Are we happier with less

In 1991 I had my second tour as a United Nations soldier in Syria and met someone who told me about his former work as a bodyguard for some members of the Saudi Royal family. I was instantly hooked. I asked him for names and a reference and sent them my application upon completing my current contract with the United Nations. That’s what I wanted to do.

I was pretty young at the time so he told me not to expect being picked quite yet. They usually wanted people with a little more experience under their belt. But as fate would have it, I received the call and was told to fly to Cairo to meet my new team leader with further instructions. 

I was one of the many securities working for Prince Turki Bin Abdul Aziz, full brother of both, King Fahd, the then King of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and King Salman, the current one. Can it get any more exciting for a 22-year-old?

It was a crazy time as I rose very fast and soon I accompanied family members on trips all over the world. I got a truly intense and very long-lasting taste of what the life of a true billionaire and his family clan was like.

And I lived it with them, 24/24 and 7/7. Living so close to some of the wealthiest people on the planet gives you a glimpse of their personalities, of their mental states. In time you become part of the furniture and they ditch their public faces. And what I saw gave me a lot of food for thought. This was not what I imagined.

I thought there would be eternal bliss, good vibes, and party. I thought there would be the most carefree people on Earth brimming with great ideas about what they could do next as the most important limiting factor in my own life – money – was not even an issue for them. They could afford almost anything without even thinking twice and yes, I experienced astonishing things with them. 

They bought the most expensive cars, just to ride them once and then they gathered dust. We had a lot of fun with some of them I must admit. We rented entire airplanes for trips – not small executive jets but the biggies. 

But the big life had a dark side. I did not figure out what the reason was but those people had a very stale demeanor. They were dull, lifeless, unimaginative. 

Our principal, the Prince himself, rarely ever left his suite where he spent his time watching television and sometimes playing cards with some friends. Sometimes he did not leave his two rooms for an entire month. He was a kind man and I loved working for him but then again I also pitied him. There he was, supposedly at the top of the world and still a shadow of a man. 

Was it him or was it the money?

When the first Indiana Jones movie hit the screens, I was 12 years old. That was my cup of tea. All the things I loved in one simple package. A learned man who made his way through the world of archeology having wild and seemingly impossible adventures while doing so. 

I was smart enough to know that the movies were impossibly exaggerated and that the supposed epoch during which Indiana Jones had his adventures was long over when I watched those movies. If ever, I would have to do that in a very different world. But despite all those limitations, I was wildly decided to make adventure my own. The theme of freedom always had a big place in my world order and I equated freedom with being able to do anything I need without being dependent on anyone for anything. 

This is why I learned to wash my clothes, iron my shirts, cook a meal, and fix most stuff I was dealing with almost instantly.

The Indiana Jones movies of course fell onto fertile ground as before them, I was raised on the tales of my father’s younger years. While no Indiana Jones, my father was sort of an adventurer himself and he saw the world. Someone passed down the virus it seems. 

I knew that true freedom was to be found in simplicity. Clinging to stuff was going to hinder me in my moving across the surface of this lump of space rock. So I shunned many of the trappings that many my age pursued including a car of my own.

And as we have seen just above, I have seen the very different side of life. The life of an unimaginatively rich person up close and for a long time. And a lot of states in between during the 55 years I have been part of humanity. 

I always preferred Indiana Jones, a learned man but not rich by any interpretation of the word to the life of an Arab oil billionaire. 

The good life makes us lazy, and drab and dulls our senses. Maybe that’s why we need to find always new excitements to keep them busy. But wealth makes us seek those excitements in the outside world rather than in us. 

The Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously said that he needed to go to the brink to unleash the creative juices in him. He often gambled away his fortune to feel the sting of poverty again. It was his drug.

The German language knows the word Wohlstandsverwahrlosung. It means either “affluent neglect” or “affluent depravity” depending on whose translation you prefer. Material comfort and riches afford us to live worry-free. It allows us to spend our time zapping through cat videos on YouTube rather than working on what could be a deep passion. 

