Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Good Life

What is the Good Life?  Is it being rich, or happy?

A reader writes that I am living in a world of self-delusion if I believe that working hard and achieving "only" a middle-class existence in America is really worthwhile, when I could end up being an internet billionaire.  Why settle for merely happy, when you could be ecstatic?

There is an old saying that "Money Can't Buy Happiness" and the retort that lack of money can buy all the misery you can stand.  And both are true.  I've lived amongst the rich and they are some of the unhappiest people you could ever meet.   Having enough money to get by is important.  Sadly, many in America squander their money on consumer goods, stress themselves financially and "have it all" while being desperately unhappy.  I know this as I used to be one of those Americans.

I think the reader in question is perhaps from the Russian troll farm - they love to spread discontent among Americans.  It is one of the narratives that the Russian Internet Research Agency, a.k.a. "Fancy Bear" has been pushing online lately - that since somebody else has billions, the fact that you have mere thousands or millions makes you miserable by comparison.

I'm not sure I buy it.  First of all, happiness is not determined by the balance in your bank account. Some of the richest people in the world are probably the most miserable. Take for example our President - who really isn't that rich but has quite a bit of money.  Do you think Donald Trump is really happy?  I mean this guy spends a lot of time on Twitter being angry at the press and his critics and just about everybody.

He wolfs down mounds of junk food and is obsessed with his reputation and image and with having all the trappings of wealth.  This sounds to me like someone who is chronically depressed.  Or at the very least, he doesn't act like a happy person.

I recounted before that I was fortunate enough to be raised in some of the wealthiest enclaves in America.  For a time, my parents lived in Old Greenwich Connecticut, which today is an enclave of investment bankers and their trophy wives.  Oddly enough, Mark's grandparents also had a house in Old Greenwich - a Sears House - back in the day when living in Old Greenwich was merely nice and not obscenely expensive.

We also lived for a time in Lake Forest, Illinois, a tony upscale suburb of Chicago.  But the bulk of my childhood we spent living in a wealthy suburb of Syracuse known as Cazenovia.  We had a beautiful Frank Lloyd Wright style house on the lake and like Richie Rich, the spoiled little rich kid, I would take my speedboat to school everyday.

My parents were hardly wealthy, but they were classic strivers.  Only one or two generations removed from abject poverty, they sought the trappings of wealth and acceptance by wealthy society.  I didn't realize until years later that they could barely afford to live in the neighborhoods they did - after all my mother did drive a Vega.  But they were more concerned about what people at the Country Club thought of them than what they thought of themselves.  And that was typical of their generation - you strove to move as high up as social ladder as you could.

(One of the sour experiences they had was in Lake Forest, where we lived across the street from the County Club.  They were not allowed in, as one of the "old money" people black-balled them, sensing perhaps that they really didn't belong).

But as a result of this upbringing, I had a chance to meet people who came from real wealth - inherited wealth or folks who had made truly obscene amounts of money. And the interesting thing to me was that - particularly the inherited wealth people - you saw that most of them were extremely unhappy people.  And among the self-made millionaires, it was often the case that their children were very unhappy. - unable to live up to the standards of their rags-to-riches parents.

And by unhappy I don't mean merely sad, but also the chronic use of antidepressants, the casual alcoholism and drug abuse, and the serial philandering.  There was also severe mental illness, and of course the more than occasional suicide.  One of my best friends, who stood to inherit enough money to live the rest of his life without working, had a brother who killed himself when he was only in his late teens.  Imagine that - not having to work for the rest of your life and having nothing to do but figure out how to entertain yourself for 70 years or so, and the only viable option seems to be parking your car in the garage with the engine running.

The "Richard Corey" song has more truth to it than folks realize.

Another friend came from a family that had millions of dollars (back in the day when millions of dollars really meant something).  His father pulled out a handgun at the dinner table one night and blew his brains out in front of the entire family.  Needless to say that sort of warped his son's mind after that.  Fabulously wealthy people - fabulously unhappy with their lot in life.  It makes no sense.

Now, I am not saying you should feel sorry for the rich.  Fuck the rich - if you can't be happy with millions of dollars while others starve, then something is wrong with you.   Rather, I am merely pointing out that being fabulously wealthy does not equate to happiness and in fact, people to are that wealthy are often less happy than people who are merely comfortable or well-off.

For a brief period (before they threw me out after they realized I didn't come from real money) I did attend a Prep School.  My brother did likewise.  It wasn't entirely like Harry Potter at all, either.  My experience was more like some of these weepy novels about prep schools -  such as The Dead Poet's Society, which was made into a movie starring Robin Williams (irony alert).  Once again, depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide rear their ugly heads.  The kids from the "rich families" were all messed up in the head and desperately unhappy.  I was just stoned out of my mind.

Now of course, you could probably say the same thing is true in the ghetto.  The rate of mental illness, drug abuse, alcoholism, and suicide is probably high there is well.  And if you looked at happiness is a function of how much money you have, you might expect this to be the case. After all being poor sucks, so poor people are likely to be depressed.  But oddly enough, suicide rates can be higher in wealthier neighborhoods, at least according to some studies.

