Especially in these difficult economic times, all of us hope to acquire enough to make ends meet. Of course, we would love to do better than that; if we had enough money and material things to not just get by but live comfortably, surely we would be happy with what we have, right? According to recent scientific studies, probably not. These studies suggest that there's a darker, greedier motive driving our acquisition of wealth: We don't just want enough to meet our needs; we want more than other people have. This strongly echoes the teachings of A Course in Miracles on our lust for specialness, our ego-driven need to elevate ourselves above others. "Enough" just will not do; in the Course's words, "It must be more" (T-29.VIII.8:7).
According to the article (by Rebecca Sato) that I've drawn upon for this piece, one such study took place at the University of Bonn in Germany. In this study (published in Science), pairs of men got a monetary reward if they performed a simple task. Brain scientists scanned their brains during the experiment, and what they found was striking: When one member of a pair got more money than the other, the "reward center" of his brain was stimulated far more strongly than if both got an equal amount. The crucial determiner of satisfaction wasn't how much a person got, but how much he got compared to the other.
This result was surprising. According to economist Professor Dr. Armin Falk:
This result clearly contradicts traditional economic theory. The theory assumes that the only important factor is the absolute size of the reward. The comparison with other people's rewards shouldn't really play any role in economic motivation.
But it does. Other scientific studies have in fact found the same thing. For instance, an earlier study conducted by Andrew Oswald of Warwick College and David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College found that people whose incomes are increasing are not as happy about it when the incomes of people around them are increasing more rapidly. It seems there is something deep in us that wants not just to survive the rat race, but to win it.
Oddly enough, though, while acquiring more than others does appear to give that "reward center" a jolt, it doesn't appear to lead to lasting happiness. This is the message of a book by Shira Boss entitled Green with Envy: Why Keeping Up with the Joneses Is Keeping Us in Debt (it now has a new subtitle, A Whole New Way to Look at Financial (Un)Happiness). In Sato's words, this book presents true accounts "of people with hollow lives revolving around 'looking' full — particularly in relation to others."
One example is Boss's own neighbors, a married couple named John and Tina whose story was the catalyst for her writing the book. By all outer appearances, they had it all: a luxurious New York City apartment, the nicest things money could buy, and vacations all over the world. But when Boss dug deeper, she found another story entirely. Tina was dissatisfied with her work and hiding a $21,000 credit card debt from her husband. Both of them were embarrassed because most of their wealth came from family handouts. There were "other eye-opening revelations" as well. John and Tina appeared to be living the good life, but the truth was that their lives were filled with unhappiness and fear.
As I put all of this together, I see two related phenomena: the "hit" we get in our reward center when we acquire more than others, and the desperation that stems from needing to keep those hits coming. It seems to me that this whole process is akin to a drug addiction: We get a temporary high from outdoing others, but it is utterly artificial. Over time, we need more and more of the drug to keep us high, but it is never enough. In the end, the pursuit of happiness through the "drug" of acquiring more than others leaves us in the gutter of despair.
A Course in Miracles would certainly agree with this assessment. First off, it acknowledges what those researchers have found: There is something in us that derives great pleasure from having more than others. That "something in us" is the ego, and it wants more than others in order to serve its larger goal of acquiring what the Course calls "specialness": the exhilarating feeling of being set apart from and set above others. Specialness is the ego's most precious commodity, because it keeps the ego in business.
According to the Course, one way we acquire specialness is to collect "idols," things of the world that we use as substitutes for God, Who alone can bring us true happiness. And the big prize our idols give us, the lifeblood of specialness, is exactly what those researchers found. Our idols give us more than other people have:
Each worshipper of idols harbors hope his special deities will give him more than other men possess. It must be more. It does not really matter more of what; more beauty, more intelligence, more wealth, or even more affliction and more pain. But more of something is an idol for. And when one fails another takes its place, with hope of finding more of something else.…An idol is a means for getting more. (T-29.VIII.8:6-10, 12)
So, just as those studies have found, what motivates us when we are in ego mode isn't getting things per se, but getting more than others. This passage goes even further. It's not just about getting more money, but getting more of anything — even "more affliction and more pain." This sounds strange, but we can see it in action. I've known people whose mission in life was apparently to convince everyone around them that no one was suffering as much as they were.
But just as Boss found, getting more than others doesn't bring us real happiness in the long run. Our idols inevitably fail us, as this passage says: "And when one fails another takes its place, with hope of finding more of something else." Like the drug addict seeking the bigger hit, we need more and more in order to not just keep up with the Joneses but stay ahead of them. But we'll never achieve permanent victory. This is exactly what the ego wants; as the Course tells us, the ego's motto is "Seek and do not find." This sounds senseless at first glance and ultimately it is, but it does make sense from the ego's perspective: it ensures that the ego will stay in business. As long as we keep thinking that the next idol will deliver the happiness the previous ones did not, we "will continue to hope [the ego] can yet offer [us] something" (T-8.VIII.2:7).
