A Myth in Pursuit of Happiness

How Pursuing Wealth for Happiness and Security Assures Having Neither

The man knew what he wanted and went out and got it! Walked into a jungle and comes out at the age of twenty-one, and he’s rich!

Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.

Show Me The Money!
Is it true that anyone living in America can get rich? A popular myth* promoted in everything from best-selling books to TV sitcoms says that it is. We are told that America is the land of endless opportunity, and anyone who works hard can come out of the jungle rich. There is even the suggestion by some that refusing the call to passionately pursue wealth is un-American.

The reality, however, is quite different. The promise of untold wealth – and the personal power that supposedly comes with it – is dangled like a carrot on a stick, enticing the aspiring rich to keep focused on reaching for something the already rich know full well is forever beyond their grasp. The myth, therefore, is part of an elaborate deception, a con.

While it’s true that many people do rise above humble beginnings to attain a degree of wealth and social standing, it is not at the same level as the few who inhabit the mountain top. It’s known that even among the rich there is a wealth hierarchy, as evidenced by the disdain “old” money displays for “new” money.

The success and endurance of the myth and its associated con is based on embedding the idea that all one needs to be happy is lots of money. And while people will sometimes pay lip service to this not actually being true, no one actually buys into the transparent denial. And how can they in a culture that lusts after lifestyles of the rich and famous, and values wealth above all else?

Ironically, the Declaration of Independence originally contained the phrase, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of wealth”. Why then was “happiness” substituted instead? Coulld it be the founders had a flash of insight, recognizing that while happiness could include wealth, it didn’t exclude other definitions? It’s unfortunate that for many, the original sentiment remains the only meaning.

Oh, Those Fatal Flaws
But upon even just a cursory inspection, three fundamental flaws underpinning the scheme are exposed. First, the numbers themselves reveal that relatively few can ever actually achieve great wealth (apart from the fact that by global standards the average American is very well off). Most Americans have become aware of the 1/99 ratio of rich to not rich that represents the stark reality.

Second, not everyone is driven to become monetarily rich. As previously pointed out, there are those who have an entirely different definition of wealth and seek riches in other forms, such as art, knowledge, discovery, promoting a cause, the satisfaction of helping others, etc. Some even see earning money to live as a needless distraction from more important pursuits.

The third and most basic flaw in the myth gets to the very heart. There is a quote attributed to Author, David Mitchell: “Whoever dies with the most stuff wins”. Whether it’s stuff or money, this sums up the attitude of many regarding what they understand the purpose of existence to be. But why is that? Where is it written that the meaning of life is to become as rich as possible? On what stone? The Ten Commandments? The Bill of Rights? The Hollywood Walk of Fame?

Fact is, the closest we have to authoritative guidance on this issue comes from the world’s great wisdom traditions (religion and philosophy), and what they have to say directly contradicts the myth’s rationale. These traditions tell us that acquiring wealth is not the goal of human existence. Enlightened teachers from different times and cultures have emphasized this truth over and over. Along with iconic literary works, fine art and music, these wisdom traditions have cast light on the deepest needs and desires of the human soul.

What do they tell us? The quest for material wealth is a misdirected attempt to obtain the most basic of human needs: love and security. The myth suggests that the need for love and security can be satisfied by having lots of money. However, this is based on two mistaken beliefs. First, by itself, being wealthy may induce admiration in some and idol worship in others, but it doesn’t guarantee being genuinely loved by anyone. Second, it assumes that wealth can provide everything needed to live in safety and security.

A Simple Truth
What nullifies these beliefs is their looking to a source outside the self to provide that which only the self can do for itself. Any admiration that’s derived from status is only skin deep – and no amount of money can guarantee complete and total security.

The neurotic need that seeks approval from external sources is the result of not loving and accepting ourselves unconditionally, flaws and all. If we are not at peace with ourselves, no amount of fame or fortune is capable of filling the gaping hole.

Real security is an inner sense of well being which has nothing to do with external circumstances. The fear that lies behind an obsession with security is a subconscious fear, fueled by feelings of insecurity. Those feelings result from a false belief that by ourselves, we are not enough. From this comes the need to order and control the environment as a way to compensate for the feelings of inadequacy, and convince those around us that we have value (importance) as persons. We believe these feelings have to be hidden from view, lest the truth about not being worthy is seen by others. We can use a variety of methods to hide our insecurity, but covering it over with heaps of expensive and extravagant stuff appears to be the one preferred.

