Scarcely Happy

Brent Grothe · January 3, 2018

“There’s just not enough to go around,” is a common statement from people afflicted with a scarcity mentality. Financially, such people hoard personal items, pinch pennies, compare themselves to others who they perceive as having more “stuff,” and are envious of others for having that “stuff.” My dad, raised in the Great Depression, made a habit out of turning off lights in the house, even if you were in the room at the time, and even taught me how to use just two squares of toilet paper per sitting, as unseemly and irrational as that may be. But I understand him - he was raised on a farm with very little and had to make do with less rather than more. He raised five children on a small income and we didn't suffer a bit for it - but we did learn the scarcity mentality, at least I know I did. I’ve had to unlearn it by adopting an abundance mentality - it’s been difficult to do, but the purse strings are loosening up and I’m much more relaxed with money and things, with “stuff’ - not foolish with spending, but more generous and rational. Money, or the lack of such, doesn't have a grip on me like it used to have when I was first married and hanging on to every dime. However, my most critical scarcity battle hasn’t been fought with money; it’s being fought right now in the high school classroom where I teach, on the battlefield of relationships.

Here’s the problem: all my students just want to be happy but very few, if any of them, can define what true happiness is all about. Most of them live their lives on the first two levels of four levels of happiness as defined by Aristotle - the first being Laetus, happiness derived from the immediate gratification of consuming material objects. My students, once they understand this somewhat obscure Laetus thing, often come to the conclusion that they do indeed attempt to find happiness through consuming - whatever that consumption might be. The alarming aspect of this is that human beings also fall into the category of “things” and, as a result many, if not all, of their relationships are consumer relationships. They use people for their own gratification by failing to realize that “people were created to be loved and things were created to be used.” Instead, they love things, and for good reason - they think that things will make them happy. More things equals more happiness. And so people become things to be used in order to be happy. All of this confusion creates a scarcity mentality - there’s just not enough stuff to go around - not enough pizza, not enough recognition, not enough physical intimacy, not enough love, not enough friends, not enough likes on Facebook, not doesn’t end.



What this leads to is the deadly second level of Aristotle’s happiness, namely Felix, the happiness of comparative advantage, of ego satisfaction. Father Robert Spitzer, who refined the model of the Four Levels of Happiness, says the focus of Felix is to keep “comparative advantage over others,” to keep “power and control.” It’s a roller coaster ride of constant comparison for my students; if someone has more than them - better grades, prettier looks, a nicer car, fashionable clothes, bigger muscles, more popularity, or even a more stable family - then they feel unhappy, inferior, bitter, resentful. There’s just not enough to go around. If, however, they compare themselves and think they have more than others, then they feel happy, superior, and even arrogant - and they’re not sharing because, you’ve got it, there’s just not enough to go around. But there’s always someone with more and always someone with less - and so the comparisons go on ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

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So the glass is half empty, it never gets filled, and there’s never enough - even though popular media promises happiness through consuming. And so girls become more anxious, boys become more angry, more people get used, and nobody seems very happy at all - in fact, depression escalates and social problems multiply. What now? Aristotle proposes, along with Spitzer, that the third level of happiness, Beatitudo - the happiness of seeing the good in others and doing good for others, contains the beginnings of some answers. This abundance mentality changes the whole game for my students - they stop comparing (which they admittedly despise in themselves), stop consuming, and begin giving. They move away from the neurosis of taking and into the joy of giving - as Erich Fromm put it, “The essential difference between the unhappy, neurotic type person and him of great joy is the difference between get and give.” They begin to understand that if they live for things or for advantage, that there will never be enough and that they’ll never be good enough. They learn, as Brene’ Brown so aptly put it, that “I am enough.” They discover that they don’t need to consume or compare in order to be happy, to be enough. What they excitedly discover is that they have an enormous capacity for love within their selves and now just need to learn to love, to give, to appreciate, to have gratitude, to see the glass as half full - to live in abundance. They discover that the more love they give, the more love they have. They begin to open up, to be less protective, to be more vulnerable and wholehearted. They discover that their feelings don’t have to control their lives - they act on what they know is true and good rather than on how they feel. They take risks - good, loving risks with others, others that they now see, to quote Martin Buber, as a “thou” rather than as a thing to be used. They consume less and promise more. They make sacrifices for others rather than sacrificing others for personal gain and futile attempts at happiness.

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And what begins to happen to them? They’re happier. Their glass remains at least half full and even begins to overflow into the lives of others. They see that they are enough and that there’s enough to go around. This all takes time - a lifetime, but it’s a lifetime of discovering, in this difficult, often tragic world, that there is joy to be had, a joy that transcends simple happiness, and moves them into the fourth level of happiness - the “fullness of goodness, beauty, truth and love.” It’s difficult to describe, but not nearly as difficult as trying to live in a scarcity mentality, in a life of consuming and comparison. There IS more, much more.

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Brent Grothe

Brent Grothe spends his days challenging high school kids to consider pursuing lives of deep meaning and purpose rather than ones of shallow happiness. He’s been presenting the suffering and joy of servant leadership for a long time and thinks he’s finally, in a real way, understanding it himself. On a never-ending quest to clearly articulate the slavery of ego versus the freedom of humility, he plans to stay in the classroom as a leadership teacher until someone decides to retire him. He’s been involved with activities and Mt. Adams High School Leadership Camp for 40+ years and he still can’t believe he actually gets to teach life for a living while at the same time being blessed with friendships with the likes of Kay Dodge.