“Life’s too short,” says Jill, explaining why she’s quitting an acting gig in a commercial. “You gotta do what makes you happy.” “Yeah,” Jack, the advertising executive, responds. “The thing is, people don’t know what makes them happy. They think they know, because we tell them. Real happiness is bad for sales.” (Jack and Jill vs the World, 2008)
I watched a video on economics recently, which described the USA as “The Land of Debt and Demand.” Its essence: Having secured the foundation tiers of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs,” most Americans aspire to non-essential luxuries. Thus, we equate success with ever more external things, the latest smartphone, automobile or sneakers, or larger homes to heat and cool.
“The United States is a post-scarcity civilization.” Because we “don’t really need for anything anymore,” advertisers must create demand for non-essential goods. “Our economy is not based on limited resources trying to fulfill unlimited needs, but rather [on] creating needs to facilitate resources.”
The narrator of the video cautions, “Humans take being unsatisfied to an art form … it’s not enough to be healthy and alive. You need to do human things, like have good relationships, develop self esteem and achievements. In the real world, it explains why the wealthiest people in history are not the happiest people in history.”
I’ve my own theory of modern life: We are hardwired for struggle. It’s how we survived our first couple of hundred millennia, through unrelenting struggle to stay alive until tomorrow. But our fundamental external needs are now expectations. We take them – food, clothing, shelter, physical safety – for granted. When denied external struggles, we invent new ones.
Invented external challenges can be positive, which is how I justify the physical rigors of bicycle travel. But they are too often negative, and thus unfulfilling. How else to explain the epidemics of addiction and suicide in the wealthiest modern society?
We can be active in identifying personal goals toward which we choose to struggle, or passive, relying on advertising to define them for us. We can save to fund future purchases, or we can borrow now and put off disciplined financial habits until tomorrow.
But when it comes to the internal needs of Maslow’s upper tiers, “love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization,” how can we expect the same society, organized to promote consumption, to supply those critical yet intangible necessities of human lives?
We all know the answer: It can’t.
Advertisers attempt to integrate luxury products into those three upper tiers, as if a pricier car, the latest phone, or a bigger diamond can deliver love and affection or self-actualization. Any resulting semblance of contentment is fleeting.
Worse, economies are cyclical and fragile, as proved most recently by a pandemic. COVID-19 forces us to focus, anew, upon the mundane essentials of modern societies we took for granted but weeks ago. Would you have guessed in December that you’d feel anxiety over world toilet-paper supplies come March?
In my own effort to fulfill Maslow’s higher tiers, what I need from you – gifts such as patience, concern and sacrifice – I cannot buy. And I do need you, now more than ever.
So here we are, stripped of the veneer of borrowed prosperity. Our mutual survival now depends upon struggling together against a real, not an invented, challenge.
The pandemic forces us to realize what has been true all along: We are all indeed in this together. Your survival, wherever you are on this planet, might depend upon gifts as fundamental as my wearing a mask that shields others from whatever I exhale, and on washing my hands so I don’t contaminate surfaces I touch, and on minimizing my in-person interaction with others, despite that it is those same face-to-face, hand-in-hand encounters that are among our most essential needs.
And my survival may well depend on you doing the same.
And if we do these things for each other, not begrudgingly, but with grace and humility, so much the better.
And you know what? We are.
Sure, as I’ve noted elsewhere in these pages, there are always exceptions who prove the rule. Worse, the rarer those exceptions, the more we focus on them. But the rule pervades. Whether at the grocery store or doctor’s office or outside for sunlight and exercise, I am greeted with patience, concern, and generosity, as we struggle – together – to survive.
Which is to say, thank you, fellow human, for all you do for the rest of us.
Oh, and Jack, the ad guy in the movie, finally gets wisdom … and Jill. But you already knew that.