Have We Lost Our Minds?

We swim in a media soup of politics. It is stressful. It hammers with an incessant thud of foreboding. Like most, my life has had deep downs and some inspiring ups, but right now I find it hard to stay focused on everything I should be personally grateful for, when the noise of our culture is so disturbing. Honestly, I have been trying to tune out the politics of self-destruction that has poisoned the minds of so many. It is harder still to listen to the weak, worn-out responses of civic leaders to those hell-bent on turning our society into a survival-of-the-fittest, “Hunger Games” nightmare.

What we need is some smart innovation about how best to create a 21st-century society where everyone has a genuine chance for a decent life. Who could oppose such a goal? Strangely, it seems many do. Yet this is exactly the goal of our founders. It is the foundation of what we call the Enlightenment, which was an explosion of new thinking about the purpose of society

Before the Enlightenment, there was only savagery. For thousands of years it took the form of tribalism, where the strongest tribes killed, enslaved, and raped weaker ones. During these dreadful millennia, everyone had to carry weapons to defend themselves from everyone else.

Later, civilization brought us commerce and the concentration of vast wealth among a self-appointed ruling class, who rigged the legal system and taxed the peasants to ensure their families would always have all the wealth, all the power, and control of the armies and navies. They even invented a religious doctrine called the “Divine Right of Kings,” that claimed that being born into an aristocracy was proof that God had chosen you to rule over everyone else. This was the nature of society until the past 200 years. For most people life was hard, hopeless, and short.

In the 1700s, s a new breed of philosophers promoted the intrinsic dignity of every man. Eventually, this grew to include every human being—every man, every woman, every race. Once people were “enlightened” to believe in universal human dignity, the concept of a free and equal society became the aspiration of all moral people. It is one of the most powerful ideas ever ignited. It defines a core value. A value that changes everything.

The value is simple. Every person has the inherent right to pursue their happiness. It doesn’t mean we can grant happiness, or insure it for everyone. But, together, we can do a lot to give every citizen a genuine chance at self-determination. The principle of this value was expressed by the influential philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who said the best society was the one that creates the most opportunity for happiness for the most people. This idea inspired Thomas Jefferson’s famous declaration that we should be free to pursue happiness.

Awesome, right?

Well, right from the beginning, there was a big divide over what brings happiness. The battle is over a fundamental value. One side says happiness comes from pursuing self-interest. Selfishness with a dash of charity is the fundamental idea. This concept is tied directly to the belief that your level of material wealth determines your level of happiness.

As an idea, the selfish route to happiness has a long history connecting tribal warfare to the aristocracies of Europe, that seemed to show that whoever has the most power, money and security has the most happiness. The thinking goes that since power and wealth are always judged by competitive measures (that is, “What is my power compared to yours?” or “Who has the most money also has the most food, medicine, land, slaves, etc.”), the game of life is simple: just win. This idea that happiness comes from competitively driving your self-interest to dominate always leads to people who gain power to limit the ways others can gain it. It’s like a football team who, once they get ahead, suddenly changes the rules so that the team behind only gets to play four players.

This philosophy, based on material wealth accumulated through self-interested competition, has always had loud, table-pounding political defenders. This group would not ratify our Constitution if it outlawed slavery. This group fought against public canals, public roads, and public schools. This group fought against child labor and minimum wage laws and social security. This group fought against environmental protection, safety regulations, and limiting advertising of cigarettes. This group opposed women and African-Americans getting to vote or own property. They oppose equal pay, maternity leave, and early childhood education. They are very consistent. This group has always used the obvious deception that the non-rich should not want to limit the power of the rich, because someday you could be rich, and you will want all this asymmetrical power we enjoy.

This group is powerful because, to some extent, their philosophy of self does work! It turns out that free market competition does increase ingenuity and innovation, and does improve the material quality of the lives of billions of people. And that’s no small thing. The problem? It doesn’t account for all of the most important values—human value. A free market has no intrinsic morality. A free market rewards cheaters, pollution, poisoners and exploiters, because the short-term gains arising from irresponsible self-interest overpowers “enlightened” self-interest from being moral. A free market operating without common ethical values is bound to increase suffering of the innocent.

