Should one live to work or work to live?
That question sits at the nexus of the Protestant ethic, economic prosperity, and life abundant.
On the one hand, economic development and prosperity depend upon a future orientation, optimism, delayed gratification, frugality, and hard work. Culture Matters, edited by Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington (New York: Basic Books, 2000), explores the necessity of those values for economic development and prosperity.
I've been both poor (as a married student living well below the poverty level) and affluent (in my last years working and in retirement). Affluence undoubtedly enables a more enjoyable and fuller life, an assessment that studies of human happiness consistently support.
On the other hand, money is not everything. Sages – Aristotle, Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, and many others – teach that real happiness is not a function of wealth. These sages may disagree with one another about the source(s) of happiness, but all emphasize that wealth is not synonymous with happiness. Indeed, many of them teach that wisdom is life's real treasure.
Sadly, expecting that everyone – even if they share the values identified by Harrison and Huntington as essential – will achieve financial independence is unrealistic. However, many more people, than presently do, can achieve a reasonable measure of financial independence by rejecting Western materialistic, consumption driven culture. Having more things is not better or an assurance of a happier, more abundant life. Developing a frugal lifestyle is difficult unless one realistically believes and expects that s/he can build a better future.
Instead, true wealth consists of the quality, depth, and breadth of one's relationships, the wisdom that one acquires, and the gifts of self that one makes. Art and ideas potentially enrich life far more than what they may cost to acquire.
The Jewish scriptures (and thus the Christian scriptures) explicitly teach that a human's days are numbered. Life abundant seems to consist of spending part of one's life working to live, i.e., living and working with a future orientation, practicing delayed gratification through frugal living, hoping to enjoy a subsequent chapter in life that is less about work and more about those activities that truly give life meaning and richness.
Advent is a good time to pause, assess one's attitudes and values, and then to align one's actions to match those attitudes and values:
- What gives you the most pleasure (happiness, abundance) in life? Can you change your life to increase your experience of that pleasure?
- Do you look to the past, present, or future for happiness?
- Do you expect the future to be worse, similar to, or better than the past?
- Do you work to live or live to work?
- How much money do you really require to live well?
- What steps are you taking to build that wealth? In what ways, large and small, can you defer or not spend money, perhaps delaying gratification, to enable a more abundant future?