In recent years I have been moving towards what I call the E.M. Forster Principal — the view that community, broadly defined, is everything. It’s not 50% of our happiness in life, or 75%, but rather 95% plus. (Forster assembled my favorite two word aphorism: Only connect.) So many of the things that we think are critical to our happiness — creative productivity, success, money — may be important only in so far as they enhance community. Community, in this view, is the final currency, the lingua franca, in which everything is valued.
Here’s an example: Though I believe I want to write a beautiful novel ten years from now as an end in itself, the value of that act — writing a beautiful novel — may be in the final analysis the way that experience broadens and deepens my relationships with others. When you have written a beautiful novel (I imagine, not having written one) you meet more people, each of whom has a head start in understanding you. The same case can be made for the value of building companies with teams of people (among the most gratifying experiences I have had), and even the value of making money.
Of course money can both connect you with others — by enabling you to help other people out and build things of value, not to mention spend time interacting with people rather than sewing machines — and it can also disconnect you from people, by causing you to distrust other people’s interest in you, or travel in circles different from those of your original community. I think a credible case can be made that the great “does money make you happy” debate all boils down to whether money builds or erodes community for a given individual. Extreme sums of money are generally more likely to destroy community — there are only so many billionaires, after all, and when you are a billionaire, the rest of the world must seem suspiciously solicitous. A radical change in one’s financial situation in either direction can cut you off from your community — lottery winners end up less happy because they leave their original communities and become distrustful of their relationships, but on the other hand a sudden loss of money makes people (say the Madoff relatives) less happy because it forces them to leave their communities, or no longer engage in bonding experiences central to a given community (like feigning disappointment in food at overpriced restaurants). Fame, I imagine, can have the same double-edged sword as money — a little is empowering to community building; a lot can be isolating. The point, here, is that community is arguably everything.
Thanks to Scott Heiferman for the tip.