Time is insensitive to our way of spending it and faster than we like to admit we wake up and find out that the best part of our lives has passed. With nothing memorable to put onto the active side of the mental balance sheet.

In Goethe’s novel Faust, the principal Dr. Faustus is offered a deal by Mephisto, the devil. In exchange for his soul, Faustus shall receive incredible powers. He could have used the time to do incredible things but instead, he wastes it until it’s too late and the devil claims his soul. Faustus was as close to omnipotent as one could be in this scenario, and yet he did nothing meaningful with it. Yet, at the onset, he was full of dreams, plans, projects, and intentions. 

We all are subject to procrastination. That one thing we should have done years ago but somehow always find excuses to put off. Because we can. Because life functions without us taking extraordinary steps. And what would the others think? What would the peers or family think? How would they react? How would they judge us if we did something outside the norms? Much easier to watch cat videos. 

Comfort allows us to stay within the bounds of what is deemed acceptable. Very few break those bounds and do something extraordinary with their time. Not being very wealthy helps in that regard.

Make no mistake. I don’t advocate being destitute. That’s crippling. But most people in developed countries don’t have to be destitute if they don’t want to be. I have had the experience more than once that being humble and having simple and inexpensive tastes allow one to rise from pretty much any situation. 

Is that also applicable to us as a society?

Take a good hard look around and tell me. When did you have the feeling that we as a society took care of issues that are truly important and affect our well-being as a group of people living in an organized structure? I do not mean things that feel good but things that are good. Like reliable and affordable transport and energy. Healthy food that does not poison us or indeed the one issue that makes anyone either happy or miserable – safety in our daily lives. 

I am not talking about feel-good issues such as how our national hymns are gendered or what mad flavor of sexual depravity we will lay next on kindergarten kids. 

We are rich, we are fat, we are lazy and the grand majority of us are sitting on our behinds, complaining but doing nothing or close to nothing to change things. Because we can. Because we can afford it. Because it somehow does not seem to matter as we wait for someone else to do what we know we should do. Instead, we find excuses for the procrastination we indulge in.

In earlier posts, I have written that we cannot meaningfully alter the course things have taken. History comes in waves and the wealth and comfort that I have grown up in and have enjoyed for my entire life will go away. It’s not some cosmic event but it’s us. When people don’t care because they can, the most extreme elements of a society take the reins. The idiots take over and those individuals will steer the ship into the beach and ground it. 

We cannot change the tides of history. But we can take action and change the way we react to it. We can prepare to survive the coming crash better than anyone else. And we can ask ourselves – how long do I have to live and have I realized a bit of the childhood dream that I once had before I will eventually meet my maker?

I have asked myself this question many times over the last years and started a process of simplification. I cut away much of what did not matter to me. And I cut away many of the unreasonable expectations that others outside my family had in me. 

According to legend, the Macedonian conqueror and king Alexander the Great one day came to Corinth to visit the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope. Alexander was impressed with the simple lifestyle Diogenes – who lived in a barrel – led. As he stood before him he told him who he was and asked him what he could do for him as he would fulfill any wish he had. Diogenes is supposed to have answered that he could start by stepping aside as he blocked the sunlight from reaching him.

Alexander is one of the most iconic figures in history. Diogenes was a poor philosopher and yet, Alexander was heard saying that he envied Diogenes for the simplicity of his life. 

We don’t need to become Diogenes but living a very simple life has not lost its attraction to me. We all carry too much baggage – much of which we don’t need. Our wealth makes us dependent and fearful. 

Time to find our very personal eye of the tiger to use a Rocky analogy.

Enjoy the summer. I will take a timeout from article writing but to fill the time I will throw some very old evergreens that I have remastered your way when I usually release new articles. You are not rid of me. Let’s reach deep down into the barrel of our dreams and expectations and see what’s at the bottom. You might be surprised by what you find. 

Happy Holidays. 

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