We Humans: What Do We Really Want?

Our sense of well-being here came less from the food we enjoyed than from those at the table.

Might we distill into a single word or phrase the sum of human hopes for the lifetime of one man or woman, one community or one nation-state? What would that world with those hopes realized look like and what words would describe it? What does the broadest WE want from our tomorrow?

Our own capitalist-democratic version of the good life for more than two centuries has placed a high value on the God-granted inalienable right of “the pursuit of happiness” — the American Way to the good life. To be happy is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But too often, when we get there and reach out and grasp it, the rainbow has moved, and we can’t rest for yet another mile, another year, another promotion or another degree. We almost reach it, but never quite.

We have equated happiness with pleasure, with satisfaction of our urges, with control of the nature around us. To be happy is to be secured from insufficiency in material things. And towards this goal of happiness, some believe that nothing should stand in the way of this greatest good. No constraints or limits or regulations should take our eyes off the prize or impede the struggles of “the fittest” to grow happy by maximizing the personal estates we own and control.

But something is not quite right with the formula. We injure each other climbing to the top of the ladder. The price of happiness-success in dollars gained is achieved only with the high cost of an impoverished landscape, near and far. We make the profit, and the planet’s richest remaining soils and poorest workers pay for our short-lived happiness.

It is an ephemeral, personal emotion that comes and goes, not a permanently-sustainable state. As we generate more and more stuff of happiness, we bring about the irreversible depletion of the natural stock and heritage from which those needs are met. The sense-satisfying, quickly consumed, fleetingly enjoyed goods and services of the happiness habit are extracted from a finite Earth and transmuted into stuff for our brief use and pleasure. Dog-eat-dog happiness-seeking has sent our fossil-fueled economic engines full tilt towards the transient tickling of fancies while Rome burns. But there is hope.

More and more people are feeling the same discomfort and dissatisfaction with the unfettered pursuit of happiness, of business as usual, because we are generally not happy after all, even with all our stuff. In a growth economy, the goalposts keep moving. The finite and overworked Earth is unwell because of our endless and unsatisfying pursuit of material happiness. There is only so much material available towards this end. Then what?

We have perversely measured our national financial health by the rate at which we churn nature through the economic engine. The old, outgrown measure of national-corporate progress is called GDP — Gross Domestic Product. The assumption has held that, if it goes higher, we should be collectively better off; happier. But this is not true.

As GDP goes up, we may feel well-dressed. But a high GDP is the emperor’s new clothes. The higher it goes the more imperiled is the hope for a long happy future for our species. But viewing a higher GDP as a negative measure of our long-term state of health runs counter to our misguided view of national success. So we’d best look at all of this again, long and hard. And very, very soon.

How we think about a thing is guided by the language that we use to illuminate our thinking. Perhaps we can chart a small change in our course and destination by changing the language we use about the future that we really hope for.

Thinking about our work both individually and together powered by a desire toward the state of well-being rather than by the drive of happiness may offer the hope of abundant, deep, sustained, soul-satisfying contentment where the economy of happiness keeps failing.

We have built a house of cards on the shifting sand of happiness. Rebuilding on a sustainable and resilient foundation of well-being for all may see the house stand firm in the storms to come.


This is the first part of a multi-segment longer essay I’d like to complete. And so this first part only serves to ask “So what is Well-being; how to we achieve it, and how do we sustain it?”

I have some thoughts about this, and hope to have sufficient keystrokes, minutes and neurons to make it happen. But one never knows, a meteor might land in our pasture later this morning, so better to dump what I have at hand, and hope for more to come if we survive the impact. \{ ; > ))