If we don’t understand that real security is found only as a by-product of complete and total self-acceptance – and the indomitable confidence in ourselves and the Universe that comes as a result – there isn’t a fortification in the world that can protect us from whatever fear we imagine. We may not be perfect, but we are enough! When this truth at last sinks in, the need to hide parts of ourselves from the world no longer exists, and that’s because we no longer believe anyone else’s opinion of us determines our value.

Author Mark Boyle experimented living for three years without money and reports the surprising effect it had:

More than anything else, I discovered that my security no longer lay in my bank account, but in the strength of my relationships with the people, plants and animals around me. My character replaced sterling as my currency . . .  My moneyless economy was one in which helpfulness, generosity and solidarity were rewarded . . . I realised I was capable of more than I ever imagined.

This eloquently stated example points to another popular but erroneous belief – that money equals freedom. In fact, real freedom is being liberated from limiting beliefs that interfere with the ability to live a full life with love and joy – on one’s own terms. Real freedom is being secure in the ability to serenely meet life’s challenges with confidence and creativity.

In Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman, Willy Loman, the play’s central character, is consumed by the quest to become rich. He accepts the myth, buys into the con, and is ultimately destroyed by his obsession. In the end, the ideal of wealth and social approval upon which he had based his life, eludes him. He then chooses to blame himself for his perceived failure, rather than accept the possibility that the real problem lie with the goal of his quest. If he only knew the real treasure was within himself. He had it all along. And so do we.

*”Myth” as used here is the popular, albeit, incorrect definition: an idea or story that is believed by many but which is not true. It is more correctly understood as a cultural construct which uses analogy and metaphor to express an otherwise inexpressible truth that arises from the supra-consciousness of individuals in a given society, and which is only accessible through intuition.

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My Run-In With The Law (of Attraction)

The law of attraction is the name given to the belief that “like attracts like” and that by focusing on positive or negative thoughts, one can bring about positive or negative results. This belief is based upon the idea that people and their thoughts are both made from “pure energy”, and the belief that like energy attracts like energy. (Source: Wikipedia) 

Man those roots were deep! The bushes had probably been there since the house was built, and they weren’t interested in leaving. Besides being deep, they were a tangled mess, winding around each other like snakes in a pit. But the bushes were looking tired now, and were out of date as landscape elements. So my wife and I decided to remove them. It would open up the front of the house, and we could put in a little terraced flower garden for a nice contemporary touch.

So one pleasant spring Saturday morning, I embarked, shovel in hand, on what I hoped would be an easy job of extracting some old, weak, decomposing plants. Need I say it didn’t turn out that way? Of course not! After easily cutting the branches down to ground level, the attack on the roots moved forward. Before long, the shovel was joined by a pick. A short time later, the pick was joined by a sledge hammer – and basically anything else I could find that might break up the steely cables. It was now apparent that this could go on all weekend – and maybe longer.

As I mentally scanned the tools available in the garage, I realized that one thing which would be really helpful was also the one thing I didn’t have – a pry bar. Yeah, a pry bar would be just the thing to get some leverage on those suckers. Leverage – the engineers favorite tool, and just the weapon to drive out the snakes. I briefly considered making a run to the hardware store, but feared that once having stopped, I might not be inclined to continue.

And I was filthy dirty too. And it wasn’t like headway wasn’t being made, however minimal. So I toiled on, battling the fiends as best I could with what I had, all the while thinking about how great it would be to have a pry bar. I formed a mental picture of one and imagined myself effortlessly dispatching roots with the magic stick. I ruminated on how much easier it would be to slip the pointed end of the bar under a root cable while pushing on the opposite end to either pull it out completely, or at least snap it in two.

The afternoon wore on as the task proceeded incrementally, tangled root by tangled root. I tried to put the image of a pry bar out of my mind, but it persisted, returning with each resistant pull. The thought that the job could be done so much easier and faster was as hard to remove as the roots. My kingdom for a pry bar!

Taking a much needed break, I walked around to the side of the house, and went in to grab a diet coke. Now here is where the story takes a strange and most perplexing turn. After taking a couple sips, the can of Coke and I went straight back to the front of the house. The length of time consumed by the process could not have been more than two or three minutes – in other words, just a little more than the amount of time needed to blink blink the proverbial eye.

