If you are reading this blog post, I think it’s safe to say that you are from a wealthy country and are probably looking to find more meaning and fulfillment in life. Finding purpose and a way to contribute to the world has certainly become the predominant focus of my life. The problem is that I still don’t know what that really means.
What are we trying to maximize?
Imagine that life were a quest to be the best we could be. What would we be trying to maximize?
Despite our actions, I would say that we are not trying to maximize such factors as:
- number of hours of television watched
- hour spent behind a desk in a cubicle
- number of Tweets or Facebook updates
- how fat we can get
- total trash produced
- volume of fossil fuels consumed
- the size of our house
- the speed of our cars
- the number of stamps in our passports
- the number of marathons we run
Those kinds of metrics seem somewhat foolish to mention as ultimate goals of being a good human, yet those types of activities end up taking a massive amount of our attention. Why is that?
What are Good Factors to Measure?
In our productivity focused age of ‘what gets measured, gets managed’ there must be valuable activities to measure our effectiveness at being good humans. I don’t have all the answers but I would suggest that some of them might be:
- hours spent with family and friends
- number of healthy meals eaten per day
- days with adequate exercise
- time spent learning foreign languages or a musical instrument
- volunteer hours
- contribution to the most disadvantaged in the world
- time spent in artistic or cultural activities
- time spent on meditative activities like gardening or yoga
- number of personal development books read
Don’t activities like that make more sense to maximize than the first group?
We are still Cave Men
No matter how evolved we pretend to be as humans, we are still fundamentally driven by animal desires. We have strong biological tendencies designed to make us procreate and protect our offspring. Basically, we are preoccupied with sex and it makes sense. If we don’t have children, we die as a species.
In humans, these biological signalling traits get expressed through our consumption and experiences. We try to impress potential mates and intimidate potential competitors, real or imagined, by what we buy and do.
It’s the reason why women buy expensive high heel shoes and young men tend to do dangerous activities like driving fast or adventure sports.
Buying an expensive car or wearing fancy clothes shows we have the resources to take care of offspring.
Running marathons and climbing mountains is an indicator of the quality of our genes.
We see it in all the advertisements around us. Men buy cologne, cars, watches and certain brands of beer to pick up beautiful women.
Women buy perfume, clothing and jewelry to attract men.
Even after we are married or older, when there is little need to impress the opposite sex, these signaling traits still dominate our lives. Think of middle aged men buying big motorcycles or older women buying expensive purses.
The worst part, is that much of our consumption doesn’t matter or is counter-productive to our sexual desires. Do men really care if your high heels cost $50 or $500? Is your beer drinking going to make you more attractive to women?
Conspicuous consumption of goods or activities no longer serve a biological purpose, yet as a species, we still can’t stop. Our wants seem insatiable. No matter how much we have, it’s never enough.
Does Contribution Make us Better Humans
With all the suffering and poverty on this planet, I can’t help but thinking that contribution should be the ultimate goal of being a good human. Why should people go without food, water, education and basic human dignity when there is so much wealth in this world?
We could provide clean drinking water to everyone on this planet for as little as $20 billion dollars. That’s less than two weeks of US military spending. Shouldn’t clean drink water for everyone on the planet be one of our primary goals?
Shouldn’t we all be striving to lessen the suffering of the most disadvantaged? For the price of a cable TV bill, each of us could provide permanent clean drink water for 5 people. Or, we could send 3 or 4 girls to school in the developing world.
Aren’t sacrifices like that a better measure of the quality of human beings we are?
I’ll Give More When I’m Richer
In every conversation I have on this topic, I hear something to the effect of “I’ll give more when I earn more. I have to provide for myself first.”
That’s a fair argument. If you can’t provide food and shelter for your family, you definitely don’t have enough to give to strangers on the other side of the world.
The problem with that argument is that there is no income level when we have enough for ourselves. We all suffer from lifestyle inflation, in that our consumption almost always rises to meet increases in our incomes, and then some.
Imagine if you are making $100,000 per year and you are just getting by. You have a big mortgage to pay. Payments on two cars. You just bought that vacation home and a new boat. Life is rough and you are strapped for cash, as always, so you contribute about the average in the developed world, 2% or less of your income.
What happens if you suddenly start making one million dollars per year after tax. At ten times the income, are you likely to give the surplus of $900,000 to social causes? Not very likely. If you are the average person, you’ll still contribute around 2% per year. Your consumption will massively increase and you’ll probably save and invest a lot more money, but it’s unlikely you’ll donate much more. Why is that?
If we are relatively wealthy globally speaking (close to 2 billion people still live on less than $2 per day) and living comfortably, why don’t we give 25% or 50% of our incomes to the poorest in the world. Is a dinner out with our family, worth more than the total monthly living expenses of a family in the most impoverished countries?
These are difficult issues for me to reconcile. I’ve had monthly living expenses ranging from $1000 to $5000 per month. Having more money to spend, didn’t make me want to contribute more on a percentage basis. More money, just encouraged me to spend more on selfish pursuits. That is a big reason why my wife and I decided to give up on most of our possessions. More consumption was not making us better humans, in fact the opposite was happening. We got lazier, watched more TV, exercised less and ate more unhealthy food.
Why do Humans Keep Making the Wrong Choices
We all know that our preoccupation with economic growth is burning too much fossil fuels, cutting down too many trees, over-fishing our oceans, making wildlife extinct and millions of other problems, yet very few of us are altering how we live our lives.
- I like to travel, even though I know air travel is incredibly destructive to the planet.
- I want to buy new electronics, while knowing that underpaid workers on the other side of the world are committing suicide in factories making those components.
- I choose to buy inexpensive clothing even though workers, often children, in countries like Bangladesh have died to keep costs low.
Our everyday decisions, my everyday decisions, have an impact on this one and only planet we inhabit.
We may not think about it very often, but I think we all know that how we live is destructive, yet as a whole, we are not really altering our lifestyles. We continue to consume, pollute and waste more every year. In fact, the health of our countries is measured primarily by economic growth. We don’t seem to value any other measures.
It really doesn’t make sense to me.
Isn’t there a better way?
What if the smartest people in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street dedicated their lives to solving the world’s most pressing social problems? We don’t need more iPhone games or financial derivatives. Sure those things make more money than providing education and food to the poorest in the world, but is making lots of money on socially useless businesses really the best that humans are capable of?
What if more of us focused on making the biggest contribution we could?
- Instead of watching TV every night, we could volunteer our time.
- Instead of buying that new SUV, we could decide to bicycle more and use public transportation.
- Instead of short weekend vacations to Las Vegas or Mexico, we could spend time in our communities.
Wouldn’t those types of activities make us better humans?
Our excessive consumption has made us fat, lazy and stupid. If consumption doesn’t make us better humans, what does?