One of the most deeply rooted symbols in people’s imagination today is the association between happiness and wealth with its many derivatives (consumerism, power and accumulation). Even when the dream is never realized, the conviction remains that it is the lesser evil. As Woody Allen says, “If money can’t make us happy, forget about poverty.”
Nevertheless, throughout history we see how the unhindered pursuit of profit is the cause of humanity’s worst evils. Daniel Bell, in his cutting analysis of capitalist culture, shows the radical antithesis between the inclination toward personal profit, a fruit of the industrial mindset, and the decisions oriented toward the common good, which is indispensable for society. Such an irresolvable contradiction is the basis of ever worsening economic crises, among which the most blaring was that of 2008 when a very small number of the very rich became even richer at the expense of an always poorer multitude. But the worst thing is that these very few super-rich do not understand that they have opened an abyss into which they themselves risk falling.
Joseph Stiglitz, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2001 after showing that a large part of the wealth in the USA is concentrated in the hands of one percent of the population, comments: “Those who are part of the first one percent have the most beautiful houses, the best education, the best doctors, and the most comfortable style of life, but there is one thing that money does not seem to have bought: the understanding that their destiny is tied to that of the other 99 percent of existence. As history shows, this is something that the first one percent will understand in the end. Often, however, they learn too late.”
What interests us in this regard is, above all, to uncover the reason for which the association between riches and happiness is so resistant to every possible refutation, notwithstanding all the contrary evidence. Paraphrasing Descartes, one may affirm that if modern people have learned to doubt everything, they have never doubted the almighty dollar: this is the highest truth, a clear and distinct idea, a foundation stone of the edifice of Western societies.
But why is such an association so resistant to every possible denial?
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