Chaplain's thought for the week
Revd Tom considers where we can find real treasure
Imagine that someone gave you one million pounds. What would you do with it? No matter what you spent it on, there’s no doubt that most of us would get an immediate boost of happiness if we were given that amount of money… but how long would that last?
This week I’ve encouraged Senior School pupils to recall a time when they were younger and really badly wanted something, perhaps some toy or game. How happy were they when they received it? How long did the feeling last? Is it still with them now? Or did it fade just like everything else does when we want something and then get it?
Psychologists explain this experience as the hedonic treadmill. They suggest that each of us has a certain ‘set point’ for happiness. When our happiness gets a boost – we receive something we want, or we have a great experience – our happiness levels increase, but not long after we get used to that new thing, take it for granted and our happiness returns to the set point.
So, for example, we get a new smartphone. We have a boost in happiness as we’ve been wanting it for ages and it has loads of amazing new features. We really enjoy it for a while, but it’s not too long until we just accept it as part of our life and take it for granted. After all, pretty much everyone has the same mobile… And then the company bring out a new model and we’re bombarded with adverts about how good it looks and all it can do, and our friend gets one and then we’re desperate for this new one ourselves.
This sort of cycle goes on all of our lives. Why? Because we get used to every new and exciting thing and our set point for happiness just returns to normal. Advertising taps into this feeling: it works hard to make us feel as though our stuff is really old and useless and we need new stuff if we are ever going to be happy. We get trapped in that cycle of wanting more and more.
This is why money is so alluring: we always feel like we want just a little bit more so that we can be happy. Getting more money seems to promise us freedom, a sense of security and the ability to have whatever pleasures we might desire. Research shows that people compare themselves with what they’ve got used to: studies have found that rich people when asked how much income they need, always say they need more than poorer people. They’ve grown used to the amount of money they have. The more we have, the more we get used to it… and we go on wanting more.
Jesus was onto this idea two thousand years ago. He said: ‘Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.’ He’s not just thinking of heaven here as a place you go when you die, but as a symbol of finding a much deeper treasure in life in the here and now. He’s saying: don’t focus on material wealth, because that doesn’t really satisfy, it will only go rusty. Instead, discover the treasure of life in something that will really last.
So if being given a million pounds today wouldn’t bring lasting happiness and satisfaction, then what actually will? I would say that the challenge which each of us face as human beings is to find an answer to this question. Where do we find treasure that moth and rust can destroy? Where can we find treasure which thieves can’t steal?
There’s an old Indian story that once a holy man reached the outskirts of a village and settled under a tree for the night when a villager came up to him and said: ‘The stone! The stone! Give me the precious stone!’
‘What stone?’ asked the holy man.
‘Last night God told me in a dream that if I went to the outskirts of the village at dusk a holy man would give me a stone that would make me rich forever.’
The holy man rummaged in his sack and, pulling out a stone, he said, ‘He probably meant this one. I found it in the forest yesterday. Here, it’s yours if you want it.’
The man gazed at the stone in wonder. It was the largest diamond in the world – the size of a man’s head.
All night he tossed and turned in his bed. At break of day he returned to the holy man, woke him and said: ‘Give me the wealth that makes it possible for you to give this stone away.’