The most basic rule of ethics is to not do anything that would cause avoidable suffering of innocent people. Unavoidable suffering is caused by things like hurricanes and disease. Avoidable suffering is caused by selling cigarettes or bogus investments, or pollution, or…a zillion other legal but immoral things. Even laws and regulations have little impact, because the successful violators corrupt politicians, so that laws and regulations are changed to promote and even reward irresponsibility and exploitation.

As it turns out, pursuing happiness through self-interest is stupid. It doesn’t work. Over the past ten years, scientists have accumulated mountains of research confirming that happiness occurs at the intersection of contentment and optimism, and that these higher feelings directly arise from empathy, caring, compassion, and personal growth. It has nothing to do with selfishness.

In fact, after our basic needs are met, happiness has little to do with material things at all. The research is clear that the most chronically unhappy people are those who are the most competitive and materialistic. Research points out that multi-millionaires with materialistic values are less happy than people living in strong family systems, who are only living 20% above the level of daily sustenance. (In India, these people make only $4000 per year!)

I am not pointing this out to say that pursuing money at the cost of love and compassion is a bad idea. Someone far more important than me pointed that out 2,000 years ago. Rather, I am asking “What are we trying to achieve?” What I’m asking is why would any person support leaders who want to recreate America into a ruthlessly materialistic society, one that only rewards financial success and the arbitrary good luck of being born into a loving, stable family? How can so many of us seem to think that a society that is specially engineered to favor the favored, while increasing avoidable suffering to the unfavored, is the very best we can do?

I just don’t get it. I don’t understand how about half of Americans seem to think a survival-of-the-fittest society is the best fruit of political freedom. We are wasting precious time, and poisoning our future. New polls are showing more Americans than at any time in history are considering emigrating to other countries, because there are greater opportunities to pursue true happiness.

Have we lost our ever-loving minds?

The fact is, the best path to our best future has not been presented. While today’s conservatives are insane, the liberal politicians are stuck in a paternalistic merry-go-round—that is, well-meaning but poorly designed solutions. Our government is too often bloated, uninspired, and corrupt. What’s needed is government re-imagined to take advantage of the best of human nature, instead of rewarding the worst of our animal instincts.

In today’s environment, I don’t hold much hope that such innovation will come without much pain. My mission is to help you avoid as much of that pain as possible, by grabbing the steering wheel of your own life.

(I am teaching a career class at UC San Diego helping scores of people discover their unique path to happiness… I will keep you posted.)


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5 Responses

  1. Well said, Will. You have painted a frightening picture of a country about to lose everything that made us great and kept us safe from revolution and you are exactly right. But then you leave us down here in the mud, with no real solutions. Kind of depressing. How about an inspiring post about kindness to our fellow man? I believe that if enough of us take this to heart and act on it, we can change the direction the US is heading. Yes, really. Okay, maybe. Tell us it’s a possibility, Will, these are scary times!

