|Is Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, happy?
The Declaration of Independence says we have the unalienable right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." We all want to be happy, don't we? Does anyone want to be sad and miserable? But what does it mean to be happy?
The word comes from Middle English and ironically it's linked to luck. Etymonline writes this about happy:
late 14c., "lucky, favored by fortune, being in advantageous circumstances, prosperous;" of events, "turning out well," from hap (n.) "chance, fortune" + -y (2). Sense of "very glad" first recorded late 14c. Meaning "greatly pleased and content" is from 1520s. Old English had eadig (from ead "wealth, riches") and gesælig, which has become silly. Old English bliðe "happy" survives as blithe. From Greek to Irish, a great majority of the European words for "happy" at first meant "lucky." An exception is Welsh, where the word used first meant "wise."
So are those "out of luck" or "down on their luck" destined to be unhappy? Are only those in "advantageous circumstances" or "prosperous" the most likely to be happy? And what exactly does it mean to be in "advantageous circumstances" or to be "prosperous." Are those qualities measured by the size of your bank account or the number of homes you own or the type of vacations you can afford to take?
If that's the case, then Bill and Melinda Gates are among the happiest people on the planet. In view of their allegedly acrimonious split, one might suspect that money really can't buy happiness. And then there's Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon. As the richest man in the world, he smiles a lot. He certainly looks happy in many photos. Meanwhile he squeezes every ounce of work out of his employees who accuse him of treating them like robots.
Author Emily Guendelsberger worked at Amazon while researching her book, On the Clock: What Low Wage Work Did to Me and How it Drives America Insane. Here's what she wrote of her experience at Amazon:
Technology has enabled employers to enforce a work pace with no room for inefficiency, squeezing every ounce of downtime out of workers’ days. The scan gun I used to do my job was also my own personal digital manager. Every single thing I did was monitored and timed. After I completed a task, the scan gun not only immediately gave me a new one but also started counting down the seconds I had left to do it.
It also alerted a manager if I had too many minutes of “Time Off Task.” At my warehouse, you were expected to be off task for only 18 minutes per shift–mine was 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.–which included using the bathroom, getting a drink of water or just walking slower than the algorithm dictated, though we did have a 30-minute unpaid lunch. It created a constant buzz of low-grade panic, and the isolation and monotony of the work left me feeling as if I were losing my mind. Imagine experiencing that month after month.
This is the kind of thing that gives capitalism a bad name. Is Jeff Bezos with his reputation for greed and abuse of his employees really happy? In a 2010 commencement speech at Princeton he shared a story about his grandparents that resulted in his grandfather telling him, "Jeff, one day you'll understand that it's harder to be kind than clever." While he spouted his grandfather's advice, he was treating his massive number of employees with anything but kindness. In his advice to the graduates, he had the gall to say:
"Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure?... Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?... When you are 80 years old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you have made. In the end, we are our choices. Build yourself a great story. Thank you and good luck!
This coming from a man who made his phenomenal wealth by treating his workers with anything but kindness. They are cogs in his well-oiled money machine. Amazon is the U.S. version of the Chinese sweat shop! His employees engage in the 2021 version of pickin' cotton.
Is Jeff Bezos happy? Perhaps in the worldly sense described by the etymology of the word he is. He's certainly "prosperous" materially. Was Dives happy in the parable? Maybe before death. But Jesus makes it clear he was anything but happy when he met Father Abraham.
Is it possible to be rich, kind, and happy? Of course! There are many saints who illustrate it: King Louis IX of France, Queen Margaret of Scotland, St. Katherine Drexel, and St. Rose Duchesne are among them. Wealth is not necessarily an impediment to happiness, but, as Jesus warned, it is hard for the rich man to be saved. Those with the "lucky" happenstance of living in "advantageous circumstances" who become prosperous may experience a very temporary kind of happiness. What are 80-100 years of lucky living in the light of eternity? What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?
So what does it mean to be truly happy? I'll explore that in tomorrow's post.