Who We Are As Brains Seeking Happiness – Part I

There’s really only one problem. It’s the way we live.
The Earth has only one problem. It’s the way we live.
We suffer from a deep, cultural pathology.”
– Albert LaChance
The task of religion is not to bring the sacred to us.
Its task is to identify, name, and affirm the sacred
already in our midst and call us to give witness to it
by the way we live.
– Michael Morwood
Good ideas play no small part in any healthy change.
– Ronald Rolheiser

One day, I had an idea. It was prompted by my weeks in India in December 2010, and my reading while there of No Impact Man by Colin Beavan. (I’ve written about that experience in my “India Journal” posts on this blog.) If you are not familiar with the book, it is the tale of how Beavan and his family spent a year experimenting with reducing their negative environmental impact to zero. They cut out trash, motorized transportation, and television; they learned to cook fresh meals, and eventually even turned off the electricity.

Before I get into my idea, the one thing I want to repeat here is that of all the things I learned from Beavan, the one thing that stood out for me the most was his poignant realization that the completely unanticipated by-product of the experiment was happiness. Freed from TV, Beavan found himself playing with his daughter in the park on sunlit summer evenings. Without electricity, he enjoyed sitting up late at night talking with his wife surrounded by soft candlelight.

As Beavan’s experience percolated in my mind, up popped the idea one day that here in the U.S. we have somehow come to have our priorities backwards and our definitions wrong. In the U.S. Declaration of Independence, our forefathers got it right. They wrote that all citizens of this country (at that time understood to be white, land-owning males, but now understood to be everyone) have the right to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  With that in mind, here is my idea: “Life” comes first.

Our founding fathers got it right, but today so many people are focused entirely on pursuing their own brand of “happiness” – viewed mostly as the accumulation of things – that we are poisoning our life-sustaining air and water, killing the life-bearing ability of our soils, and spilling oil into our life-nurturing oceans.

Furthermore, our economy took a turn for the worst in recent years and still is in a mess because a lot of people defined happiness as accumulated wealth, gained mostly at the expense of others.

I am beginning to understand that “wealth” does not equal “capital”; nor is happiness found in accumulated capital. Wealth equals “life.” Happiness is found in engaging in activities that connect us to our deepest self and the deepest self in others, and in what promotes life.

As it does in the Declaration of Independence, protecting and nourishing life must be our first priority. Instead, right now, due to our misguided, infantile, ego-driven, greed-driven pursuit of the mistaken idea of happiness, we are destroying Earth’s capacity to create and sustain life, as well as the quality of our own. As Albert LaChance observes: “We have been destroying the planet, believing all the while that a ruined planet doesn’t mean a ruined human” (p. 8).

LaChance blames the environmental crisis on “a pernicious relationship between Western culture and the planetary life systems within which our culture has its context” (p. 2). Healing from our addiction to a consumer-driven idea of happiness will require each of us to change our ways, but collectively for us all to change our culture.

As I thought about the total culture change the pursuit of Life first would require, I eventually came to another idea, which took form as a question: What would it be like to create an economy not based on shopping, but based on our first priority, life? In other words, what if every aspect of our economy was based on promoting the fullness of life for every person and every other living creature on Earth? I believe that for humans (and for other creatures) this would mean establishing an economy based on assuring that every new child born into the world can grow to the fullness of his or her potential.

To look at what this kind of economy might look like, I had the idea of using a framework such as Abraham Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs. Without getting into whether or not Maslow’s theory is correct, we could look at how he describes the process of human development as evolving through several stages, each one associated with a particular set of human needs. As each set of needs is fully met for the individual, he or she can progress to the next stage of development.

My idea is to look at Maslow’s stages, and then think about how to use them to structure an economic system primarily focused on helping each individual meet their needs and grow to their full potential. Such an economic plan might look like this:

Stage 1: Physical needs (provide clean air and water, adequate and healthy food, access to health care);

Stage 2: Safety and Security needs (provide well-trained, “good enough” parenting; adequate housing, policing, gun control);

Stage 3: Social needs (provide adequate pre-schools and elementary schools with opportunities for interaction through sports, music, and the arts; community centers with youth programs; safe and attractive neighborhood parks; safe and adequate transportation);

Stage 4: Esteem needs (provide adequate junior high schools and high schools with science, sports, music and arts programs, community centers with youth programs; access to college education and vocational training);

Stage 5: Self-actualizing needs (provide meaningful work, opportunities for service, time for leisure and creative pursuits).

Obviously, under such an economic system, the highest paid and most respected professionals would be those who are on the front lines in providing the needs at each level. This would be those who keep our air and water clean, and our food healthy; those who keep our neighborhoods clean and safe; those who provide training for parents; those who provide healthcare and medical assistance. Most of all, it would be the teachers and coaches, the music and art instructors, the youth activity coordinators.

Jobs would be centered on meaningful work, directed toward creating products that help individuals to meet their full potential, not creating the latest version of the widget.

Like I said, it’s just an idea, but perhaps it’s a place to start.


LaChance, A.(1991). Greenspirit: Twelve steps in ecological spirituality. Rockport, MA: Element. [Opening Quote, p. 1]

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

Morwood, M. (2007) From sand to solid ground: Questions of faith for modern catholics. New York, NY: Crossroad. [Opening Quote, p. 240.]

Rolheiser, Ronald. (2006) Secularity and the gospel: Being Missionaries to Our Children. New York, NY: Crossroad. [Opening Quote, p. 19.]

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