  2. As far as whether we have lost our minds, I can only speak for myself. I still have mine and it is functioning more efficiently and effectively than ever. I am more aware of the truth than I have ever been, in spite of being inundated 24/7 by nothing but junk, thoughtlessness, sensationalism, fear, huge egos, greed, immorality, and lack of integrity in the politics, products, programs and commentaries coming at us on TV, radio, in print, and on-line. This constant media blitzkrieg is a free-for-all of worthless drivel and self-serving propaganda. In my opinion, this overload has caused most people to shut down and stop thinking, rather than losing their minds. And because we have stopped thinking we have become a nation of conformists, sheep and members of the herd culture who are giving away our individual rights, liberties and strengths to the elites, the oligarchs, the politicians, the corporatocracy, the banks, Wall Street, etc. who want it all and then want more. In nature life may be about survival of the fittest but that is not what human life is about. As humans we are truly all ONE and there is enough of everything if we use it and share it appropriately. Among our many gifts, we humans have what may be one of the very best, the gift of choice. As humans, We are meant to be the deciders in our lives and not meant to constantly dance to someone else’s tune. We are totally responsible for our lives, and whether they turn out bad or good. If we individually give up that responsibility we do so at the risk to our future and where it will lead. In order to change the world, we must first change ourselves. To quote Gandhi – “We must become the change we wish to see in the world.”
    Our paradigms (mental programs) are what dictate our results in life and in ourselves (self-image). To change results we must change our paradigms. Results automatically improve when people begin thinking, which is the highest function we humans are capable of. Then we must know where we are in order to determine where we want to go by aligning our thoughts, words, and actions. As someone once said, “To change your life, you have to change your life.” Positive change doesn’t happen by being a victim, and fearing or blaming others. We must all become the master of our fate and the captain of our soul, and go forward with courage, integrity and a positive attitude. Most of us have no idea of the powers we all have available to us if we will but become aware of them and master them. We are all Kings but for the fact we doubt it and can’t get out of our own way. SEE IT – FEEL IT – BELIEVE IT – TAKE ACTION – ACHIEVE IT.
    21st Century Personal Characteristics for Success – Open-mindedness, foresight (anticipation), agility (adaptability, flexibility, resilience), continuous learning and continuous improvement (kaizen). And always truth and integrity.

  3. I think fear is what is driving the ‘survival of the fittest’ (although I hate to use this phrase because that is not at all what it is-more survival of the most ruthless and greedy). People are afraid that they will lose what they’ve accumulated. People will always fight hardest to keep what they have.
    By the media instilling fear and gloom & doom, an atmosphere of fear is created and people react by defending their home, wealth, etc.

  4. The other critical thing holding back many of the herd is the self-imposed prison of their personal “comfort zone”. We create these prisons with the thoughts and decisions accumulated over our lifetimes. And when you try to achieve something new, your pre-programmed comfort zone always cancels out your good intentions, no matter how hard you try. When analyzed a bit closer however, most comfort zones are anything but comfortable, especially in today’s time of continuous across the board changes affecting our daily lives. Breaking out of your comfort zone is a critical step to achieving greater success in life. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable doesn’t come easy and is a separate success skill one needs to work on.

    To address Ned’s point about fear, I agree. It is fear, insecurity, and attachment and all are totally unrealistic. Nothing we have really belongs to any of us – it is ours to use only. As they say, Did you ever see a hearse with a luggage rack?

  5. The following from Jean Houston: What is keeping you from embodying your greatest destiny?

    I realize there are those among you who have not only awakened to your life’s highest purpose, but are skilled enough to know how to bring that awakening into your daily life – into your work or service to the world – and are therefore a force in the ongoing evolution of humanity. You are living your Supreme Destiny.

    But most people are living what I call “ordinary destiny.” Perhaps you fit into this category. Most people do.

    This is the destiny of chasing the “American Dream” and settling for creature comforts, or the things that we are told by society will make us happy and whole. The only problem is this kind of ordinary destiny, although occasionally pleasant, leaves you feeling empty and haunted by a life that you know in your heart is possible (and has nothing to do with where you live, how much money you have or what kind of car you drive).

    Whereas Supreme Destiny is the birth of a mythic life filled with true creativity and inspiration and completely aligned with your highest purpose. It’s the Destiny that’s been calling you. It’s the voice that keeps saying, “there’s more to life than this and you know it.”

    How can you engage your highest capacities and creativity so that your daily habits, work and even leisure activities feel alive with meaning, and align with your true purpose on Earth?

    First we must overcome the all-too-familiar obstacles of procrastination, fear and ingrained (bad) habits. If you’re yearning to step out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary, there hasn’t been a better time. The world needs your gifts like never before.

    Not necessarily the answers you may be looking for but a few more thoughts that might take you in the right direction.

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