But if having a lot of money was definition of happiness, then why were so many rich people I knew so desperately unhappy?  Now I suppose someone will point to a study showing that people with more money on the average are less unhappy than poor people.  But of course such surveys are based on self-reported data and are the suspect.  But not only that, even if such data existed, if you really had more money then you shouldn't be unhappy at all, right?

And that's what the reality is - you can have all the money in the world and be the most miserable person possible.  On the other hand, so long as you have enough money to live comfortably but not necessarily ostentatiously, you can be quite content and happy in life.  And according to some studies, this is indeed true (again, self-reported data is suspect).   These studies suggest that having "enough" money makes you happier, as you don't worry so much about money.  But having too much might make you unhappy, as - like the poor person - you worry about money even more, but in a different way.   It's like this lady who won the lottery but doesn't want her name exposed - she knows her life will be miserable when her neighbors and friends find out she is a half-billionaire.  I suspect they will find out anyway.

I think one sure way to be unhappy in life is to be constantly comparing yourself to others.  This goes back to the coveting aspect of the Ten Commandments which I wrote about before.  I never understood what that meant in Sunday school, as our Sunday school teacher never explained the Bible very well.  They were so in awe of the holiness of that book, they never bothered to question the meaning of any of it, even though it's been translated several times and was very ambiguous and contradictory in parts.

(I recounted before how at age eight, I was nearly thrown out of Sunday school as a heretic, because I questioned what the Holy Ghost was.  Like any rambunctious young kid, I was drawing pictures in the margins of my Bible workbook of a ghost with holes in it. This horrified my Bible teacher who was certain I was going straight to hell.  It turns out, there is a whole religion based on the idea that the Holy Ghost is a bunch of hooey - it is called "Unitarianism" or "One God".  No wonder my Bible teacher was horrified - I was turning into a Unitarian at age eight!).

But getting back to coveting, a lot of people think that coveting means that you are lusting after your neighbor's wife or wanting his possessions.  And maybe that's part of it, but I think more of it has to do with comparing yourself to your neighbor in terms of his wife and his car and his house.  Because if coveting was all about lusting, then this commandment would not also mention "his ox and his ass" unless it was trying to proscribe bestiality.

No, I think what the Bible is getting at is that if you constantly compare yourself to the wealthiest man in the world, you will always come up short - and you will always be depressed as result.  This is some good common sense advice, which the Bible is often short of, particularly in the Old Testament.

Because if you think about it, not only does comparing yourself to your neighbor or to other people make you depressed, comparing yourself to your own potential can make you depressed as well.

For example in my case, I could have made millions of dollars if I chose to do so.  I certainly had the ability, and I certainly had the opportunity.  After all I was able to become a Patent Attorney, and many of my friends in law school and at the firms I worked at are now partners in large law firms whose names you have heard of.  They're easily pulling in well over $200,000 a year, perhaps two to three times that much.

If they lived a reasonably comfortable lifestyle, they could invest a large portion of that money and have millions of dollars in the bank.  And indeed, I could have done this as well - and still be working in pulling in that big salary.

It is also possible they could have end up as a senior partner and some huge Law Firm or some big-shot litigator and be pulling in millions of dollars a year - it does happen to a few select lawyers. Of course, that presupposes one has the skills to do that.  I realized quite early on that while I could write a decent patent application, I was not a courtroom litigator.  We all have different levels of intelligence and skill, and although I've done very well with my skill-set, I have had the good fortune to rub elbows with people with far more skills than I have.  And as Clint Eastwood said in his role as Dirty Harry,  "a man has got to know his limitations."

Oh, and some of those wealthy partners I worked for?  Some of the most miserable people I've met.  Most were on wife number two or three (and their wives were constantly worried about being traded-in, so they resorted to plastic surgery and boob-jobs to maintain their trophy image - they were miserable people as well!).   Many were estranged from their children and step-children.  They really didn't even have any friends.  Even their "partners" at work didn't like them, and they were all willing to stab each other in the back to take over the firm or take a client - something I witnessed firsthand more than once.   Maybe that is why I didn't want to end up like them!

So yes, in theory, we could all end up being fabulously wealthy.  For some of us it would be a matter of luck, for others a matter of talent. For most of us will be a combination of both along with, of course, opportunity - and lots and lots of hard work, as well.

We live on a planet populated by billions of people.  And if you look around this planet, the outcomes for most of these people are pretty miserable.  For about half the planet, scrambling to obtain enough caloric intake for the day is their main occupation.  And indeed, your calorie intake affects even how you think.  When your blood sugar level drops below a certain point, your brain reverts to an animalistic level.  Survival becomes the name of the game, and you will do anything in order to stay alive.  Civilization is only the nice window dressing of the successful and well-fed community.  We are all one meal away from being savages.

I think the secret to happiness is not in comparing yourself to the richest man in the world, or comparing yourself to some hypothetical you that could become wildly wealthy.  In fact it's not in comparing yourself to wealth at all.  I think, at least for me, happiness is in trying to do things and finding out after years of effort how surprisingly successful you've been when it's all said and done, and realizing that being healthy and well-fed, and not having to worry so much are the best things in life - far better than the trappings of wealth or mere possessions.

Life is too short to obsess about being rich.  Be happy instead!