As I walked across the yard, something in the peripheral vision attracted my attention. It was some sort of object lying in the middle of the sidewalk, right at the end of the front walk way. I stood transfixed. What it appeared to be defied logic. Moving closer confirmed the impossible. The object lying on the sidewalk in front of my house was indeed, a pry bar! Yes!

I quickly looked up and down the street. No one! Not a soul. But even if someone had been there, what could possibly account for the placing of a pry bar smack-dab in front of the house? And no one, not even my wife, knew about the object of my longing.

So here I was, standing over an object like the one obsessed about all day. Yes, it was indeed a pry bar. But while similar to the imagined object in kind, there was an obvious difference. The bar I had in mind was of the long handled variety, while the bar I now cradled in my hands measured far smaller, maybe 18 inches, if that. It was a perfectly good tool, to be sure – but utterly useless for my purposes.

Some might consider what happened to be a legitimate, though imperfect, example of the Law of Attraction in action. And I’ll admit to being at a loss for an alternative explanation. Did it fall off a passing vehicle? Was it thrown from a car? Dropped from a plane? All strain credulity a bit too far.

My own relationship with the Law of Attraction concept remains a work in progress. As I learn more about the energetic nature of the universe, there’s a greater openness to the possibility, despite some reservations. My own experience has been ambiguous. Yes, there has been the occasional synchronistic connection to a person or event. But I also spend the better part of the day worrying about one thing or another, yet find very little ever comes to pass.

So what do I take away from this encounter with the numinous? Let’s recap: 1) The object on which I’d focused my thoughts and intention was manifested. 2) There was no evidence of human intervention. 3) The bar wasn’t suited to the task.

From this I’m inclined to conclude that if energy does in fact respond to thoughts, desires and mental pictures, one would be well advised to practice caution and be very specific about what is asked for. It may be that the universe really is ready and willing to deliver whatever we order. But we’d better make sure we fill in all the blanks. If wishing for a Honda, be sure to state the year and model. Heaven forbid you get a used lawn mower instead.

We have to stop and be humble enough to understand that there is something called mystery.      – Paulo Coelho

How Long Does It Take to Make A $Trillion?

If you’re mathematically challenged like me, you need help relating to numbers followed by lots of zero’s. I understand the hundreds and thousands well enough, and can even comprehend millions – at least in the abstract. But for anything beyond that, you might as well be speaking Abyssinian.

So in order to get some sort of intelligible context for the incomprehensible, I devised a thought experiment (just like Einstein!) in which I have a printing press that produces dollar bills (legally of course) at the rate of one per second. Furthermore, the machine can run non-stop, 24/7 – forever. The results of the experiment are as follows:

  • It took 12 days to print $1,000,000 (one million). Actually it was slightly less, but I rounded up (I love math talk).
  • At this rate we can print nearly $32 million in 1 year. Cool. I could live on that.

Getting from $1,000,000 (one million) to $1,000,000,000 (one billion) takes a bit longer than expected. Hint – We’re no longer talking about days. In fact –

  • Printing $1,000,000,000 (one billion) would take 32 years!

Okay, the press is running hard now, but nothing compared to what it will take to reach the next plateau. Here goes –

  • Printing $1,000,000,000,000 (one trillion) would require 32,000 years! Huh? It’s true! Check it out for yourself.

So based on our thought experiment method, at the production rate of one unit per second, the difference between 1 million and 1 billion is approximately 31 years, and the difference between 1 billion and 1 trillion is approximately 31,968 years! I don’t know about you, but I find that stunning. Had no idea just adding three zero’s could make that much difference.

No wonder Billionaires have such little regard for mere Millionaires – chump change! And if anyone ever manages to become a Trillionaire, watch out!

But aside from trivializing the very real social stigma attached to varying levels of wealth, I found this to be a surprising and sobering exercise. What were once meaningless numbers have acquired a whole new significance and appreciation.

While our experiment used printing money as the device to visualize quantitative differences in amounts represented by zero’s and commas, it’s also helpful for understanding other things involving large numbers – like space travel for instance.

Consider this: The average distance from Earth to Mars is 140 million miles. The distance from Earth to Pluto is 4.7 billion miles. Given what we’ve just learned, that makes going to Mars like a trip to the Mall by comparison. And yet Pluto is considered part of our “local” solar system!

At least now, whether confronted by federal budgets, income differences or galactic distances, there’s a better grasp on their relativity. Oops – did I say relativity?

Next up: Infinity (and beyond)!