Spiritual Snake Oil

Would you rather have everything, or would you rather have nothing?
Ask any five-year-old this question, and 9.8625 times out of 10 you will receive a “Yes! Who wouldn’t?”


This question is not nearly that black and white. If it were, there would not be entire world religions centered around it. In essence, this is the topic Siddhartha Gautama (AKA The Buddha) pondered: if neither self-starvation nor lavish indulgence brings happiness, then does happiness exist? I’m no philosopher, but I believe, as Buddha came to believe, that happiness is best achieved when little is desired beyond that which makes life comfortable. Unfortunately, this beautifully simple worldview is nearly impossible in today’s commercialized society. Big Business ® is far less concerned with happiness than it is with turning a profit; in fact, an ad’s sole purpose is to create desire in the consumer’s heart. Sadly, since the Advertising Industry ® is so lucrative, people dedicate their whole lives to making others feel worse about themselves, compelling them to pay a price, both physical and emotional, in order to obtain their fix of happiness. For example, a handful of advertisements for New Cosmetic Grooming Products ® in the early twentieth century are the basis upon which the Unattainable Beauty Standards ® women are taught to pursue exist today. But, I digress. Somewhere in between the two — surely– happiness can be found… right?

Esteemed nineteenth century intellectual Henry David Thoreau explained happiness as saving “on the low levels [of it] to spend on the high.” In other words, trivial things, such as many consumer products, distract us from truer, less tangible forms of joy. Spending eight dollars daily on your Starbuck’s ® will not bring you anything near the indescribable combination of pride, humility, and love found in giving them a thoughtful gift.

To me, the fact that there is something called “buyer’s remorse” highlights a fundamental flaw in our society: we know that real happiness is not found in buying random crap the pursuit of items, and yet we refuse to stop buying them.

John Ciardi recognizes the fallacy of our consumerist culture, and he elegantly proposes that we continue to take part in the consumerist festivities — so long as we do not lose sight of the intangible joys of life. Too often we sell out for temporary joys, eventually feeling that terrifying sensation of missing out on some bigger goal: some realer, higher level of satisfaction. 

I am proud to say that I have integrated the teachings of multiple philosophies and religions into my own life philosophy, but I cannot say that I adhere to it well; I also cannot say that adherence to said philosophy is feasible, comfortable, convenient, fun, or any other descriptor of the type. However, I long for the day that I can look back and say, ” I might not have had everything I could’ve wanted, but, hey, at least I was happy.” 

I hope I see that day. 

I hope you do, too.



Read John Ciardi's Essay "What Is Happiness?" by clicking here.

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