The trick to taking tests is not necessarily giving the right answers but giving the expected ones. This is especially true of tests in which there are no right answers -- attitude surveys, for instance, in which a job applicant is asked, say, to name the magazines he normally reads. Only a fool would list Hustler and Penthouse. More likely, Newsweek and Time would be written down. We all learn what's expected of us.
Now ask yourself how you would answer a question about goals. Given a choice, would you say your priority is to become "well off financially" or to develop "a meaningful philosophy of life"? The answer, I think, would be the latter, if only because we have all been told that money can't buy happiness and that a meaningful philosophy of life all but guarantees it. Never mind whether you believe that. The point is you know what the answer should be.
But when two organizations recently combined to survey 290,000 college freshmen, 75 percent of the kids said that "being well off financially" was a priority. Less than 40 percent gave priority to "developing a meaningful philosophy of life." Who knows what college freshmen think "a meaningful philosophy of life" is. The phrase seems ponderous, maybe a cross between school and church, which is to say no fun at all. To me, though, it fairly chirps contentment -- rules self-imposed, guidelines voluntarily adopted, perspective: peace of mind.
"Being well off financially" seems clear enough. It falls somewhat short of "rich," which connotes greed and money for its own sake, but it suggests a higher level of affluence than, say, "comfortable." It has to mean having money, enough to do what you want: houses, vacations, cars and, the ultimate in luxury, two dishwashers for those rare occasions when you have too many dishes for one. Would that not amount to happiness?
In a recent issue of The New Republic, Louis Menand uses the word "sufficiency." His context is Donald J. Trump's book, Trump: The Art of the Deal, and he cites what Trump has to say about his grand living room. "While I can't honestly say I need an 80-foot-long living room, I do get a kick out of having one," Trump writes. As Menand points out, absent a sense of sufficiency, of enough being enough, Trump must live in dread of being trumped by the person with a 90-foot living room.
Menand's point applies to college freshmen as well. The kids who said their priority was being well off financially were rejecting sufficiency. Being well off financially is open-ended, entirely relative. How do you know when you have enough? Compared with whom? Are these kids embarked on a Sisyphean quest for the 90-foot living room?
Having a philosophy of life is supposed to tell you when you have enough. It should tell you that it doesn't matter what size living room the other fellow has, or what kind of car he drives or where he vacations. Happiness, contentment, would not be relative but absolute.
The term precludes an ever-expanding need for more, to proclaim one's worth by means of possessions. Can we imagine that Trump, for instance, would want an 80-foot living room that no one could see, that he enjoyed in private, like a sweet Schubert piece? No, its value is measured by its envy quotient, by how it affects others. Even alone, Trump must smile with satisfaction looking at the room and envisioning others in it. Oh, to be the object of envy! An 80-foot living room!
What's perhaps most stunning about the student responses is how they did not seem to understand that in seeking money they were not gaining independence but turning their lives over to others. Never mind that many of us don't have a meaningful philosophy of life. We recognize that we should, that it is worthy, and that such a thing, like true love, is connected to happiness. The kids seemed to recognize none of that. They didn't even know what the correct answer was!
I once attended a huge est meeting here at which Werner Erhard himself presided. Most of those in attendance were est veterans. I remember Erhard asking these affluent Washingtonians if they were happy. Did cars make them happy? Did vacations make them happy? How about rec rooms and recessed lighting? The answer was no, none of these things made them happy. I decided then that est is a theology for the affluent. Religion comforts the poor by telling them that money doesn't buy happiness. Est comforts the comfortable by telling them the same thing.
It's not too much to presume that the freshmen of today are the children of est veterans. And yet the angst, the restlessness, of one generation seems not to have been noticed by the next. The college freshmen of today may not have the money or security their parents had back in the '60s and they may face uncertain economic prospects (is this why they put such emphasis on financial well-being?), but most of them are a long way from poor. Nevertheless, their priority -- not just a subsidiary goal -- is making money.
In some of the accounts of the freshman survey, the kids were treated with scorn. Maybe they deserve it. But they're only kids, maybe too young to understand that a full life must have purpose, a spiritual side, a sense of sufficiency. One can call this a meaningful philosophy; what it amounts to is peace of mind. Money can buy a 90-foot living room, but peace of mind is priceless. ::