Two Ways of Being Happy

Which will you choose?

There are two ways of being happy: We may either diminish our wants or augment our means – either will do – the result is the same; and it is for each man to decide for himself, and do that which happens to be the easiest. If you are idle or sick or poor, however hard it may be to diminish your wants, it will be harder to augment your means. If you are active and prosperous or young and in good health, it may be easier for you to augment your means than to diminish your wants. But if you are wise, you will do both at the same time, young or old, rich or poor, sick or well; and if you are very wise you will do both in such a way as to augment the general happiness of society.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

There was a time in western society when the pyschotic were blamed for being insane. Even now, when they commit horrific crimes, the impulse to punish the insane is almost impossible to overcome.

We once accused those with ulcers of making themselves sick through worry, and many still believe Pat Robertson’s pronouncement that AIDS is God’s punishment of homosexuality, even though it is not a “homosexual” disease.

So it is not shocking that we blame the poor for being poor, believing that something in their character, their lack of determination, their penchant for pessimism, must be responsible for their failure. It can’t be anything else.

For, by inference, that makes us solely responsible for our success. Our genius, our determination, our hard work, our choice of colleges, our selection of the right sorority, our decision to take this career path over that…

But our times are so much more complicated than Ben Franklin’s, when he postulated his perfectly reasonable theory about happiness.

And mass marketing, of which we are a part, adds to that complication, which is something we should stop to consider now and then.

All of us are bombarded daily — continually, inescapably — with millions of images of expensive cell phones and luxury cars and celebrities in Cannes with diamonds as big as toy poodles and bodies as thin as twigs, as though all of this is normal, attainable for everyone, easily within the grasp of anyone.

When we know it’s not!

When we know it’s slipping beyond the grasp of more and more working people every year.

Yet our story, the story we keep telling all those faces glued to all those flat-screen plasma TVs and retina display iPads and series 5 mobile devices stays the same: everyone is young, and rich, and slim, and gorgeous, and happy, and life is effortless and fun, and pain and struggle and want is a thing unknown in lives like ours.

Which adds an element of shame to those who know all too well what want feels like, who are intimately acquainted with want, who greet want first thing in the morning, carry it around with them all day long, and sleep with it all night.

It makes them feel that much more alone — ironic in a world where we count our “friends” in the hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands on Facebook yet can’t tell you the name of the person who lives next door to us, and often don’t speak one word to our spouse while we sit at the dinner table with them. How can we? We’re both mesmerized by our cell phones or iPads.

If old Ben was right and there are two ways of being happy, we’re kind of stuck in a paradox here…

Lots of really attractive toys that are too expensive to buy at the wages we are willing to pay most workers. A system of guaranteed frustration and disappointment. A system designed to create want at the deepest, most primal parts of our brains; a system built to reinforce a sense of personal failure and shame.

And, technology that makes it virtually impossible to escape the bombardment of seductive images. It’s difficult to blame people for wanting stuff we spend tens of millions of dollars waving in front of their eyes, aimed at the pleasure center receptors of their brains, like drugs.

That would be a bit like blaming Pavlov’s dogs for salivating when the bells rang…

We’ve built this system. It works really well, but only for a few people, and fewer people than we had hoped 50 years ago, and as it so happens, fewer people each year for the past 15 or 20 years.

So it’s time to try again, with a bit more compassion.

I think that’s the part we as a society may have forgotten.

Ben had the right idea. “But if you are wise, you will do both at the same time, young or old, rich or poor, sick or well; and if you are very wise you will do both in such a way as to augment the general happiness of society.”