I have been reflecting on the pursuit of happiness, fulfillment, desires and authenticity inspired by one of my favourite songs by Jay-Z, Beach Chair.
In the last two essays; Jay-Z, Beach Chairs and Happiness – II. How being true to you is insufficient for happiness, and Jay-Z, and Beach Chairs, and Happiness – III. The Structure of Happiness in the series I came to the following conclusions.
The ethic of authenticity view, or the self-fulfillment model which says the way to obtain happiness is to look at your desires and follow them; be true to yourself and do not let anything external and outside of you determine what you should pursue to obtain happiness; is inadequate. It assumes a simple view of our desires; how they are formed and how society is pivotal in the formation of our desires and therefore simply following your desires does not guarantee authenticity.
Secondly human beings are teleological; all our actions are orientated towards pursuing and obtaining ultimate happiness. The form and structure of the happiness we seek is a permanent and universally good object; it must be able to satisfy us so completely and fully that no other thing beyond it could be desired. It must desires for its own sake and not as a means to something else. It must be universally good so that in every aspect it is good, perfect, complete and not lacking anything.
Now I turn to what happiness consists in. Jay-Z in the song is quite clear on what life is about – a beach chair. Beach chair conjures up images of a luxurious tropical island vacation, filled with excess shopping sprees in between lavish parties on yachts. The kind of vacation possible only through a high level of wealth and success. The beach chair represents wealth and success as the ultimate object of our happiness.
Success, wealth and fame have always been part of hiphop’s narrative of the good life – particularly the more popular mainstream form of hip hop of which the likes of Jay-z have been the paradigmatic cases. From his classic song Dead Presidents where he samples Nas’ “The World is Yours” to the more flamboyant and flashy “Big Pimpin” all the way to the relatively recent “Boss” with Beyoncé. Wealth and success has always been a consistent theme throughout Jay-Z’s music and it should therefore be no surprise that he recently became a billionaire.
Money and wealth in the mainstream hip hop narrative and social imaginary is that it is the ultimate thing and how one gets it is not that important – “By any means necessary” is the slogan often repeated. Hence Jay-Z in many of his albums tends to cast his past as a drug dealer in a favorable and almost heroic light. Often using it to illustrate his chief virtue of being a hustler; “please don’t compare me to rappers, compare me to trappers I’m more Frank Lucas than Ludacris” he says in his song No hook from the album American Gangster. Frank Lucas ofcourse was an American drug trafficker in the 60’s and 70’s whose life was depicted by Denzel Washington in the film American Gangster. Other notable rappers have also often cast drug dealers as heroes. Nas’ classic song “The world is yours” pays homage to the film Scarface, which is about a Cuban refugee who works his way up to become a wealthy drug dealer. The underlying vision of the good life implicit is that the ultimate and highest good in life is getting money; and how you obtain it does not matter – whether through selling drugs, or selling music – the important thing is getting money because that is where happiness; the highest and ultimate good which is able to perfectly satisfy the human soul, is found.
A major deficiency with the beach chair way of life is that it is difficult to see how it fits in with a life of character and virtue. There is something deeply lacking in a model of ultimate happiness that excludes the formation of virtue, good habits, dispositions and the proper regulation and harmony of our emotions. It would be deeply troubling to say that a life ruled by vices such as envy, lust, pride and anger is a perfectly good and happy life for as long as one has money. It would be disturbing to say that a life ruled by treating others as means to an end; a life filled with coercion, manipulation and violence; a life where your ends are achieved at the detriment and destruction of others – is the highest form of human flourishing attainable for as long as one has money.
The second obvious flaw about wealth and money as the source of ultimate happiness is that we do not desire money for its own sake but rather as means to obtain other things we desire. Money falls short of being the ultimate and highest good in a number of essential ways. Money is never actually desired for its own sake but as means to other things. So then, happiness lies not in obtaining money per se, but the things which you can purchase with it. Ultimate happiness by definition is that which we desire for its own sake, never as a means to another thing.
Recall in my last essay, I argued that our desire for ultimate happiness is for a universally good object; something that is good in every possible aspect, lacking nothing and having no undesirable parts. The paradox with the hip hop narrative about money, success and beach chairs; is that although it continuously sets it as the ultimate object of our happiness it also recognizes at the same time its deficiencies and problems. Who can forget Biggie’s Mo Money Mo Problems with that unforgettable hook about how “It’s like the more money we come across, the more problems we see”. Coldplay’s remix of Lost featuring Jay-Z, has him lamenting on the pitfalls of success and fame: “With the same sword they knight you, they gon good night you with”; he further goes on to describe success as suicide warning us to “prepare to be crucified”. So then that money and success are deficient in some aspects means they fail to fulfill the condition we desire in our pursuit of happiness.
The last shortcoming with money, which is implicit in the fact that money is used to purchase other things; is the idea then that happiness consists not in obtaining one perfectly satisfying object; but in obtaining a basket of material goods determined by each person. But then that would mean we are now back to the old story about happiness being subjective. An idea I spilled considerable ink on trying to show why I think it does not hold water. It is important to note that the material goods which we can purchase with money; such as clothes, shelter, food, vacations are good things to aim towards, however they cannot provide the ultimate happiness we seek. The human heart desires what is perfectly and universally good and material things fall short of this. The satisfaction from material things is always temporary and so we end up having to either find more of the material goods or trying to find novel and unique things. However, the end result is always the same – a temporary alleviation for our affections. In addition to that, material goods have a tolerance effect on us. Once obtained to get a similar satisfaction from it the next time, more of it must be obtained because they do not quench our thirst permanently but only temporarily and even for that short duration which they satisfy us; we quickly realize that the satisfaction delivered is less than what we had anticipated and hoped for.
The satisfaction we obtained from a purchase when we first bought it, soon evaporates with time as we get used to it. This is true of any and every material and temporal good; whether it be a car, private jet, lavish vacations on private islands, the latest sneakers. There is a tolerance effect that happens. The satisfaction we get from those things is not permanent. This leads to a far more deeper and existential problem. There is no feeling that brings greater despair than realizing that the thing you pursued and set your heart on and thought it would bring the deep satisfaction we desperately long for, is simply not enough.
I recall years ago being on vacation on a cruise ship for a week. Sight seeing the most beautiful islands and ports every day with my wife. Exposed to new cultures and histories beyond anything my imagination could conjure up. There was a moment at night as I was over looking the ocean, and as far as the eye could see there was only the great vastness of water. And you could hear the sound of waves crashing and colliding into each other creating a euphonic symphony that could rival the best orchestra. The ship itself was steady and a marvel to look at – a true testimony of the creative power of the human mind. It was dazzling with lights, buzzing with all sorts of entertainment. It was what I imagined paradise would be something like. It was in the middle of all of that when a question suddenly burrowed itself into my head – imagine if you could live like this forever, not having to go to work and being on the grind, would you not be completely happy and satisfied? My heart sank as it answered the question surprisingly and suddenly with an unflinching and resolute no – all of this going on forever would not quench your hunger for ultimate happiness. It would for a period of time provide a lavish and elaborate glimpse or hologram of the real thing – however it would fall short.
CS Lewis being the genius that he is with words, articulates this feeling with an unmatched eloquence.
“Most people, if they have really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we have grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us.”