Tuesday, December 30, 2008


How many times have you heard this recently? When I was younger, the standard year-end greeting was "Happy New Year." Increasingly, now people add "prosperous" to "happy." It is not enough to be "happy" in the New Year; you must be "prosperous," too. Is there any significance to this? Are "happiness" and "prosperity" identical concepts? Is "prosperity" a necessary condition to "happiness?" Or has our society merely conflated the two ideas, so that people cannot imagine themselves "happy" without being "prosperous" as well?

At first blush, we might just dismiss all greetings as empty formalities. Everyone says "How are you?" or even "Merry Christmas" without really caring about how you are or whether you have a merry Christmas. They are simply "extended greetings" that people say without intending to elicit a response. But I argue that even empty formalities imply something more. They may be empty, and people may not give a second thought to what they really mean; but they would not have become formalities unless they originally expressed something more significant.

"Happy New Year" makes more sense than "Happy and Prosperous New Year." Most people agree that it is good to be happy. In fact, when we feel happy, all negative emotions are absent. No matter our material circumstances, if we are happy at particular moment, nothing else weighs upon us. I recently discussed Sigmund Freud's analysis concerning happiness. He said that the "purpose and intention" of men's lives is "to become happy and remain so." Civilization and its Discontents, p. 25. Freud went on to explain that "happiness" consists of two primary parts: (1) avoiding "strong feelings of unpleasure;" and (2) experiencing "strong feelings of pleasure." Id. By this definition, it makes sense to wish "happiness" on someone for the new year. We all want the positive feeling that flows from true happiness. By wishing a "happy" new year, we wish the other person a year without "unpleasure" and filled with "strong feelings of pleasure." Who would not want that? Happiness is its own reward; it does strictly not depend on any material factors. It is purely emotional.

But now we tell people: "Have a happy and prosperous New Year." Prosperity is not an emotion. The dictionary tells us that "prosperity" means "prosperous condition; good fortune, wealth, success, etc." And "prosperous" means "1. having continued success, flourishing; 2. well-to-do; 3. conducive to success, favorable." Webster's New World College Dictionary (4th Ed.). To wish prosperity, then, means to wish "continued success, wealth and good fortune" on someone. Success, wealth and good fortune refer to "favorable" external circumstances, not subjective emotions. True, "prosperous" external circumstances often lay the groundwork for emotional "happiness." But "prosperity" alone does not inexorably lead to happiness. There are many extremely wealthy, successful and "prosperous" people who nonetheless manufacture their own mental agony. Happiness is subjective. Prosperity, by contrast, is more objective. It turns on circumstances, not our minds. If our end goal is to experience "positive subjective feelings," then prosperity is not necessary to achive it.

Yet our society conflates the two ideas. Many act under the illusion that achieving "prosperity" is the sole pathway to happiness. Our pervasively commercial culture is responsible for this delusion. We are surrounded by images of wealth, beauty, money and tangible "things." We equate having these things with "success" and "happiness." At the same time, we are beset with financial obligations that do not subside unless we satisfy them with money or property. Obligations fuel negative emotions such as anxiety, worry, panic, stress and depression. When we do not meet the accepted vision of "success," or when we fail to live up to an obligation, negative emotions overtake us. These emotions, in turn, generate "unpleasure," and as Freud said, we cannot be truly happy whenever we experience unpleasure. Still, "prosperity" seems to offer an antidote to this negative complex. After all, if only we had "continued success" and "wealth," we would overcome our obligations, obtain all the material "things" we want and cast out the unpleasure that blocks our path to happiness.

But this presupposes that having things will truly cast out unpleasure. Our commercial culture teaches that "success" comes from having money, having property and having the freedom to lead our own economic lives. With economic freedom comes freedom from financial obligation. That eliminates a huge source of potential anxiety. Yet even those who achieve such freedom do not escape negative emotions. Wealthy and prosperous people still experience jealousy, resentment, hatred, fear and longing. They still feel pain when physical illness befalls them. They still feel disappointment when spouses, children and friends fail them. And they still focus their energy on some imagined future that they will never attain. As long as they continue to experience these negative emotions, they will never be happy, no matter how prosperous they are.

Several years ago, I saw a picture of Paris Hilton sobbing in the back of a police cruiser. I thought: "Wow, this successful, wealthy and prosperous woman--who has virtually no financial obligations or money problems--is nonetheless experiencing 'strongly negative emotions.'" At that moment, Paris Hilton could not have been happy. She may have been prosperous, but she was not happy. Her contorted face, tears and sobs revealed that she was not experiencing positive feelings. All her money, success, fame, good fortune and prosperity did not give her mental tranquility at that moment. And this was only one picture. Who knows how often she feels that way off the camera.

So why do we wish people "prosperity" in the new year? As we have seen, it does not automatically translate into happiness. For my part, I would much rather be happy than prosperous. If I am happy, I care not for my external circumstances. I depend on my own mind for peace, not the number of dollars in my bank account. Still, I am realistic when I have to be, and I know that we need some material "success" in order to keep our bodies in the physical condition necessary to avoid "strong feelings of unpleasure." But our society does not really understand that subjective happiness is the best thing we can seek in life. Instead, we learn that pursuing "prosperity" is our main goal, even though it does not always fulfill us. Prosperity refers to what we have; happiness refers to what we are. It is much easier to lose things we have than to lose ourselves.

I do not make prosperity a talisman in my life. I know that external conceptions of "prosperity" will not make me subjectively happy. Instead, I live my life in a way that will bring me as much happiness as possible. In many cases, that approach indirectly leads to prosperity. Perhaps that it is the best way to reconcile prosperity and happiness. If we focus on matters with a view to happiness, we often find prosperity in the process. After all, happiness is ours. We make the decisions. Others label us "prosperous" according to our "wealth" and "continued success." Yet if our own efforts yield "prosperity," then we vindicate ourselves, not the expectations of others.

With that, I wish you all a Happy New Year.

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