Monday, December 22, 2008

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 3

Chapter 3 (pages 39-47), “Competition”

Business people like to say that the struggle for life undermines their happiness, but they don’t face such a struggle. “Everybody knows that a business man who has been ruined is better off so far as material comforts are concerned than a man who has never been rich enough to have the chance of being ruined [pp. 39-40].” It is the struggle for preeminence, and not for life, that is the real threat to happiness. Successful business people could choose to leave this competition and still live well, but generally they don’t view escape as an option.

“The working life of [a high-ranking business person] has the psychology of a hundred-yard race, but as the race upon which he is engaged is one whose only goal is the grave, the concentration, which is appropriate enough for a hundred yards, becomes in the end somewhat excessive [p. 41].” He sacrifices his life for this competition, not unlike Hindu widows who willingly submit to the flames. “The business man’s religion and glory demand that he should make much money; therefore, like the Hindu widow, he suffers the torment gladly [p. 41].” People pursue risky investments with high expected returns and concomitant high stress, even though they could have secure returns and untroubled minds if they weren’t caught up in the competition to outshine others. Some degree of money and success contributes to happiness, but money and success should not be purchased via the sacrifice of all the other components of happiness.

The competition for money is worse in America, in part because professional excellence itself is there only discernible in monetary terms. The competitive habit even extends to what books people read, or can boast about reading.

Competition undermines civilized standards generally. The art of conversation, knowledge of good literature, and other quiet pleasures are nearly abandoned. This is not a personal failing. “The trouble arises from the generally received philosophy of life, according to which life is a contest, a competition, in which respect is to be accorded to the victor [p. 46].” Power is now preferred to intelligence, as with the dinosaurs, and the intensely power-focused will eventually meet the fate of the dinosaurs. (Already they have low birth rates – “they do not enjoy life enough to wish to beget children [p. 46].”) Competition is destroying the pleasures of work as well as of leisure, and one perceived escape is to pursue leisure activities that are as tense as work. The “natural termination” of this system is “drugs and collapse. The cure for this lies in admitting the part of sane and quiet enjoyment in a balanced ideal of life [p. 47].”

No comments: