If I were rich, I would be happy.
This thought came to me more than once this week while cleaning up trash and swabbing out toilets at my day job. But once I confronted the thought it melted away; two years ago today I was making about 400% more money and was about 200% unhappier. I wasn’t even that much more comfortable, to be honest. Somehow I managed to spend all of that extra money and had basically nothing to show for it.
“Money can’t buy you happiness” feels, when you’re poor, like one of the nastiest lies that rich people feed to you. It sounds like a maxim designed to keep you down, to make you stay satisfied with your wretched lot in life, to keep you from encroaching on their hallowed halls of aristocracy.
But the bitch of it is that it’s true. And over the past few weeks Elon Musk has been making a massive PR effort to prove it. He’s been melting down in public for some time now, and that’s despite being worth almost 20 billion dollars. Like, when you say “If I just had more money I would be happy,” you’re definitely thinking of a number way, way less than 20 billion. And yet even at 20 billion this motherfucker is publicly miserable.
He’s been getting into fights on Twitter for a while (I would say that being active on Twitter is one of the top five signs that you are miserable, by the way). He accused a rescue worker in Thailand of being a pedophile because he felt slighted by the man. He cried in a New York Times interview, and not in a “I am a sensitive person who is expressing my emotions” way but in a “I am just barely keeping it together” way. He had a bizarre public beef with Azealia Banks. And then this week he appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast (listening to Joe Rogan’s podcast is maybe the top sign you’re miserable) and was kind of unhinged, and smoked pot live on air.
I’m not here to judge the man’s pot smoking – it’s legal in California – but it’s clear that his decision-making was poor, since Tesla stock dropped immediately afterwards. And I’m not here to judge his unhinged qualities – perhaps we all need to be slightly more unhinged. Pu-Tai, the guy you know as the fat laughing Buddha, was slightly unhinged (he asked his fellow monks to burn his body upon death. They did, and were surprised to find he had filled his clothes with fireworks before he died, so he exploded on the pyre).
But he does seem stressed, upset, fundamentally unhappy. He talks about getting no sleep and having a serious Ambien habit. When Joe Rogan talks to him about meditation, Musk shrugs it off, saying it isn’t for him, that he isn’t that kind of guy. And so he continues to be pretty miserable.
All that money and he still isn’t able to take care of himself properly. There was a guy who commented on this site who disagreed with an assertion that I made, that all of the socio-economic reforms in the world wouldn’t improve global happiness as long as we continue to believe that our belongings and our circumstances are what make us happy. He argued that meditation and self-care were all great for rich people, but that poor people couldn’t take the time to do these things. And yet here’s Elon Musk, 20 bil in the bank, saying he doesn’t have the time/inclination. Saying it as he self-medicates with weed and Ambien, all while being twitchy and stressed.
I look at Elon Musk and I feel bad for him. I feel bad because I get it. I get what it’s like to have a lot, to have achieved so much (not as much as Musk, but I can imagine), and yet to feel like it’s not enough. To always be chasing the next thing instead of appreciating this thing, to always be afraid that someone is going to overtake you, to live fully stressed because you achieved your dreams and your dreams weren’t enough.
This is the greatest trap in the world, to believe that if we just get the right amount of stuff or if we just achieve the right amount of things, we will be actually happy. I’m not saying there’s constant unhappiness in the lives of rich people like Elon Musk – I’m sure he has great days, astonishing moments – but I am saying there is no continuity of happiness in their lives. They are not, moment to moment, any happier or more satisfied than you are. Even the things that offer them comfort eventually stop giving happiness, because the human mind is wired to keep going for the novel, the new, the bigger, the better. You finally get that Jaguar you’ve always wanted, and then you start noticing another guy has a Bugatti that’s nicer than your car.
So you end up on this treadmill, forever chasing the next thing, unable to find any satisfaction that lasts any meaningful amount of time. The small moments of happiness an Elon Musk has may be bigger than your small moments, but all the rest of his time Elon Musk is just as unhappy as you are because nothing is ever satisfying enough.
The truly happy person is happy no matter their circumstances, no matter how much stuff they have. In fact, I think that the person who gives away their stuff is probably the happiest. Look at Bill Gates, who is rich as shit, and who can’t give his money away fast enough. Listen to that guy talk – he sounds like he’s pretty centered. He sounds happy.
Elon Musk is doing a great service to us by being miserable in all the ways that WE are miserable. He’s not miserable in those rich people ways (trouble with the help! The koi pond just CANNOT maintain a proper pH balance! The Lear is always down for maintenance!), he’s miserable in relatable ways. He’s getting into beefs with randos on social media. His girlfriend’s friends are being nasty to him. He works too much and doesn’t get enough sleep and he relies on chemicals to regulate himself minute to minute. We can see that no number of zeroes at the end of our paycheck will stop us from being miserable in these ways.
With that information we can figure out HOW to be less miserable. If wealth or physical comfort are not the answers, what are? All of us need to explore that for ourselves, but I’ve come to believe that spirituality – an interest in things that go beyond the material – is the answer. Not God, not religion, but an interest in the ways that we feel and the ways that we relate to each other and to the world around us. Not dogma, not ritual (although that’s cool too), but an effort to get out of our self-centered mind and start thinking about other people*. It’s very simple, but it is not easy.
I hope Elon Musk gets his shit together. With his wealth and media presence he could be a true guiding light for wellness. He could be a bodhisattva on a global scale. In the meantime he can be a bodhisattva by reminding us that life is unsatisfactory for everybody, even the rich, and that if we want to find happiness we need to look beyond material things.
*in healthy ways. Co-dependency is a different form of self-centeredness.