Ebenezer Scrooge is one of Charles Dickens’s most memorable characters—an embodiment of greed and pursuing wealth at the expense of everything else. Scrooge is visited by three spirits who show him images of the past, the present, and a future that might be. In that future, Scrooge is dead, and the spirit allows him to eavesdrop on people’s conversations about him: they’re pleased Scrooge is gone, spiteful at his memory, unrepentant about stealing his things, and relieved that he’s no longer a presence—a curse—in their lives. Scrooge sees the long-term consequences of the decisions he’s made, regrets them, begs for a second chance, and gets an opportunity to change course.*
Scrooge played by society’s scoreboard—the one that amplifies our biological instinct toward hierarchy and leads us to pursue money, status, and power at all costs. But his vision of the long-term future made him realize that none of these things really mattered, that a life lived according to someone else’s scoreboard is not a life worth living. He realized before it was too late that the key to a successful life is good company and meaningful relationships.
The quality of what you pursue determines the quality of your life. We think things like money, status, and power will make us happy, but they won’t. The moment we get them, we’re not satisfied. We just want more. The psychologists Philip Brickman and Donald T. Campbell coined a term for this phenomenon: the hedonic treadmill. Who hasn’t taken a run on it?
Social comparison happens all the time. Sometimes it’s about possessions like houses or cars, but more often it’s about status.
We tell ourselves that the next level is enough, but it never is. The next zero in your bank account won’t satisfy you any more than you are satisfied now. The next promotion won’t change who you are. The fancy car won’t make you happier. The bigger house doesn’t solve your problems. More social media followers won’t make you a better person.
Running on the hedonic treadmill only turns us into what I call “happy-when” people— those who think they’ll be happy when something happens. For example, we’ll be happy when we get the credit we deserve, or happy when we make a bit more money, or happy when we find that special someone. Happiness, however, isn’t conditional.
Happy-when people are never actually happy. The moment they get what they think they want—the “when” part of the conditional—having that thing becomes the new norm, and they automatically want more. It’s as if they’ve walked through a one-way door that closes behind them. Once the door closes, they lose perspective. They can’t see where they’ve been, only where they are.
The way things are now is the way we expect them to be, and we start taking the good things around us for granted. Once that happens, nothing will make us happy. And while we’re busy running on the treadmill chasing after all the things that won’t make us happy, we’re not pursuing the things that really matter.
Scrooge is a fictional example of achieving “success” at the cost of things that really matter. But there are many real examples. I once worked with someone who came to his position running a large company in a way that should be familiar to most of us: with sharp elbows in a hypercompetitive culture. The people he ran into on the way to becoming CEO were only means to help him achieve his ends: he wanted to be wealthy, he wanted to be respected, he wanted people to know his name. He wanted status and recognition.
A while after stepping away, he concluded that he’d been trying to win the wrong game. He’d aimed at achieving wealth, power, and prominence— the goals so many people tell us to pursue. He’d prioritized these goals above all others and pursued them relentlessly. In the end, he got what he thought he wanted. But it left him feeling empty. He achieved what he’d wanted at the expense of having meaningful relationships—which, he came to realize, was something that really mattered. Unlike Scrooge, he got no second chance.
How many of us—at whatever stages of our careers—are on the same trajectory? We value wealth and status more than happiness—the external more than the internal—and we give little thought to how we pursue them. In the process, we end up chasing praise and recognition from people who don’t matter at the expense of people who do.
I’ve known many successful people whose lives I wouldn’t want to have. They had intelligence, they had drive, they had opportunity, and the wherewithal to use them all. But they were missing something else. They knew how to get what they wanted, but the things they wanted weren’t worth wanting. In fact, the things they wanted ended up disfiguring their lives. They were missing what Scrooge gains at the happy turning point of his story—that ingredient that makes the difference between the unhappy masses and the happy few.
The Greeks had a word for this ingredient: “phronesis”—the wisdom of knowing how to order your life to achieve the best results.
When you look back to the decisions you made as a teenager, they probably seem pretty silly now. These decisions didn’t seem stupid at the time so why do they appear so now? Because you have perspective now that was inaccessible to you back then. What seemed like the most important thing in the world at the time—the very thing that consumed you—seems silly now in hindsight.
Wisdom requires all the things we’ve talked about: the ability to keep the defaults in check, to create space for reason and reflection, to use the principles and safeguards that make for effective decisions. But being wise requires more. It’s more than knowing how to get what you want. It’s also knowing which things are worth wanting—which things really matter. It’s as much about saying no as saying yes. We can’t copy the life decisions of other people and expect better results. If we want to live the best life we can, we need a different approach.
Knowing what to want is the most important thing. Deep down, you already know what to do, you just need to follow your own advice. Sometimes, it’s the advice we give other people that we most need to follow ourselves.
More Must-Reads From TIME
- Inside the White House Program to Share America's Secrets
- Meet the 2024 Women of the Year
- East Palestine, One Year After Train Derailment
- The Closers: 18 People Working to End the Racial Wealth Gap
- Long COVID Doesn’t Always Look Like You Think It Does
- Column: The New Antisemitism
- The 13 Best New Books to Read in March
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time