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You Still Can’t Buy Happiness

Rodney Richards | Sep 25, 2019

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Rodney Richards | Sep 25, 2019

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

You’ve heard it, and so have I: “You can’t buy happiness.” It may have come from your parent, a teacher, your mate, a minister or someone else with a piece of sage advice. 

But many still do think that it’s possible to buy happiness. Children particularly feel that the newest, most-advertised toy will bring them everlasting joy. Grownups do too, when corporations announce the latest cellphone or luxury car. We all experience that attraction to the latest and the greatest. When the hype gets huge, lots of us jump on the bandwagon.

But if we do buy such things, we soon understand the joy as temporary. The wisdom goes that you can’t buy the really meaningful things in life: your health, or a good job, or a good spouse or mate, or an award, etc. 

When we finally realize that money doesn’t buy happiness, we look to fulfill our lives by other means – for example, by developing close relationships with friends or family, or doing a good deed for its own sake, or maintaining a reputation as a good person. We rely more on ourselves to find joy and fulfillment, rather than on “things.” Little joys mean more. 

We eventually realize that people genuinely like or love us for who we are and not for the things we possess, and that we treasure their love more because of that fact. Once we realize that the love of things pales in comparison to the love of people, and the love of God, then true happiness can result.

The Dalai Lama said, “The purpose of our lives is to be happy.” The Baha’i teachings say:

… until material achievements, physical accomplishments and human virtues are reinforced by spiritual perfections, luminous qualities and characteristics of mercy, no fruit or result shall issue therefrom, nor will the happiness of the world of humanity, which is the ultimate aim, be attained. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 283-284.

The Baha’i teachings, however, say that nothing is intrinsically wrong with buying and owning things – as long as those things don’t wind up owning us:

Detachment does not consist in setting fire to one’s house, or becoming bankrupt or throwing one’s fortune out of the window, or even giving away all of one’s possessions. Detachment consists in refraining from letting our possessions possess us. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 135.

All of the material possessions we have access to fulfill some perceived need or want on our part. That’s especially true for people who live in the “developed” world, which is possessed of great wealth. Products line shelves and shelves stacked high, racks and counters hold countless items in every establishment. When my wife’s war-bride mother first arrived here at the end of WWII and walked into a grocery store, the overwhelming variety and supply of easily accessible goods stunned her.

Mostly we take this material prosperity for granted, and are miffed when what we want is not available or takes three days to ship instead of overnight. But we are getting better. Japanese manufacturing started the principle of kaizen (continuous improvement), part of which evolved to JIT for Just In Time, in the 1960s and 1970s at Toyota. JIT produces components or products only when they are needed, and only in the quantities needed. Isn’t that a good concept, rather than over-production of things that don’t sell or are out-of-date too quickly?

Wouldn’t it be nice if everything that was produced found a home other than a garbage dump?

It comes down to priorities, the priorities we choose in our lives. What will we put first? Happiness? Having things? Being well-liked? Having a comfortable life? Work? Family?

Life means maintaining a healthy balance between all it has to offer and that which we choose for ourselves and others. Putting God first, as the foundation of whatever life you are building, can create that balance. Jesus Christ gave us two commandments to accomplish it: 

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment. – Mark 12:30-31 

You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these. – Matthew 22:39.

Baha’u’llah wrote in his epistle to Napoleon III: 

Verily, the thing that deterreth you, in this day, from God is worldliness in its essence. Eschew it, and approach the Most Sublime Vision, this shining and resplendent Seat. Blessed is he who alloweth nothing whatsoever to intervene between him and his Lord. No harm, assuredly, can befall him if he partaketh with justice of the benefits of this world, inasmuch as We have created all things for such of Our servants as truly believe in God. – The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 77.

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  • Sep 28, 2019
    It’s a matter of balance. Being poor/broke/financially stressed can make life dreary and miserable. And what’s more, having too little can make someone materialistic just as surely as having too much and wanting more. Being poor forces you to constantly dwell and worry about money and other material, earthly things. So particularly from the perspective of the working poor, being constantly told “money can’t buy happiness” sounds disingenuous and dismissive. Money can, indeed, relieve the stress and angst poor and struggling people face every day. This is, IMO, why the Baha’i Faith so adamantly calls for economic justice.
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