How The Goods Life Usurped the Good Life
To live fully is to live without excess and live for others, says Cam Perna.

One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. – Proverbs 11:24

I am extraordinarily fortunate.

I am a man born in the United States in 1994, four generations after my ancestors immigrated to Boston from Italy and Ireland. I am able-bodied and able-minded. I am a son of two loving parents who, through tireless work, transcended their lower-class upbringings and have been married for 36 years. I am a brother to three amazing siblings. I am a product of a township that valued education, athletics, community, and service. I am a graduate from the University of Notre Dame with a dual-degree and no student debt. I am fortunate to have worked and lived in London, San Francisco, and Miami at the young age of 26.

The difficult sacrifices of my ancestors, parents, and mentors have tread an easier path for me. All my life, I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants and seen far. I cannot adequately express my gratitude for that.

My family’s story fulfills the American promise as coined by James Truslow Adams in his 1931 publication, The Epic of America—a covenant in which the lives of my ancestors and my parents should be better and richer and fuller than those before them in accordance with their ability and their achievement.

The words from the Gospel according to Luke spring to mind: “To whom much is given, much is required.” 

What, then, does the American covenant require? Moreover, given my parents defined their better and richer and fuller lives as happier and wealthier and more acquisitive, what is a proper definition of my American dream?

I am in a privileged position to ask such questions. I know this, and I write this piece as an appeal to others like me. While each of our stories are unique, we all must decide what type of life we are called to live.

Imagery by Zoe Rain. All rights reserved.

Where are we?

Stories like mine are increasingly prevalent with the passage of time in capitalist societies. 

Take a look around you. The screen you see, the clothes you wear, the food you consume, the shelter you enjoy, the transportation you use, and nearly every other market-based good within and without your line of sight has been conceived, erected, and delivered by American capitalism. In a sense, Gordon Gekko’s words may appear justifiable: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms—greed for life, for money, for love, for knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind.”As a card-carrying capitalist, it’s vital that I acknowledge the utility of humanity’s upward surge before combatting Gekko’s defense of greed.

While far from perfect, capitalism appears to be the most effective system yet devised for instigating, sustaining, and democratizing economic prosperity. Capitalism seems to work most broadly when competence (think intelligence, conscientiousness, emotional quotient, and integrity) is maximally correlated with one’s ascent in a hierarchy, not power or unearned preference (think bribery, nepotism, and favoritism). In short, a just capitalist system seeks to compensate agents in accordance with their competence, which agents seek to demonstrate through their efficiency and output quality within a market-based good or service. One need only read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago to understand the corruption, suffering, starvation, and massacre that occurs when unjust hierarchies of power supplant just hierarchies of competence.

As proof of this system’s power, the percentage of the global population living in abject poverty (living on less than $1.90 per day in today’s currency) fell from over 80% in 1800 to less than 10% in 2015 (Source: Center for Economic and Policy Research). According to a 2020 study from The Heritage Foundation, even our nation’s industrious poor possess far more than the all-too-forgotten poor of decades past:

The average American family or single person, identified as poor by the Census Bureau [i.e., living on less than approximately $31,000 for a family of five with three children or $13,300 for a single individual under the age of 65], lives in an air-conditioned, centrally heated house or apartment that is in good repair and not overcrowded. They have a car or truck (indeed, 43% of poor families own two or more). The home has at least one widescreen TV connected to cable, satellite, or a streaming service, a computer or tablet with internet connection, and a smartphone (some 82% of poor families have one or more smartphones). By their own report, the average poor family had enough food to eat throughout the prior year. No family member went hungry for even a single day due to a lack of money for food. They have health insurance (either public or private) and were able to get all “necessary medical care and prescription medication” when needed.

To our detriment, it seems our pandemic response has maximized the prosperity of asset owners at the expense of the common man.

We mustn’t take these realities for granted (I suggest re-reading them). They are absolute miracles of progress.

