People often seek happiness by comparative social advantage. They believe that if they can have more fame, popularity, or power than others, then they will be happy.Perhaps the most common way people seek social advantage is through money. Many people believe and act as if the good life—the happy life—can be found through either having money, spending money, or both. But can we find lasting happiness in large salaries and lavish spending, in producing and consuming?
Scientists have actually studied this question extensively.1 In a study asking whether money can really buy you happiness, researchers found that more money can make you much happier—if you live in abject poverty. If you do not have clothes to keep you warm, if you have no food for your children, and no roof over your head, then money for these basic provisions greatly improves reported happiness.
However, once you have enough money for food, clothing and shelter, increases in money are unrelated to stable increases in happiness. When researchers compared a person making $30,000 a year, another making $100,000 and a third making $500,000, they found little difference in self-reported happiness or levels of depression. In other words, once a person has the necessities, more money—money spent in shopping as well as money in the bank—does not lead to more happiness.
So, victory over others in terms of money won’t satisfy the egoist. But what about other ways the egoist might try to find happiness aside from money? No matter what arena of competition we enter (money, power, fame, social status), the egoist will never be lastingly satisfied with winning, no matter how great the victory. If you were a musician, you might think, “if I could just have my own album that would be such an amazing achievement that I would certainly be happy.” And after your first album appears, you’re delighted! But over time the glow of seeing it for sale fades. You might then think, “If I could have the best-selling album of the year, then I’d achieve lasting happiness.” If you achieve your goal, you would probably be quite happy for a while, but before long, some other artist would take your place, and you’d find yourself dissatisfied. Finally, you might say, “Well, if I had the best selling album of all time, then I would achieve lasting happiness.”
Michael Jackson was in this very position. His 1983 album Thriller is the best-selling album of all time, more than doubling the sales of the second-best-selling album. But, even demolishing the competition, was the King of Pop satisfied?
It certainly doesn’t seem so. No, in a July 2010 Vanity Fair article, Jackson said that, following Thriller, he spent the rest of his life trying to make an album that would outsell it.2 Being number one wasn’t good enough, even for the person who was number one! As Bertrand Russell put it, “Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed. You cannot, therefore, get away from envy by means of success alone, for there will always be in history or legend some person even more successful than you are.”
The final and perhaps most obvious examples of the failure of the hedonist and the egoist to find lasting happiness are the lives of celebrities. Celebrities have more alcohol than they can drink, more drugs than they can take (and still remain alive), and more willing, attractive potential partners than there is time in the day to have sex. They can, and often do, “max out” in terms of the happiness of the hedonist. In terms of egoist happiness, celebrities have money enough for palatial residences in Malibu and in Manhattan, power to make or break people’s careers, popularity such that millions of people read magazines to learn the minutiae of their lives, and fame so great that they can walk into any bar and everyone knows their name.
And yet, what does maximized bodily pleasure and maximized ‘winning’ bring to celebrities? Some of them are so deliriously happy that they end up in a tragedy of suicide. Other celebrities teeter on the brink of self-inflicted death through drug and alcohol abuse. Many celebrities end up not with deep happiness, but with divorce, legal action, and rehab.
The crash and burn examples of countless celebrities make abundantly clear the point made by Aristotle, Aquinas, and many others over many centuries:. Happiness cannot be found in bodily pleasure, money, fame, popularity, or power.