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85 Is it material?

Word play

When I was in grade school and had a cast on my arm, boys in the class alarmed me describing the machine that cuts off the cast. They said it cuts through the plaster but does not cut through material. Always the scholar, I reminded them that plaster is a material. By the word material they meant cloth.

Today we continue playing games with the word material. To a lawyer, the word means “pertinent to the current case.” A philosopher differentiates between material and spiritual well-being. I combine the meanings to assert that materialism is not material to happiness.

We can be happy if we’re content with what we have. We can achieve satisfaction by performing up to expectations.  If we are not content, we can increase performance or reduce expectations.


There are two influences for making changes. We might want improvement because we are dissatisfied with a current condition. On the other hand, even being satisfied with what we have, we can imagine better. The first attitude is pessimism. The second is motivation.

Achieving satisfaction depends on two factors: accomplishing an objective and perceiving fulfillment of a goal.  Satisfaction is reaching an expectation.


Next, we consider what expectation to have. For example, do I want a piano or the ability to play the piano? Do I want a personal skill or talent for my own use? Do I want personal satisfaction from satisfying others? Do I want satisfaction from beating others? Is there a selfish component to what I want? Articles 21, 22, 36, and 39 provided in depth coverage of questions surrounding our motives, whether they be internal or external, selfish or altruistic. Now applying our magic word of the day, we say that motivation is highly material to achieving satisfaction. It matters what we intend.


In addition to the internal factors such as the goals we set for ourselves, we are also faced with external conditions which may or may not be of our own making. We might have deliberately created our circumstances, or we might simply find ourselves in them.

As suggested above, we can choose between depressing pessimism and motivating optimism.
Article 84 prepared us to recognize that “it depends on what you make of it.” Again, we safely assert that our outlook matters, and attitude is material to outcome.

After showing what is material to our happiness, we turn to the other meaning: physical material or materialism. In contrast, the above paragraphs discuss mental states: appreciation, expectation, intention, perception, attitude.

Physical relevance

The material world does matter. Objects can represent meaning other than materialism. The fire at Notre Dame caused genuine loss to all of humanity. My grieving is not materialism because I did not lose personal property, I had not paid for the cathedral, and I do not have to pay for its rebuilding. The loss is great because the physical object’s significance is its spiritual meaning. Here it is the human values that are material to happiness.

What do you remember about the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City? Some companies lost offices and related assets, but we don’t sense how that affected their prices. We sense the terrible loss of life. People were the great value lost.

As I began tuning pianos over fifty years ago, Bernita Vista, one of the old timers, taught an exemplary business standard: “I don’t service pianos; I service people.” Now at the other end of my career I find that I do not remember individual pianos so much as I remember individual piano owners. The results of my manual labor disappear quickly as pianos go out of tune, but the joy that I share with the musicians is a permanent blessing.

What this means

Think of the work you have done in your life. Have you been a team player? Have you had customer contact? Have you helped people diagnose and meet their needs? What have you exchanged with customers and colleagues other than money?

On paper, I have finally worked my way up to zero net worth. My real prosperity is that my customers are my friends and I have a wealth of fond memories.

I enjoy both the art and the technology that surround me. I am physically better off than most of the world’s population in all of history. Nevertheless, as my life winds down and I undertake less and less, my people memories are the most important parts of my life. I am impressed by rising over the clouds in an airplane. I have always been blessed with reliable nutrition. However, in the face of this luxury, I count my most impressive blessings as living in freedom and associating with good people.

You may find my writing naïve and unrealistically cheerful. It is sincere, rooted in supportive personal relationships. From having parents who lived within their means to living in a democracy with freedom of speech and religion, I have had the advantages that are most conducive to a happy life. This is a matter of perspective. Relative to my neighborhood I am seriously frugal, but I choose to observe that I am one of the wealthy few compared to the masses of humanity throughout history. I am thankful to be an educated scholar instead of a slave laborer building pyramids. I don’t even see the materialism that I lack because I am so keenly aware of the blessings that matter more.

Permit my contentment to be my proof: my happiness establishes that materialism is immaterial. Human kindness is preeminent. The foundation of our lives lies in how we share our circumstances and efforts. That is material to happiness.

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