You don't need to be rich, famous, or powerful to be happy. You just need enough
When you hear about someone famous or rich you think "oh they must be happy, I'd be happy if I was like that." But are they? Rich and famous people don't seem more happy than anybody else. Often less. Whatever they have, it doesn't seem to work, or at least it wears off.
When I was young I thought I wouldn't be complete without power but now I'm generally powerless and it feels fine. I have some marginal control over a Beagle and avoid most oppression and this is more than enough. The people with power seemed stressed out all the time.
Especially when I was younger (I'm 40 now) I thought of happiness through other peoples' eyes, how they would look at me, how they would talk about me, how they would feel. But as I got older I got experiences of that approval and it meant very little either way. Beyond the general feeling of not being a pox on your community, beyond the comfort of not being marginalized, I'm not sure how much happier you can be.
Our society is based on this driving ambition, not to start a company but to make a startup, not to run a profitable business but to make a killing, not to have enough but have a lot. But is it enough? Do we have a concept of enough?
The Global Village
Marshall McCluhan talked about the global village, how electronic media extended the experience of a village across ever vaster time and space. I think it's really true that democracy, a technology means for city-states, would not function without mass media (especially TV), and also that it has become terribly corrupted at scale.
But that sense of a global village isn't an abstract thing, we really live in it. You are reading this, for example, you probably hear more from me than your neighbors. I actually respond to people on my newsletter whereas I don't email relatives at all. Our village theoretically involves everyone on Earth, but practically we build our own communities that are very small. We keep in close contact with maybe a hundred or so people on average.
If someone does become famous, it's usually a rather one-sided interaction. Many people might feel close to BTS, but they still have the same amount of close relationships as anyone. You could have the approval of a million screaming fans, but if one of your bandmates took your yoghurt out of the fridge, that can fuck up your whole day. Even if we become Mr. Worldwide, our personal worlds remain rather small.
The Capitalist Jungle
We could have happier, humbler societies, but we have created a manmade jungle. In places like America you simply cannot have a comfortable, safe life without hundreds of thosuands of dollars, at least. You can't have reliable healthcare, schooling, food, and a roof over your head. Fame is another level of safety, as is power. But these are all choices.
Other countries have similiar life outcomes for much less. They have public, shared services that end up being cheaper and working better. I can't imagine the stress of losing my healthcare when I lost my job, and most people don't live that way. It's a choice, and a bad one. It's like we escaped the jungle where people had to fight for survival only to fight for survival against each other.
That's what makes those dreams of fame, power, and money so visceral. In many cultures they're not extras, you feel like you need that buffer to survive. You won't be safe, your kids won't be safe, you can't rest unless you have so much excess, so much renown, so much power that no one can take it away. But what if we just gave each other more? What if we gave ourselves more? What if we aspired for enough rather than too much? Wouldn't that accomplish the goal, bring us closer to that forever deferred state of things being all right?
The outcome of capitalist competition as a governing principle has been a lot of people who have too much (and yet seem miserable) and then a lot of people who have too little and are unnecessarily stressed out. It's a recipe for increasing GDP numbers that are supposed to be correllated with happiness, but which don't cause it (and do cause climate collapse). We could change what we measure to focus on the correct balance rather than the continued growth of something that is never enough.
I think we need a concept of enough in politics, in society—especially if we are to find balance with our environment—but I talk about it personally here. I felt this ravenous ambition as a young man, and I never got that satisfaction. And yet I am satisfied. I have a good relationship with my wife, when I'm not being a puss about it. I'm close to my family. I have a few friends. I participate in a large community where a few people respect me, but not a lot. My world is small and yet large.
I can feel the sun on my shoulders. My children still think I know everything. I have a dog that occasionally wags her tail. I have a wife that I can share a life with. These things make me happy. Underneath this, of course, is money, but we don't have an obscene amount. We're rich for where we live (Sri Lanka) but poor for any major western city. It is possible without so much resource use.
I can't imagine being happier if I was going on speaking tours, or ruling a country, or singing on stage, all the things that I thought were necessary to be a success.
But what do they mean? Other people thinking you should be happy doesn't make it so. You can't assemble the image of you in other people's eyes and somehow overpower your own heart. And your brain simply can't process that much. If the people around you remember your name and don't curse it you've probably done all right. If you can make your loved ones laugh it's probably more rewarding than 100 nights as a standup on the road. I think we've gotten confused between things that are supposed to make us happy and what happiness is. You don't need a rocket to light a candle. You just need one match.
There are of course layers to this. You need power if you're marginalized and people are exercising violent power over you. You might need fame for the same reasons. If you're in a society you need money to just survive. But I think we need to move beyond the idea of having too much of these things (which you need to be safe) to having enough (which we need to be secure). That is, we need to move beyond failing in a competition for happiness to cooperating to be happy enough.
Which isn't that hard. What you need, most fundamentally, is to be loved and held as a child. To have that time with your own children. To have the peace of not being sick or hungry or suffering. If we compete against each other this becomes hard to do, but if work together it shouldn't be that hard. We just need to change a simple conception. We need the concept of enough.