistic and explosive development.

What have been market economies have created market societies, and has led us to this globalization. But are  we ruling globalization, or is globalization ruling us? Is it possible to talk about solidarity and unity within an economic model that is based solely in ruthless competition? How far does our fraternity reach?

I don’t say any of this to deny the importance of this event. It’s all the opposite: The challenge that lies ahead of us is of a colossal magnitude, and the big crisis is not environmental, but political. Man does not rule today the forces that he has unleashed, but those forces that man has unleashed rule over man and life. Because we don’t come to this planet just to develop on general terms, we come to this life to be happy, because life is short and it goes by. No commodity is worth more than life, and this is basic. But life will pass by me while I work and work only to obtain a surplus, and the consumerist society is the engine -because, definitely, if demand is paralyzed or stopped, then economy is stopped, and if economy is stopped, the phantom of stagnation is all upon us.

But that hyper consumerism, in turn, is an aggressor to our planet, and in that model of hyper consumerism we need to produce goods that last short because we have to sell lots of them. Then a lightbulb cannot last longer than 1000 hours on – even when we have developed lightbulbs that can last 100,000 or 200,000 hours on. But those ones cannot be manufactured because market is an issue, because we have to work and we have to sustain a use-and-dump civilization. We are in a vicious cycle. These are political problems that tell us about the need to start fighting for a different culture.

This is not about coming back to becoming cavemen, nor to build a monument to backward mentalities. It is just that we cannot continue to be ruled by the markets indefinitely. It is us who have to rule the markets. That’s why I say that this is a political issue in my humble way of thinking. Because ancient thinkers -Epicurus, Seneca, the Aymara people- defined that “a poor person is not he who has few goods, a real poor person is he who needs infinitely a lot”, and wants and needs more and more and more. This is a cultural key, then.

I salute the efforts and agreements that are made, and as a head of state, I will support them, because I know that a few of the things I am saying here are “creaking”. But we need to realize that the crisis of water, the crisis of aggression to the environment are not the causes of the problem. The cause is the civilization model that we have shaped, and what we need to revise is our lifestyle.

Why? I am from a tiny country blessed with natural resources to live. In my country, there are 3 million inhabitants – slightly more, 3.2 million. But there are some 13 million cows, some of the best in the world, and some 8 or 10 million sheep. My country exports food, dairy products, meat. Almost 90% of its territory is arable.  My worker fellows fought a lot to get 8 hours of work per day, nowadays they are getting 6 hours per day! But he who gets 6 hours of work a day is also getting an additional job and, therefore, works more than he did before. Why? Because he has to pay numerous bills: the little scooter he bought, the little car he bought, and he pays installments, and he pays more installments, and when he wants to change that… he realizes that he has become a rheumatic old man like myself, and his life is begone. And the immediate question comes to mind: Is that the fate of being a human?

These concepts are very basic, development cannot go against happiness. It has to work in favour of happiness, of love, of human relations, of looking after our children, of having friends, of having the very basic! Precisely, because that is the most important treasure that we have. When we fight for environment, the first element in the environment is called ‘Human Happiness’. Thank you.”

Rio de Janeiro, June 22, 2012

I once had a conversation about happiness with a stranger

The following is a true story. This conversation changed my point of view about what it is to be happy.

I once had a conversation about happiness with a stranger while sitting on an airplane. The flight was rather short, and the man in question was a complete stranger to me. Dressed in a neat suit and tie, it looked that this man was onto something very important – perhaps he was a very successful businessman.

This man, whose name I don’t remember anymore, was a 30-something year old businessman sitting on the seat next to me. Travelling on a domestic flight in a country where we both clearly stood out as foreigners -the only ones flying on that flight-, it was almost natural to just spark a conversation.  And we did.

He introduced himself very politely, and proceeded to hand a business card out of his pocket. He mentioned that he was a businessman from Niger. He also mentioned what his trading business was about, but frankly speaking, that was not quite as exotic to me as his country of origin and roots. I had never met a person from Niger, and up until today, I have never met one again. Therefore, the main focus of our conversation evolved around the place he came from, as opposed to the business he was doing in this trip. I was curious to learn how was it like to live in such a remote and isolated land.

The businessman explained that Niger is a country with a small population, maybe a couple of medium-sized cities, and a large area – most of which is desert. He then noted that he grew up in a small village of shepherds, where people were poor and mostly isolated from the outside world. Nevertheless, he missed home.

