Nobody says, “Give me the mediocre life. Give me the lousy life.” Everybody wants to experience the good life. Going back to the ancient Greeks, philosophers have argued that the good life should be our aim. Hedonism was the philosophical school that articulated this view. Hedonists believed that the chief purpose of human life is to experience as much pleasure as possible and to minimize pain.
Today it is widely accepted in our culture that pleasure is the path to the good life. There also is a common assumption that if you can accumulate material possessions, if you have enough wealth, and if you can save enough for retirement, you will experience the good life that everyone wants.
My wife makes delicious chocolate chip cookies, and I love eating them when they are warm, just out of the oven. The first three or four are delicious. But the more I eat, the less I enjoy them. And if I eat a dozen warm cookies, rather than feeling satisfied, I’ll actually feel sick to my stomach. In the same way, a focus on the acquisition of more money and possessions does not lead to satisfaction; sometimes it just leaves us feeling sick.
The writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, who identifies himself simply as the Teacher, understood this. As he looked back on his life, the Teacher explained that he had tried to fill his life with every pleasurable experience. Only afterward did he realize that it was all meaningless. He had been “chasing after wind” (2:11).
It seems that people today continue to miss this lesson. I read about a recent study involving 120 people who, on average, earned $25 million per year. These multimillionaires were asked questions about such things as whether they thought they had enough, if they felt secure, and if they were experiencing the good life based upon their standards of living. The consistent answer to these questions was no.
Next, the millionaires were asked, “How much more income would you need to have in order to feel like you were secure?” And the average answer was that if they could have 25 percent more—which works out to about $6.25 million more each year—they would finally feel secure and satisfied.
For those of us who don’t have annual incomes in the millions, the answers in this survey may seem absurd. We would enjoy the challenge of finding satisfaction on a $25 million annual budget. But that’s just chasing after the wind on a bigger scale.
The Unhappiness Report
As we look back on the past fifty years in the United States, in much the same way the Teacher in Ecclesiastes reflected on his own experience, we can see what has happened when people have tried the counterfeit path to the good life. During the past five decades, the gross domestic product of the United States per person has roughly increased by a factor of two. Americans’ standard of living has gone up dramatically. The average new home fifty years ago was one-third the size of an average new home today. Yet studies say that we are actually three percent less happy than we were fifty years ago. Clearly, having more wealth and more possessions hasn’t led to more satisfaction in our lives.
Every year since 2012, the United Nations has issued a study called the “World Happiness Report.” They survey thousands of people in fifty different countries, attempting to find out how happy people are in those countries and what factors make them happy. In that very first report, the United States ranked twenty-third. In terms of overall happiness with their lives, the people of the wealthiest nation in the world ranked behind a number of much less prosperous nations, including Malaysia, Tanzania, Indonesia, Andorra, Thailand, Vietnam, and El Salvador. In subsequent years the United States has moved up a few spots in the happiness rankings, but we’re still nowhere near the top.
In 2016 I read an article written by a very successful entrepreneur and was struck by what she said: “At the height of my success I was actually pretty miserable. I’m not saying there’s an inverse relationship between success and happiness, just that there’s not necessarily a positive one. They are two very different things.” Achieving success is not the same as achieving happiness or experiencing the good life.
Where do we turn after we realize that success is not the same as happiness?
Maybe we need to redefine what the good life means.