This is another quote by "L," the mysterious author of the article from New Orleans newspaper, "The Daily Crescent" in June 1848. Whoever the author, this is a thought that has probably crossed the minds of humans from every culture and every era. A similar quote has been attributed to Plato, "The greatest wealth is to live content with little."
I used to ask my kids, "What makes someone rich?" How much money does it take to be considered rich? Their answer might be one million dollars. But while one million dollars may provide you with a sultan's retirement back in Ohio, it won't last more than a few years in the SF Bay Area. So maybe the answer should be 10? or 50 millions dollars?
I have tried to break down this saying into a mathematical formula with two variables. The way I see it, wealth is something I correlate with contentment. It is the amount of money or resources one needs to obtain everything they desire. Although this is an oversimplication, the two variables are essentially money (or resources) and desire (or needs). In my experience, society's attainment of wealth seems to concentrate on the first part of the equation, i.e. earn more money, consume more resources, ascend to higher positions of power and influence--in order to chase those things that makes one content. Perhaps it is lazy or passive to think this way, but wouldn't it be easier to focus on the second part of the equation? Instead of increasing the means, why not decrease my needs and desires? Is a powerful, but chronically stressed-out CEO who owns a collection of 20 vintage sports car necessarily more successful than a blissfully ignorant guy living simply in a studio apartment?
The affluent of California, and especially of the Bay Area, are the consummate display of the Hedonic Treadmill in action. From the earliest days of subsisting as a frugal college student through years of schooling and training to becoming partner in my company, I have not noticed much change in my feelings of well-being or contentment. Indeed, some of my happiest memories were from the years that my girlfriend (and later wife) and I tripping over each other, living in a cramped studio apartment in West LA and eating Taco Bell for too many dinners. Over the years, as I have achieved more, progressed in my career, and earned more money and status, I notice that mainly, only the "things" around me have changed. The TV gets progressively bigger. The routine maintenance for our cars is more expensive and more extensive by the year. The living space has increased in size. I can pee in my own personal bathroom. My neighbors have gotten wealthier and more discerning, and there is a new Tesla on the block every time I look. Most of all, my responsibilities have become heavier.
I can confidently say that I am no happier now than I was before. I can see that no matter what you accumulate, you will not become happier. You will just be equally unhappy about bigger things.
"Happiness is like a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you."
That quote is sometimes attributed to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and it seems like something he might have said...but actually, the quote belongs to someone else. It was heard as early as June 1848 in an article in "The Daily Crescent," a New Orleans newspaper. The identify of the author is unknown, as he was only identified by the initial "L." His article consisted of his poetically inclined definitions of numerous English words, such as "Love," "Wealth," and of course "Happiness." No matter who the single author, it is a sentiment with which many can probably relate...including me, of course.
So why did I call the website "Chasingthebutterfly.net"? Well, for one thing, "Chasingthebutterfly.com" was already taken...but seriously. Why not "Catchingthebutterfly" or some such thing? It's because it's a pretty good description of my life, and the life of many around me. Although I know it's futile to chase the butterfly, I don't think I can stop. As Morpheus said in the Matrix, "There's a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path." I know the path, but there is too much inertia keeping me from consistently walking the path. I'm not even sure any human being can really completely stop.
I read a post in Quora from Richard Muller, a renowned Physics professor and author, who lamented that dissatisfaction is an ingrained part of human nature, but at the same time, it is the fuel that is responsible for human success, and for the continued progress in the world. He said that his life strategy is to essentially let himself flow along with the uncontrolled instinct and struggle to achieve, while simultaneously recognizing "how blessed I am already." It is refreshing to find someone who is so knowledgeable about the physical universe, but also spends a lot of time contemplating deeper questions outside the realm of science, trying to probe the secrets of the unknowable ocean that surrounds our island of knowledge.
So too shall I follow Dr. Muller's strategy. As I strive for that work bonus....as I grumble about the increasing pressures to do more with less...as I compulsively check the growing brown spots in my lawn...as I keep checking the buds on my sick tree hoping for its eventual revival...as I fret about the future of my children in a sea of competitive multitalented trust-fund kids...I just need to constantly remind me that I AM indeed chasing a butterfly. That I should occasionally stop and take a breath, clear my head of thoughts, sit down quietly for a while. If perchance a butterfly does land on my shoulder, I should enjoy its presence while it lasts without trying to possess it, and to "kiss the joy as it flies." I suppose it's those fleeting moments among the hectic noise of daily life that will turn out to be the most precious.
Northern California dad