For me, a man born and raised in big cities, that was out of comprehension. How can a businessman miss that kind of living? The idea of people living like that in a remote village in Niger seemed outlandish. In my eyes, that was the epitome of monotony. I thus thought that their life must be very dull, boring and poor.

Sharing my thoughts with the businessman, he proved me wrong. He indeed mentioned that people were economically poor, but they didn’t know it – moreover, they didn’t care about it. They were content living their simple lives. Although the rest of the world looked at his people as poor, they were in fact happy living that life: Waking up every day to feed the animals, spending time with the family, raising children, and looking after each other while in intimate contact with their land and their surroundings. They lived stress free not caring about stock markets going up or down. They did not care about brands, about socioeconomic statuses, about dominance, nor about fierce competition against each other. They had what they shared and they shared what they had. They were humble, but they were happy. In fact, they were happier than people like us, surviving in the concrete jungles everyday.

As we spoke, I got to realize that our understanding of happiness in our world is correlative to success and to achievement. But since these people were able to enjoy happiness without those factors, perhaps our understanding is wrong and totally inverted. Maybe happiness consists of the simpler things, such as the joy of sharing, the pleasure of being connected to the soil we live in, and keeping strong ties with our families and the communities that surround us. If people with limited resources like those villagers in Niger can experience happiness, can we not do the same in our urban, big-city styled lives?

The conversation ended as our plane landed. But the morale it left on me has lasted in my mind until today – and I suspect will be here for a much longer time.

Decisions in life: Have we made the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ones?

Looking back at our own lives, we may sometimes be tempted to re-evaluate the way we have followed in life and decide whether the decisions that have brought us up until this point were the right ones. At the end of the day -we may think-, we could be doing better. Moreover, when we look at what we have done and what we have achieved, and we compare it to what other seemingly better-doing people have pursued and reach, there’s always a chance we will question our past (and current) ability to make decisions.

When we compare our own journey to that of others, does that provide us with a clear picture of how good have our decisions been in the past? At first, it would appear logical that it is. If we think about it, right after the moment we are born we are started on the race of life, where the older we get, the more we feel this urge to excel over others. Sometimes, the society that surrounds us acts as the judge to determine whether our race in life has met the standards to consider it a successful one or not. In their view, the best way to determine this is by comparing what one individual has achieved throughout their life against what other individuals have achieved.

In our modern times, and within most societal standards, these dangerous judgements are quantified (humans are, after all, driven and motivated by what is tangible and immediately available): We compare how much money a person has with respect to the other one, we compare what degree of professional development has a person achieved as compared to others, we compare how many possessions has a person amassed with respect to other people. We compare so many quantifiable attributes in people, and the more we compare, the better we can define whether a person has done well in life by taking the correct decisions. And then, we can see whether we have mimicked their decisions, or conversely, whether we have taken some wrong decisions and we are not as far ahead in the race of life as we could be.

But measuring and quantifying our lives is not an accurate view of our previous or current ability to make good decisions. Quantifying the goodness that surrounds us, the happiness we experience, and the success that we have achieved, is useless. In the end, we must acknowledge that our very human nature is not built on quantifiable attributes: Every person is a unique being, with unique qualities, unique goals and unique missions. Every one of us is pursuing a different path that does not lead to a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ direction, but it rather pursues different directions than other people’s life paths. Moreover, the paths we follow are not dead ends, but they are merely streets that lead to intersections which, down the road, will allow us to modify our route.

Given our uniqueness as individuals and the uniqueness of our missions in life, it is of no use to try to compare ourselves to other individuals, and determine from there whether we have made right or wrong decisions. There are no right or wrong decisions – there are just different decisions, that cannot (and should not) be quantified by tangible attributes. Rest assured that right now, you are at the right place, at the right time, as you are following the road that will lead you to fulfil your own mission.

 

Heinrich Boll: Work ethics and happiness

The following short story was written by Heinrich Böll, an influential German author of the second half on the 20th century.  Its original title in German (Anekdote zur Senkung der Arbeitsmoral) can be roughly translated to English as “Anecdote to the Decline of the Work Ethic”

A tourist looks on a most idyllic picture: a fisherman dozing in the sun in his rowing boat that he has pulled out of the waves which come rolling up the sandy beach. The tourist’s camera clicks and the fisherman wakes. The tourist asks: “The weather is great and there’s plenty of fish, so why are you lying around instead of going out and catching more?”

