Without a doubt, the standard of living has improved since the industrial revolution, particularly for many in the West.
There was a time not long ago that phones, color TVs and cars were only for the rich, and the poor could only dream of having them. But now even poor people in developed nations own cell phones, color TVs and computers.
Even children from poor or rich families, as early as the age of three or four, have cell phones and assorted sophisticated electronic toys. Of course, the adults also have their toys: aeroplanes, ride-on lawn mowers, boats and motorcycles.
The sad part about all these expensive toys: you do not have to have money to buy them, because you can get a loan. With all our material possessions, we have come to believe we are better off than before, and that we have improved the material quality of life. We think that acquiring more possessions will make us feel happier and more comfortable—but unbridled acquisition only starves the soul and makes us less and less happy. Our souls feel trapped in the clutter of material goods. The Baha’i teachings tell us:
“All around us today we see how man surrounds himself with every modern convenience and luxury and denies nothing to the physical and material side of his nature. But, take heed, lest in thinking too earnestly of the things of the body you forget the things of the soul: for material advantages do not elevate the spirit of a man. Perfection in worldly things is a joy to the body of a man but in no wise does it glorify his soul.”
– Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 62-63.
If we use happiness as a criterion, many of us have begun to realize that in spite of our higher standard of living, we are less happy than people were before. Why? Perhaps because the more we have, the harder we have to work to maintain that standard of living—and the more we work, the less time and energy we have to nurture our minds and our souls through meditation, reading books, playing music, painting, spending time with family and friends, and helping others. Those things can bring us true happiness, as Abdu’l-Baha explains:
“If man is bereft of the divine bestowals and if his enjoyment and happiness are restricted to his material inclinations, what distinction or difference is there between the animal and himself? In fact, the animal’s happiness is greater, for its wants are fewer and its means of livelihood easier to acquire. Although it is necessary for man to strive for material needs and comforts, his real need is the acquisition of the bounties of God. If he is bereft of divine bounties, spiritual susceptibilities and heavenly glad tidings, the life of man in this world has not yielded any worthy fruit. While possessing physical life, he should lay hold of the life spiritual, and together with bodily comforts and happiness, he should enjoy divine pleasures and content. “
– Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 335.
Almost all agree that our current economic system provides more goods and money—but having more may not necessarily be the best. The philosophy of “more is better” has led to a mentality of acquiring as many material goods as possible. That mentality has created a sickness in society that measures achievements by having more possessions and disregards the emotional and spiritual aspects of one’s life.
This lack of spirituality is the root cause of most of the problems in the world, and Baha’is are encouraged to introduce spirituality in any way possible into their economic activities. This can be as simple as saying a prayer for the poor, or as grand as initiating a multi-billion dollar project to eliminate poverty or eradicate disease. It could be by paying fair prices, avoiding wastage, being honest in insurance claims or giving to charitable funds.
Some mistake a higher standard of living for prosperity. To have more does not translate into being happier. According to the Legatum Prosperity Index, prosperity:
Is a home to grow, to raise a family, a community where we belong, is people who care.
Is compassion and generosity, is health, is education, is truth and integrity, in politics, in media, in business. Is peace and safety.Is an opportunity to work, to earn, to save, to get ahead, to innovate, to take risks, to succeed (or fail).
Is freedom from hunger, disease, slavery, poverty, conflict, to speak our minds, to vote, to follow our beliefs. Is hope, space to breath and time to recharge and recreate.
Is becoming the best I can be and helping others to be the best they can be.
Baha’is believe in true prosperity, and are aware of its greatest threat:
“… true prosperity, the fruit of a dynamic coherence between the material and spiritual requirements of life, will recede further and further out of reach as long as consumerism continues to act as opium to the human soul.”
– The Universal House of Justice, 2 March 2013.
The question remains: do we want a higher standard of living at any cost, or do we want true prosperity for ourselves and for all? The decision is ours, and the price to pay is ours, too.