How do we get out of this addiction and find real happiness? The first step, akin to the drug addict hitting bottom, is to take an honest look at the misery our quest for more and better idols has really brought us. We have to realize that worldly things will never deliver the happiness they promise, and go cold turkey. The Course has a wonderful passage that helps us do this:
Give up the world! But not to sacrifice. You never wanted it. What happiness have you sought here that did not bring you pain? What moment of content has not been bought at fearful price in coins of suffering? Joy has no cost. It is your sacred right, and what you pay for is not happiness. Be speeded on your way by honesty, and let not your experiences here deceive in retrospect. They were not free from bitter cost and joyless consequence. (T-30.V.9:4-12)
We should really ask ourselves these questions. Think of some specific examples of worldly things you sought, things you thought would bring you happiness. When you didn't get them, I'm guessing that you were unhappy about that. But what about when you did get them? Were you really happy then? Yes, perhaps you felt a temporary sense of satisfaction. You may have a fond memory of that. But did it last? If it didn't, was that really happiness or just another hit of the drug?
If we've done this with the honestly this passage asks of us, we are ready for the punch line. "And when an idol tempts you, think of this:"
There never was a time an idol brought you anything except the "gift" of guilt. Not one was bought except at cost of pain, nor was it ever paid by you alone. (T-30.V.10:2-4)
Guilt is the real payoff the quest for more brings us, is it not? Our guilt may not be immediately obvious, but it's there if we are willing to see it. (You may want to think again about those worldly things you sought, and what they really delivered.) We look with disdain and contempt on people who are selfish and greedy. So, if we think our happiness depends on acquiring more than others — the epitome of selfishness and greed — how can we not look with disdain and contempt upon ourselves? However much we experience the thrill of victory on the surface as our "reward center" gets a hit, how could we not feel guilty deep down? The very term "rat race" is telling; when we're competing with others to acquire more, everyone feels like a rat — even the winners. We're all in the gutter. We're all paying a bitter price for being (in our minds) dirty little rats.
So, first, we need to decide that the quest for more has made us and everyone else miserable. Only when we've admitted we have the disease will we be willing to take the remedy. What is the remedy? In a nutshell, it is to seek and find the gifts of God instead of idols, gifts that will bring us lasting happiness. And one important way we do this, according to the Course, is to see our relationship with others in a whole new way. In the ego's way, we are engaged in the zero-sum game of acquiring more than other people, so whenever we give to others, we lose. But according to the Course, the truth is the exact opposite, a truth it calls the "law of love": "What I give my brother is my gift to me" (W-pII.344.Heading).
In other words, the more we give other people, the more we have. True, if we give a material thing, we won't have that particular thing anymore (though the Course claims that material gifts given in the right spirit will return to us in some useful form — see (W-pI.187.2). But giving to others out of a genuinely loving heart opens us up to receive the spiritual gifts of God, the only gifts that can bring true happiness. When we try to acquire more at others' expense, we end up with "an empty place where nothing ever was or is or will be" (W-pII.344.1:3) — the "hollow lives" Boss uncovered in her book. But when we selflessly extend love to others in thought, word, and deed (including material gifts), we will find the joy that T-30.V.9 said "has no cost": "gifts beyond the worth of anything on earth….Heaven's treasures, which alone are real" (W-pII.344.1:6-7).
All of us have experienced the joy that comes from true giving. I'm sure you can think of examples from your own life. Indeed, as I've discussed in other Course Meets World pieces ("Give 'Til It Feels Good" and "Give'Til It Feels Good, Part 2"), other scientific studies have demonstrated that giving to others makes us happy. This certainly seems to contradict the studies I've cited in this piece, which say we are happier when we get more than others. How do we resolve this contradiction? From a scientific standpoint, I don't know, though I'm confident further research would find an answer. But as a Course student who has often experienced the joy of giving, my belief is that while getting more than others gives us a superficial high, giving to others brings us a happiness that is much deeper and lasting, because it is real. That has certainly been my experience.
Boss concludes that it's good to know that the apparent winners of the rat race suffer as much as the rest of us, because it makes us "feel less alone." But Sato goes further and gives us some thoughts worth pondering:
While it is nice to "feel less alone" — to know that everyone else on the planet is crazy too — wouldn't it feel nicer to avoid fruitless comparisons in the first place? The paradox of living our lives in relation to others, is that there will always be someone who has some form of "more." We may "score" a fleeting feeling of pleasure when we compare favorably, but it's quickly deflated when we inevitably compare unfavorably in another measure. Frittering away our lives in this futile effort to have (or at least appear to have) more than others, may well be one of the greatest indications of human irrationality ever known. At the very least, it is a pastime that robs one of the joy of living in the present, full of gratitude for the abundance we have in relation to no one.
I would expand on Sato's concluding sentence with a play on words: Why not be full of gratitude for the abundance we have in relation to everyone? For it is through acknowledging our relation to everyone, giving to all our brothers from the infinite treasure house of God, that we discover our true abundance. It must be more? No — how could it be when God has given everyone the gift of everything? Only by discovering this glorious truth through selfless giving will we find true happiness.