Opinion » John Rember

If You Had $1 Million

And other false pursuits

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A million dollars will not buy happiness. Neither will $10 million or $100 million. I understand you'd like to find that out for yourself, by having a rich person hand you a boatload of cash, instead of having to watch that same person flail away at existence by buying Porsches, living in big houses, engaging in punitive litigation, marrying a new surgically enhanced spouse every 10 years and watching grandchildren spend their allowances on crystal meth.

You say if Bill Gates gave you a big boat stuffed with $100 bills, your grandchildren wouldn't end up as meth addicts. You'd still vote for Democrats. You'd fund Ebola research and send poor but deserving students to college. You'd continue to live in your modest rental, and--with apologies to the Barenaked Ladies--would still eat Kraft Dinners (but more of them). You'd start up solar start-ups. You'd fund Mars colonization feasibility experiments. You'd become an Alzheimer's respite worker. You'd improve the world, even if you had to drive a Prius.

But the sad stories of recent lottery winners indicate you wouldn't do any of those things. A million dollars has a life and a momentum of its own, just like meth has a life and momentum of its own. In money's case, that momentum is toward stress-filled lives short on intimacy, compassion and authenticity--and long on Ayn Rand politics and shopping.

Ten million dollars allows for less intimacy, less compassion and less authenticity than a million. More Ayn Rand and more shopping, though. A hundred million? You have to pay for friendship. You even have to pay people to experience life for you. You have to pay people to run your foundation. They screw things up and you have to cut short your annual six weeks in Bali--saying goodbye to your new, surgically enhanced Australian friend--to come home and fix things, along with some awkward stuff involving your broker and those stock tips he shouldn't have even told you about.

Full disclosure: I used to work in Sun Valley, a known hangout for folks with millions of dollars. While still in high school, I worked as a ski patrolman on Bald Mountain for $6.50 a day, tobogganing the wounded wealthy to ambulances at the bottom of the mountain. I began my teaching career at the Community School in Ketchum, where some of my 14-year-old students had cars that cost twice my annual salary.

The rich people I met spent their lives in a weird, artificial existence. Measuring their worth as parents by the value of the new car they bought their 14-year-old was only the weirdest symptom of that weirdness. Their wealth insulated them from family and friendship. They ruined their health by eating and drinking too much when they weren't following nutritional regimes that promised a bright anorexic immortality. They bought stuff and more stuff when antidepressants would have worked every bit as well.

It turns out that buying stuff wrecks your happiness, mainly because the Second Law of Thermodynamics--entropy--gets a good workout the morning after a shopping binge. Clothes don't show as well in the bedroom as in the store, and neither do you. The Porsche gets keyed in the parking garage, or a beggar points at it at a red light and you have to pretend to be texting. The only space to store your never-used camping gear is in the garage between the Bowflex and the rowing machine, items you moved from your home office months ago because they were acquiring a dusty coat of guilt.

The gulf between what money promises and what it delivers accounts for the astonishing viciousness endemic among billionaires.

The solution isn't earth-shattering: you need just enough money to avoid the cruel and ugly authenticities of poverty, which are dead-end minimum-wage jobs, unpayable college loans, medical bills that wipe out major food groups, multiple deployments to Iraq, clothes-on-the-sidewalk evictions and so on.

When I taught liberal arts, I asked students for essays describing the true face of happiness. It was a depressing exercise. Almost all of my students mentioned a million dollars. They also brought up authenticity. "I want an authentic, rich life," they wrote. "On my own island, with a big house, a riding arena, a helicopter and a dance studio. I also want to write novels about the human condition."

They weren't happy when I told them that in my experience, the human condition was dead after the first helicopter, whether it had crashed or not. They weren't happy when I told them that a liberal arts education would make it OK not to have an island, a personal dance studio, a riding arena or even a horse.

The liberal arts, I said, emphasized kindness in the face of sadism, sanity in the face of bad craziness, and self-denial and restraint in the face of greed and gluttony. Liberal arts graduates could see human beings as persons and not as objects to be manipulated. They could let themselves understand that the world is an insoluble knot of light and darkness. They could achieve the courage to address the inevitable tragedy attending every human life.

"We're working on improving your soul," I told my students. "It's easier if you have a soul to begin with, but we can start from scratch if we have to. What you're beginning to learn will allow respectful relationships with friends and family, at least those with liberal arts educations. Get to the point where you can feel a soul--your own or that of another--and you might one day achieve a dark, minimalist form of happiness."

"For this we pay tuition," they said.

"Big time," I said. "And well worth it."