Battle Lines Drawn: Abundance Doesn't Bring Meaning
Gilded cages breed complacent slaves. Abundance can make us comfortable but it can't make us happy. In fact, it enslaves us. Therein lies the great spiritual challenge of our time.
(continued from Abundance vs. Human Nature)
Can’t Buy Me Love
Can tradition—and the American Spirit—prevail? Last week’s essay ended with an imperative. Traditional faiths will have to learn—from Wokeism—how to set aside pastoral language and metaphor while addressing the fundamental spiritual challenge of abundance.
In fairness, most traditional faiths—along with various schools of psychology—long ago noticed that fundamental challenge. Abundance does not bring happiness. It does not provide meaning. In fact, abundance seems to heighten depression and anxiety. The evidence is everywhere, and decades of data back it up. You cannot shop or spend your way to a life of happiness and meaning. Acquaintances and hangers-on can be purchased; friends and community cannot. Abundance may pose the greatest spiritual challenge yet to confront a species evolved to overcome scarcity: Having won our ultimate battle and conquered our timeless enemy, we find the victory disturbingly hollow.
Logotherapy posits our internal struggle as the quest for meaning or purpose. Viktor Frankl’s ability to extract this glorious theory from the ashes of Nazi concentration camps highlights the paradox. Prisoners at the camp, though far from all affluent, were all products of modern European abundance. What possessions they may have had—down to the clothes on their backs—were stripped from them. They entered the camps possessing only what was attached to their bodies and resident in their minds. The Nazis then worked to dispossess them of their bodies and break their minds. Frankl’s key observation was that those whose minds clung tightly to metaphysical purpose and meaning were by far the most likely to survive.
Therein lies the problem. Prospect theory—from the very different corner of cognitive psychology—teaches that human utility functions have a discontinuity at zero. In less technical terms, we are all far more afraid of losing what we already possess than we are of failing to gain what we might want. Consider, for a moment, the following simple example. If I told you of an investment strategy capable of doubling your net wealth within three years, would the thought make you happy? Most normal people would answer yes. Now here it is in practice: In year one, I will double your net wealth. In year two, I will double it again. In year three, I will cut it in half. The net result is that in three years, your net wealth will be double what it is today. And you will be miserable. Guaranteed. The moment you internalized your year-two ending wealth quadruple where you are today, it became part of you. Wrenching half of it away ripped a hole in your sense of self.
Positive psychology makes the matter even clearer: The richer a society becomes, the higher the rate of depression and anxiety. Abundance can make us fat. It cannot make us happy. Positive psychology also, however, points us back in the right direction. Gratitude and acknowledgment can increase happiness. In other words—to the surprise of no traditional faith—happiness is elusive in the material realm but accessible in the spiritual realm.
Obligation vs. Entitlement
Therein lies the great spiritual challenge of our time—a challenge that Wokeism is singularly unable to meet. In a world of scarcity, we humans have no choice but to look inward. In a world of abundance, the outside world always seems to have something tantalizing to offer. As that outside world expands, so too does its distraction. We have become so attuned to our possessions that we are rapidly losing the skills that made us human.