The fisherman replies: “Because I caught enough this morning.” “But just imagine,” the tourist says, “you could go out there three or four times a day and bring home three or four times as much fish! And then you know what could happen?” The fisherman shakes his head. “After a year you could buy yourself a motorboat,” says the tourist. “After two years you could buy a second one, and after three years you could have a cutter or two. And just think! One day you might be able to build a freezing plant or a smoke house. 
You might eventually even get your own helicopter for tracing shoals of fish and guiding your fleet of cutters, or you could buy your own trucks to ship your fish to the capital, and then . . .” “And then?” asks the fisherman. “And then”, the tourist continues triumphantly, “you’d could spend time sitting at the beachside, dozing in the sun and looking at the beautiful ocean!” The fisherman looks at the tourist: “But that is exactly what I was doing before you came along!” 

Just like the fisherman, it is up to each of us to perceive the goodness that surrounds us, and to keep a positive outlook on our pursuit to happiness. At the end of the day, we are responsible for pursuing our own dreams and the only way in which they will come true is by exploiting our inner power to overcome any obstacles that might stand on our way.

Image: Auro Queiroz

Pleasure vs. Happiness: Where to look for true happiness?

In our current, modern way of life, we are sometimes convinced (by the media, or by behaviours of other people) that happiness is correlative to success, and success is correlative to economic wealth. In other words, the wealthier we are, the more successful we are – hence the happier we are. If this equation was true, then devouting our lives to work and consumerism would lead to a happy and perfect life.

But this equation could not be farther away from reality. In our pursuit of happiness, it is important that we make a clear distinction between happiness and pleasure. Whereas there might be some fringe relation between the two, pleasure tends to be more of an ephemeral -and misguiding- sensation.

Let’s take the example of a person who buys a luxurious car.  As soon as they drive out of the car dealership, they will for sure feel a rush of adrenaline and a sense of pride and achievement running through their veins. At the end of the day, the luxurious car is a result of their hard work, more like a reward for their efforts. Will that feeling last forever? Unlikely. How long will it take, then, until the adrenaline and pride rushes wash off? Once that happens, this person will feel the need to reward themselves again. Maybe next time they’ll be treating themselves to an expensive dinner with champagne and caviar?

What this person obtained by buying the expensive car was pleasure: A momentary sensation, produced by external stimuli. Indeed, the car is not a source of happiness. In fact, neither the car nor any material possession can ever be considered as a potential source of pleasure because happiness is a state of mind. As such, happiness comes from within, and has the potential to outlast the effects of any pleasure.

Happiness is all about finding the goodness within ourselves, and absorbing the positive energy of our surroundings. To achieve happiness, you should not aim to satisfy your need to be happy with the pleasure from possessing material wealth. Look into your body, mind and soul first, and find out the necessary balance that will open the gates to happiness. In the words of Paramhansa Yogananda, “You must first establish it firmly within yourself and then, with an undying resolution always to be happy, go through the world seeking health, prosperity, and wisdom. You will find greater happiness if you seek success ever with a happy attitude than if you try to gain your heart’s desire with an unhappy mind, no matter what that desire may be.

Big Dreams, Small Dreams

A newspaper issued a special note, where it reported how a movie theatre chain in Mexico “invited” some 1500 people to watch the premiere of a local film for free. But they were no ordinary customers: These were very humble, poor people (mostly kids), some of which had never been to a movie theatre in their lives. At the end of the premiere, the newspaper interviewed some of the attendees. One of the interviewees was a 10 year-old boy. He said to the newspaper that his life dream was to watch a movie in a movie theatre. Thus that day, his dream was becoming true.

Reel

For most of us, this boy’s dream to watch a movie in a movie theatre feels like something small and trivial. We take an evening at the movies for granted, because it looks to us simply as a commodity that is readily available to us at will. From this perspective, coming into a movie theatre and watching films is not a dream – it is an available and constant reality. But for the boy, watching a movie in the theatre seemed like something big, unattainable, distant and almost impossible. And the day his dream came true – his experience at the movie theatre was lived by him with more passion and intensity than any regular customer can possibly live it. The kid found goodness in that.

There is a powerful learning from this story: Sometimes, we take certain good things in life for granted, without making the fullest out of them at every moment we have them in reach: A drive to work, an evening at the movie theatre, a walk in the park, a moment with the parents, a family vacation, a home made meal… all of them are simple things in life, but all of them have the potential to be great moments in life if we really get to appreciate all the goodness that they bring to our lives.

Be grateful for the goodness you are surrounded with at every moment – just like the kid at the movie theatre for the first time, you too have the inner power to live each of them to the fullest.