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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Success beyond mere financial wealth

In today’s competitive society, it is easy to find ourselves in situations where we act according to what others expect from us. It’s not uncommon to engage in situations that are unpleasant (unfulfilling jobs, materialistic mindsets, etc), but which nevertheless we pursue for the sake of “success”. Unfortunately, in these modern times, success is equated to financial wealth and professional success escalating corporate ladders.

With that false idea of success in mind, millions of people live their lives focused exclusively in the task of making money to achieve financial power and success. Don’t take me wrong, there is nothing bad with living those values, except that at the end of the day… how many people throughout history are remembered for the amount of money they had in the bank? How many people are valued by society for an average track record as a corporate employee? How many people have left a lasting impression in this world for having achieved financial “success”?

painter

On the other hand, we remember plenty of people who throughout their life made significant contributions to the arts, to philosophy, to astronomy, or to science – just to mention a few. They left a great legacy to their communities and even to mankind as a whole, and they are remembered throughout the generations. The secret? Throughout their life, they did not only focus on their day jobs as merchants, mailmen or teachers with the sole intention of accumulating wealth. They did work jobs in order to make a living, but they also utilized their unique abilities to leave a lasting legacy behind them

In today’s world, there are still people out there who contribute significantly to the heritage and well being of their community. How do they do that? By remaining true to their nature: Yes, like the rest of us, they are people who work jobs, have bank accounts, and purchase goods for their use. Nevertheless, they are people who do not pursue financial wealth as an indicator of success and well being, but they also do what they like and what they enjoy in life and share it with others.

Whereas it is important to become a productive member of this society by working and serving the community, it is crucial for a person to remain true to their nature in the process. As we know, every person has unique talents, abilities and passions – which together forge the uniqueness of every human being. Do not be afraid to pursue your real passions in life – it is our duty to make use of those passions and talents in order to fulfil our role in this lifetime to leave a lasting legacy for future generations.

Our egoism has no place in the Universe

In our pursuit of happiness, we become blind. We forget that we are just a piece of the puzzle, and not the puzzle as a whole. We are just a part of the Universe, and not the Universe as a whole.

Is it possible that we are here only to serve our egoism and pride?

Is it possible that we are here only to serve our own illusions and inventions?

We were created in this world, with magnificent attributes, with unprecedented consciousness,

We were blessed with every component of intelligence to connect with the Universe that surround us,

We were created as one – as a single species, in charge of caring for a whole world.

What have we done for it? Have we made it prey of our own inventions and desires?

Money for the sake of money. Wealth for the sake of wealth. Power for the sake of being better than other fellow humans, for the sake of displaying individual dominance over them and over the world that was given to us. Is that our idea of success? Is that out idea of happiness?

outer-space-station

If we were visited by other inhabitants from the Universe, we would be none but their laughingstock. We are prey of our own inventions, of our own desires, of our own self-created idea of wealth. We do not value our world as our home – we value it for the economic wealth we can exploit from it, from the personal riches that we can acquire by abusing it… our own home. Our only one. And as we rape our home, we wonder whether there are other places in the Universe where we can thrive as a species – but not with the intention to flourish and make of them better places, but with the very and only intention of continuing the exploitation for the very sake of profits and financial wealth – a product of our minds.

Meanwhile, a whole Universe looks upon us… perhaps we are the missing link that will help the Universe as a whole to complete its mission. Or perhaps we are not. If we only were able to forget about our own egoism in the first place, and look upon the well being of our species as a species, and not as individuals, we would maybe find out…

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.

 

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.