Most people are trying to get ahead, but ahead of what?

It is common to think that getting ahead has to do with increasing wealth. This idea is perpetuated by an economic system that in the beginning alleviated scarcity and poverty. However, we long ago overcame these debilitations. By 1970 the vast majority of people in the western world described themselves as happy. In the intervening 50 years the rate of happiness has not increased and yet, production and consumption, measured in GDP, has more than doubled.

Our socio-economic system pits individuals against each other. Erich Fromm described the situation perfectly when he said that the capitalist system needs people who will produce-and-consume without the need to be commanded to do so because they are motivated by the goal of ‘getting ahead’. It is the notion of ‘getting ahead’ that is the problem, but as we’ll see it can also be the solution. This seeming paradox is clarified by asking the question: Getting ahead of what? There are two fundamental answers.

Getting ahead of others

The first way is to get ahead of others. This is an extrinsic aim and is essentially a selfish and competitive individualism which stems from a fixed, survive mindset. We are taught by the system that getting ahead means working hard to make as much money as possible so that we can spend it. Our economic system profits and grows from this type of ‘getting ahead’.

Unfortunately, the system is self-perpetuating because profits produce profits, but the system will always tend to put the bulk of new wealth into the hands of a few. The system keeps people ‘locked in’ by appealing as much as possible to people’s least amenable traits such as greed, rivalry, envy and selfishness.

Getting ahead of yourself

The other type of getting ahead is to be better than your former self. This is for the sake of personal evolution and well-being. This aim is intrinsic and eudaimonic and stems from a growth, thrive mindset and peoples’ innate need to actualise themselves.

When people want to get ahead of others they have lost sight of what is really important, namely a balance between good physical health; good relationships; meaningful and rewarding challenges in both work and play; and the opportunity to realise our fullest human potential.

Getting ahead is about improving well-being, not wealth. With more emphasis on the quality of our lives rather than the quantity of our possessions, we will grow as people.

Conclusion

We must now seriously question the wisdom of perpetuating a system that was once so good at improving the quality of life of people in the Western world but is now diminishing people’s well-being and degrading the planet. As long as we are unwitting slaves to an increasingly destructive system of production and consumption we cannot achieve real well-being. The simple truth is that people don’t need to consume more than they need. What people really need, in material terms, is much less than what most people in affluent countries have. Once you have sufficient for well-being life is not about having more but being more.