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March 2, 2012

Money and the “pursuit of happiness”

Steven R. Berryman

We all have visions of what we call “happiness;” perhaps your happy place is depicted by a greeting card or a Norman Rockwell setting…


Or maybe it’s sitting in the Lazy Boy recliner with logs in the fireplace, safely out of the way of a winter snowfall that you had well prepared for. Coffee is on the burner; the always-faithful dog is at your feet; her love is unconditional.


If you prefer, perhaps the setting is a swing, hanging from a firm oak, lazing in the shade on a sleepy summer afternoon with no obligations…next to the barn containing your prized horse. A nearby stream gurgles by.


Of course, we all have highs and lows; without the lows we would not appreciate the good times quite so much. But where does your sense of happiness and well being truly originate?


Part of this is surely programmed-in.


The “Madison Avenue” commercialism and materialism that permeate all forms of our media would have you believe that your idyllic happiness comes from things that money can buy. Of course, your network is paid to send you that message, whether accepted or declined.


If you want to be truly happy, you must have a faster smart-phone, a newer car, a bigger big screen TV, (42” is so last year now!), take island vacations, eat at four-star restaurants, and sit on the cliff watching the sunset with your soul mate in a pair of antique bathtubs filled with warm water by unseen servants while waiting for the Viagra to kick-in…


To illustrate just how far we have evolved commercially, just revisit an old black-and-white movie featuring satisfied cinema stars smoking in “happiness.”


Having the liquidity in money has been equated to happiness.  Conversely, forced lower capital standards cause feelings of inadequacy and an encouraged jealousy of “the Joneses.” The coveting is made worse as the breadth of class envy is explored in our national political class warfare.


Even ones spiritual salvation requires tithing…


When national surveys and reports uncover data that America is in a collectively depressed – or unhappy – condition emotionally, you can bet that there is a straight-line correlation with the savings and home equity that disappeared during the onset of the “Great Recession.”


America’s total national equity was virtually cut in half for many; especially painful for those of us who had relied on the continued inflation of our home values as the retirement and college expense nest egg. At one time it was even possible to borrow against it.  Massive interest on a home loan had been ignored in return for the income tax deduction, coupled with predictable appreciations in value.


Unfortunately the surge in the Dow Jones Industrial Average of stocks, now flirting with the 13,000 mark for the first time in years, is not being enjoyed by all of the same people who lost out during the original collapse. Many regular people fled the market at low ebb to safer grounds and were replaced by corporate and institutional investors. Also, home values and equity and foreclosures continue to dominate as banks hang onto their cash – ironically born of stimulus money that was intended – as claimed – to help out American taxpayers cope and rebuild.


So, money can buy happiness in the form of security; or not.


When will our culture return to a happiness born of more righteous fare? A satisfaction born of intellectual pursuit and faith; of family and the support of friends?


Of course, you may hear that “money isn’t that important, unless you don’t have enough of it.” And there is truth to that, but only for those overextending; again, propagated by a society dictating to you the terms of happiness.


Remember when happiness comprised getting buried in a great pulp fiction novel, or achieving a fitness or health triumph? There were times when merely participating in some endeavor bigger than ourselves was more important than reviewing a bank statement.


And can money buy you love? Of course not, so goes The Beatles’ song. But some would argue that you can rent it, what with escort services and the like…but only when one equates sex with love; this is a questionable supposition, at least out of church.


Money can buy diamonds, and diamonds are “a girl’s best friend,” so it goes. So, does it follow that money can buy you love?…That is for another column.


Money has been used down through the years – especially in formal religious settings – to offset bad deeds and to make reparations. So, unhappiness can be bought off by things other than good deeds. Pity.


Yes, yes, we are sometimes measured in this society of Charles Schwab’s by our possessions and investments – when we allow that trap – but “can we take it with us?” The ancient Egyptians tried.


When all in life is said and done, what vision will that last memory return us to – perhaps infinitely?


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