Before continuing, I’d like to make this aside: It is true that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken the top 10% of our population upward while dragging the remaining 90% downward economically. At its best, capitalism wields competition to maximize prosperity, endowing the prosperous with a responsibility to be empathetic and uplifting to the common man. To our detriment, it seems our pandemic response has maximized the prosperity of asset owners at the expense of the common man. We cannot figure out how to keep our public schools open for working class parents and one in three Americans may not be able to pay their rent by year-end. At the same time, real estate and equity markets, America’s two largest asset classes, are at all-time highs, with the top 10% owning 80% of those assets by value. In the absence of our most prosperous citizens feeling duty-bound to buttress our common men in a time of maximal need, capitalism may prove unstable. A fear of uncertainty certainly does not absolve this obligation, as charity is most necessary in such times.

Returning to our topic, it’s worthwhile to support these qualitative and quantitative claims with an illustrative representation of capitalistic growth. Since my birth year, productivity in the business sector has increased 60%.

Our constant drive to accomplish more and more has made it impossible to experience life completely, ushering in an ominous, perpetual feeling of dissatisfaction

Yet an honest inventory of my classmates and peers—high-achieving academics, consultants, computer scientists, doctors, educators, engineers, entrepreneurs, investors, lawyers, politicians, and salesmen—will showcase men and women alike with more degrees and access to technology working longer hours than their counterparties from one score ago. 

The psychological literature illustrates that these productivity gains may not accrue to the worker. In fact, a lack of purpose and free time many of my peers feel in their chosen craft suggests that they serve the productivity; the productivity doesn’t serve them. Leaving aside for now the issues of student debt or nominal wage growth, millennials exhibit the highest rates of depression, burnout, and loneliness (Source: Pew Research Center).

It is illogical that more productive work begets more work or the same work with a similar lack of fulfilment. It saddens me, too, that so many feel isolated despite rising urbanization and digital connectivity lending near-instant access to countless persons. It appears as though our constant drive to accomplish more and more has made it impossible to experience life completely, ushering in an ominous, perpetual feeling of dissatisfaction.

Lake Travis, TX. Chie Endo Imagery.

What did we forget?

Let’s begin with a recollection of three foundational truths that nearly all high-achieving millennials seem to forget.

The first relates to emotional well-being and life evaluation. Emotional well-being can be conceptualized as the pleasantness of one’s daily experience, whereas life evaluation is better thought of as one’s general satisfaction with their life when they reflect on it. Based upon Gallup surveys, life evaluation increases with greater income, yet the strength of one’s health, relationships, and education are far stronger correlates. In addition, there is zero incremental benefit to emotional well-being from an individual earning more than $75,000 of annual income.

Therefore, one may be able to maximize their emotional well-being and life evaluation by working to sustain that level of annual income, investing their surplus energy and time to enrich their health, relationships, and knowledge rather than to earn a higher income at the expense of such things.

The second stems from the illusory promise of financial independence. Michael Norton, the Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, studied the happiness of individuals with a net worth exceeding $1 million. Based on 2,000 interviews, he observed that participants up-and-down the wealth spectrum routinely claimed they would be “perfectly happy” if they could just have “two or three times as much.” 

Even if our first truth wasn’t sufficient enough a warning, take heed that attempts to purchase happiness have proven as futile as holding water in our hands; no matter how much water is poured over, our hands run dry.

The third has proven subtle and insidious. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, two schools of thought emerged around consumption. The first came from Ernst Engel in Saxony. He fathered Engel’s Law in 1857, which observed that a family spent a smaller proportion of their income on food as their income rose. He hoped that less spending on food would facilitate increased expenditures on personal improvement and social welfare. A second American school offered a contrary perspective. In 1889, Simon Patten, the chair of the Wharton School of Business, contended that Americans should enjoy their newfound surplus of wealth through consumption. In fact, they had a right to luxury and needn’t restrain the impulse. Why not embrace materialism and pursue pleasure, showcasing our prosperity while signaling our fidelity to industry for all to admire?

We forgot that man is not a solitary being, where consumption is a solitary practice.

