27 November 2011

The good life isn't ruled by money, false dichotomies

False dichotomies are one of my favorite (I just cursed at my computer because it told me favorite should be spelled favourite) things.  They're one of those things that are so amazingly useful that no one seems to care that they're absolutely nonsensical. Your false dichotomy for the day is:

I would rather be poor and happy than rich and miserable.

The connection between happiness and wealth is usually taken for granted, but this throws it on its head. Many would argue that you can't be poor and happy, others would argue that you would always be happy if you're rich, but both of them are very far off the mark.  It is a false choice- of course you'd rather be happy than miserable! The fundamental misconception here is the connection of wealth to happiness, not the relationship between the two.  This becomes more and more true the further we escape from that old world of absolute poverty.

The world that we see in front of us today is a rare bird.  Even the richest parts of the world are less than a hundred years removed from the Great Depression, a time which saw unparalleled suffering in North America and economic conditions that we would be unable to imagine today.  Those conditions, bad as they might have been, were far better than those that we continue to see in the poorest parts of the world today.  So, those of us reading this in North America are far removed from any period of time in which extreme suffering was widespread.  We've left the days of absolute suffering on a society-wide scale far behind us, but we are creatures with a deep collective and social consciousness.

Our brains are hard-wired for scarcity, but we live in a world of abundance.  This is the central dichotomy that we have to deal with, and there's nothing false about it.  We are the tail end of thousands of generations of people living on the edge of starvation, and getting something makes us happy.  The instinctual response to acquiring goods is no more complicated than the fact that salty, sugary, and fatty foods taste better to us than "healthy" foods.  We accumulate layer upon layer of genetic instructions that have succeeded in producing offspring in the past, but the fact that we now have a modicum of understanding of how those instructions work should help us in distancing ourselves from just reacting to, rather than living in, the world around us.  We need to be able to look at that sale item and judge whether we're buying it because we feel crappy or whether there's more to it.  We should be able to look around at the things that we have collected and see whether we're acting freely or whether we're just willing to take that dopamine whichever way we can get it.

So, take a look around.  What kind of things do you have around you that's brought you the most joy?  Which ones did you regret buying before you even went to sleep?


  1. Interesting. With the holidays coming up, I wonder how many gifts are bought for others because we want to as opposed to feeling obligated to.-RJD

  2. It's very easy to argue yourself out of giving a gift that you just want to give, but it's very hard to argue yourself out of giving a gift that you're supposed to give.

  3. Interesting post... the question though is what is "wealth"? Is it a wealth of things, or a wealth of experiences and personal relationships? The latter would make any sane person happy... while the former????... while that kind of wealth leads to coveting more of it and hardly happiness.