When all the arguments about human needs and tendencies subside, one simple
idea always works. Humans want to be well fed and safe. Happiness begins with
shelter, healthy air, adequate food, and clean water available in a secure
environment. To remain happy, each person must be accepted by a social group
that provides access to resources, employment and human rights. Do humans
understand how to become happy? Yes and no. Humans have restless minds and
generate dissatisfactions at a greater rate than they generate contentment. The
restless, nomadic human is driven every day to emerge even from a stable,
comfortable home to satisfy these relentless urges and drives.
Happiness may be equated with affluence but there are problems with
affluence. I occasionally visit people who are rich and live in big houses. You
can tour someone's elegant mansion and admire his or her couches, paintings,
lavish bathrooms, wardrobes and swimming pool. While I live simply, I do have an
appreciation for domestic comforts, interior décor, art and finely crafted art
and artifacts, I know that being rich does not increase mind space nor does it
decrease the constantly regenerating drives that sustain a state of
dissatisfaction in all humans.
A rich man with a big house may find that he is
most comfortable sitting in his smallish study, in an old leather chair that is
a little beaten up but fits his body after many years of daily contact. He might
spend his leisure time watching videos, especially old movies that he has
collected. The other 10,000 square feet of his mansion sits idle, except when he
has parties but he does not enjoy those much anymore; he is tired of the
ingratiating behavior of relative strangers, their idle chatter and malicious
gossip. This is not to argue that having money and property will always make you
miserable, as some poor people like to think.
One problem of affluence is that humans repeat behaviors that were once
gratifying and successful. It makes sense to repeat drinking a glass of water
when thirst recurs, since water flows through us and must be replaced
continuously. If you add alcohol to the water, having the second and third drink
turns a pleasurable experience into to pathological experience: a nice person
may become a monster; a healthy person becomes mentally and physically ill. The
absurd consequences of typical human behavior have been broadcast by centuries
of literature and self-help advice.
As soon as an object becomes “mine”, its value increases. An object possessed
becomes an object that possesses the owner. If you enjoy buying objects and
taking them home, the numbers of objects increase over time and you have to buy
a bigger home. If buying one pair of shoes made you happy, you go back for a
second and a third pair. If one car makes you feel good, buy two or three. This
tendency to repeat acquisitive behaviors is built into marketing strategy-
merchants offer "two for the price of one" or "buy one at the regular price and
get one free."
Some individuals rationalize their compulsive acquisitive behaviors and refer
to themselves as collectors. They promote interest in their collections and
inflate the value of their objects. Others simply fill the space available to
them with inexpensive junk and then rent storage to handle the overflow. Others
fill small living spaces with newspapers and magazines until their dwellings
resemble the underground burrows of acquisitive rodents. We know from common
observation and formal study that acquisitive behavior is an old animal pattern
that is built into our innate tendencies and is not going away. Some individuals
thoughtfully regulate their consuming habits, having understood and learned to
control their innate tendencies to hoard and consume more. The best advice for
humans is "do more with less."
Philosophers have noticed the human tendency to desire anything and
everything. As soon as you have satisfied one need, another arises. They have
recommended less material preoccupations and a more contemplative life. In
contrast to constant preoccupation with devouring the world out there, a
contemplative human needs spaciousness and contentment rather than consumption.
You need a few hours to relax at home and say (with a sigh of relief) I have, at
least briefly, everything I need.
One of the Buddha's insights is stated simply: "The cause of all suffering is
desire." He would suggest that the route to happiness is to decrease
expectations and needs and not to consume more of everything. Appreciating one
flower, one friend, or one precious artifact is more gratifying than trying to
have a hundred of each. Money does not buy happiness, but, if spent wisely; more
money can achieve comfort, and relative security in healthier more pleasant
environments. In the best case, more money gives you more options and more
freedom denied to less privileged people, including the philanthropic option,
helping others by donating money to worthy causes.