When we unironically embrace such a sentiment, which now we do more feverishly and publicly than ever, we pridefully deny a universal axiom founded through millennia of human striving, conflict, and moral refinement. Namely, that desire—for pleasure, for material wealth, and for eternal acclaim, all of which can never be satisfied on Earth—and ignorance are the root of suffering. Alasdair MacIntyre, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, succinctly summarized the danger of this prideful denial in service of want:

The rising standard of material prosperity in capitalist economies… [educates or rather miseducates agents] to believe that what they should aim at and hope for is not what they deserve, but whatever they may happen to want. The attempt is to get them to regard themselves primarily as consumers whose practical and productive activities are no more than a means to consumption. What constitutes success in life becomes a matter of the successful acquisition of consumer goods, and thereby that acquisitiveness which is so often a character trait necessary for success in capital accumulation is further sanctioned. Unsurprisingly pleonexia, the drive to have more and more, becomes treated as a central virtue.

The hubris of the West reduced man’s primary identity to consumer. One may even understand such a misguided reduction. After all, the economic struggle for subsistence has been our central concern from the beginning of humankind, molding our instinctual need to triumph over hunger and poverty. Perhaps, even, we hold fast to the ideology that humans must engage in this Sisyphean struggle even after our satiation and wealth has resolved the economic problem of survival, lest we rob mankind of our essential human condition.

Chicago, IL. Imagery by Zoe Rain.

In our ideology, we fixed our eyes on the relative, pathological need to capture an unattainable “more.” We simply had to forget our absolute, gratifying need for subsistence—for cherishing our suitable livelihoods—so we did.

In so doing, we forgot that man is not a solitary being, where consumption is a solitary practice. We forgot that man’s worth comes not from money, where consumption trumpets a monetary hierarchy. We forgot that man cannot live by bread alone, where consumption promises that it alone can satisfy. Worst of all, we forgot that avarice is the cardinal vice, hurriedly swallowing that insatiable tapeworm called consumption.

For those who find the assessment too harsh, let’s catalog a few vicious realities. Today, executives and investors place the interests of shareholders before the interests of stakeholders; politicians largely demonstrate a greater appetite for entertaining lobbyists than for public service; provided they signal virtuous beliefs, it is in good taste rather than bad that a family resides in a mansion, drives luxurious cars, hosts lavish parties, and owns a private jet or yacht or both; actors, musicians, and athletes are revered as credible voices on cultural questions, not our greatest academic or literary minds; and our nation’s youth spend unending hours contributing to and lusting after online virality while sustaining their ignorance on topics of philosophy, theology, world history, and literature. 

It appears as though the “goods life” has become our idol, usurping the forgotten deity of the “good life.” How could these realities be acceptable otherwise?

Perhaps we should have studied Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s prophetic words in A World Split Apart more carefully, but we happily forgot them, too:

When the modern Western States were created, the following principle was proclaimed: governments are meant to serve man, and man lives to be free to pursue happiness… During past decades technical and social progress has permitted the realization of such aspirations: the welfare state. Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness, in the morally inferior sense which has come into being during those same decades. In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to obtain them imprints many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings. Active and tense competition permeates all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development. The individual’s independence from many types of state pressure has been guaranteed; the majority of people have been granted well-being to an extent their fathers and grandfathers could not even dream about; it has become possible to raise young people according to these ideals, leading them to physical splendor, happiness, possession of material goods, money and leisure, to an almost unlimited freedom of enjoyment. So who should now renounce all this, why and for what should one risk one’s precious life in defense of common values?… 

Even biology knows that habitual extreme safety and well-being are not advantageous for a living organism. Today, well-being in the life of Western society has begun to reveal its pernicious mask.

In the West, we’ve answered the economic problem of survival and unlocked historic comfort. Still many of my peers strive for evermore economic means, implying these means may be a conduit to fulfillment. In the absence of such fulfillment, we must argue against economic means as the currency on which a “good life” can be built.

Imagery by Chie Endo.

What do we need to remember?

In his masterwork Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl rightly depicts the will to money and will to pleasure of the “goods life”—those brutish forms of the will to power that compensate for a suppressed will to meaning—as the mask evoked by Solzhenitsyn concealing humankind’s existential vacuum:

The existential vacuum is a widespread phenomenon of [our] century. This is understandable; it may be due to a twofold loss which man has had to undergo since he became a truly human being. At the beginning of human history, man lost some of the basic animal instincts in which an animal’s behavior is imbedded and by which it is secured. Such security, like Paradise, is closed to man forever; man has to make choices. In addition to this, however, man has suffered another loss in his more recent development inasmuch as the traditions which buttressed his behavior are now rapidly diminishing. No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do.

