I think we’ve all read E. A. Robinson’s masterful “Richard Cory” poem about a wealthy man, much admired, perhaps envied for his living the good life, who commits suicide.
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
In keeping with the poem’s theme, I recently came across a Federal study published in 2002 that showed that rich neighborhoods have higher rates of suicides than less affluent neighborhoods. This finding may come as a surprise to most people who, like those in the poem, equate wealth with contentment.
The obvious question to ask is why money, possessions, fame and power don’t assure us happiness? The answer is that they fall short in the staying power of simpler values, found largely in ourselves, not things subject to life’s vicissitudes and often paid for with daily stress.
Ironically, having money and all it buys may mask an insecurity, or need for validation, compounding one’s misery.
According to Solberg, Diener, and Robinson, “Why Are Materialists Less Satisfied?” (2004), those values that truly sustain come down to a relative few:
Enjoying a rich relationship with others.
I’d even contend that the four can be reduced to just one, security. Defining security more specifically, what we want most is freedom from anxiety in a world of flux. As Freud might have told us, we’re all children crying in the night. Let’s face it: As human beings we’re possessed by egos that generate our desires and foster our insecurities.
This, of course, may help explain the increasing popularity of meditation to relieve our stress or, better, our fright.
I think Tolstoy, that most moral of writers, gets at the truth in his short story, How Much Land Does a Man Need?:
I would not change my way of life for yours,” said she [to her well off sister]. “We may live roughly, but at least we are free from anxiety. You live in better style than we do, but though you often earn more than you need, you are very likely to lose all you have. You know the proverb, ‘Loss and gain are brothers twain.’ It often happens that people who are wealthy one day are begging their bread the next. Our way is safer. Though a peasant’s life is not a fat one, it is a long one. We shall never grow rich, but we shall always have enough to eat.
Recently I saw Hardy’s magnificent Far From the Madding Crowd at the movies and reread the classic. Observing the reenactment of an agrarian tapestry of defined roles amid resplendent, on locale filming in Dorset, Somersetshire and Oxfordshire (Hardy’s Wessex), I couldn’t help remembering Hardy’s nostalgia for a fast fading bucolic way of life providing security, communal intimacy, and defined roles.
In our own time, in contrast, one only has to read sociologist George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (2013) to see the carnage of our free-fall from those nets of safety intrinsic to daily life.
If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape—the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting” the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition (pp. 12-13).
How much better the simpler life, free of complication with its inherent risk of loss, lived honestly, even if frugally, ample in the extraordinary goodness of family and friends and the joy of pursuing one’s passion.
Ok, so I’m a sentimentalist, I still hold that those times, lived in the plentitude of the simple values I enumerated earlier, provided far more in the way of genuine happiness than today’s stressful, materialistic world that increasingly marginalizes each of us and holds our contentment hostage.