Our instinctual transcendence must be celebrated insofar as we found our human will. Implicit in our will is our ability to conceptualize the future.  With foresight, our ancestors’ refusal to eat seeds in the winter, prepare fields in the spring, and work patiently in the cruel summer yielded plentiful fall harvests. The harvest not only fed them, but provided the seeds for the subsequent crop.

Out of the agricultural tradition came the religious tenant of eternal life. The seed is born, grows, dies, and births more seeds. Humankind came to understand the power of this tenant, harnessing compound interest to remove humans from the field to the city. In time, humans grew in their comfort but shrank in their intimacy with tradition.

Rid of their animalistic instinct and separated from tradition, humans relied on themselves to secure comfort. Our labor brought about its surplus. Yet can purpose be found in comfort? Can an organism grow without hardship? Are we truly human if we construct a future free from struggle, where striving is unnecessary?

I believe we are human in accordance with our striving—first for survival, then for purpose. A life is not a life otherwise, as Fyodor Dostoevsky rightly theorized: “Shower upon [man] every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes, and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then… he will desire to retain… men still are men and not the keys of a piano.”

In possession of sufficient means to satisfy all economic needs, we nevertheless retain our necessity for existential fulfillment. Thus, it is self-evident that our permanent problem is not of economics but of meaning.

Man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.

So, what do we need to remember? We must remember the “good life” and how one may pursue it. I do not regard myself as an authority worthy of defining the “good life.” Yet I know of no better framing than by the words of the author with whom we began this section:

Man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus, logotherapy (from the Greek logos) sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence…

By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the meaning of his life, [the] true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche… The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself… Self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence…

We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways. [First,] by creating a work or doing a deed… [Second,] by experiencing something—such as goodness, truth, and beauty—by experiencing nature and culture, or, last but not least, by experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness—by loving him… [Finally,] we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement…

Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

The “good life” is a simple, contemplative state. It is content—not complacent—liberated from unsatisfiable wants, consumptive obsessions, and a need for power. It is conscious to live each moment’s reality freely. It is grateful for life’s small moments, opportunities, and trials. It is a life that finds intensity and purpose in its acts of creation, its relationships filled with love, as well as its adoption of responsibility in the face of suffering and hardship. 

The way to live fully is to live without excess and to live for others; fullness comes from the good, not from goods.

Imagery by Zoe Rain. 

My New American Dream: Better and Richer and Fuller

I do not intend these reflections to be a condemnation of my ancestor’s American dream nor an advocation for abstinence from consumption. Rather, I offer them as an invitation to author a new livelihood. 

My new livelihood began early last year. I found myself in the ever-elusive “dream job” as a banker in San Francisco. Despite an income that provided for all my needs and wants, the work consumed my life and lacked purpose. I could not serve any gods beyond the acclaim of our firm’s partners. 

Faced with a complete absence of energy, agency, and meaning, I cannot describe my disillusionment when the two people I respect most said my desire to quit was self-indulgent. After all, I’d worked tirelessly to start my career on such a positive note, many would kill for my seat, and I could seize the supposed American dream.

I embraced a decidedly different worldview. I felt then and believe still that the most self-indulgent decision would have been to stay, stewarding my time, energy, and talent for my sole enrichment.

I quit.

I have an obligation to pay forward the undeserved fortune of my life.

In so doing, I acknowledged that I cannot choose to whom, where, and when I was born; I can choose what to do with my abilities and what accomplishments I pursue. I had a right to stay in San Francisco and chase the dollar. Greater still, I have an obligation to pay forward the undeserved fortune of my life, providing to the best of my ability the same or greater opportunity to those for whom the American dream seems far away.

Given my starting point, I hope to make better and richer and fuller—those longings of Adams’ American dream—mean more than a happier and wealthier and consumptive life.

Better must mean a life where I pursue responsibility for myself and for others rather than happiness.

Richer must mean a life where the ownership of time, freedom of mobility, inspiration of creation, fullness of energy, soundness of mind, and completeness of health are the dominant currencies.

Fuller must mean a life overflowing with shared wisdom, love-filled relationships, awe-inducing experience, and contentment with the present.

That’s my new American dream. What’s yours?

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