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The Source of Satisfaction

December 6, 2018

Businessman smiling with arms outstretchedBy Dr. Kevin Brown

Keynes’ Error

Nearly a century ago, John Maynard Keynes wrote a short but influential essay titled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.”  Looking 100 years into the future, the famed economist made two predictions.  First, Keynes forecasted a significant increase in economic growth (GDP per capita).  Technological forces, in tandem with compound interest, would create increasing growth and output per person.  Related to this, he predicted a precipitous drop in the average number of labor hours per week.  Indeed, as wealth accumulated and the standard of living improved, Keynes believed citizens would feel less inclined to work, registering no more than three hours a day.

Though we have not yet eclipsed a century since Keynes made his predictions, enough time has passed to evaluate the accuracy of his proposals.  And what do we find? 

  • First, related to economic growth, Keynes’ estimate is surprisingly accurate.  The compounding economic boom rich countries have experienced over the last 90 years can only lead one to conclude that—whether through insight or luck—his observations were notably prescient. 
  • But what about his second prediction?  Has the economic growth unleashed by technological output left us satisfied?  Has it lowered our motivations for productive activity and the need for income?  Has it drawn us out of our boardrooms, office cubicles, and other common workplace locales—and into new forms of leisure and pastime? … Not even close.

Indeed, the 15-hour workweek Keynes envisioned is a stark contrast from the harried, ever-increasing 40-50 hour reality that characterizes our marketplace today.  So what was Keynes’ error?  Where did his calculations go amiss?  Authors Robert and Edward Skidelsky provide a necessary insight: “Keynes believed that people had a finite quantity of material needs that might one day be fully satisfied.”

To be clear, work is a good thing.  Productive, creative, and cooperative associations are bound up with human identity and purpose as image bearers of God.  You might say we were constituted for work.  Punching the timecard is not the problem.  Rather, the Skidelsky’s put their finger on the more relevant issue: satisfaction

Is Satisfaction Getting What I Want?

In our current cultural moment, it is natural to associate satisfaction with getting what we want.  But perhaps this assumption is more problematic than we might care to admit. 

This was helpfully illustrated in a 1960 Twilight Episode titled “A Nice Place to Visit.”  The story portrays a lifelong criminal gangster (“Rocky”) who was killed in a shootout with police, only to find himself in a very cozy afterlife. 

Guided by his host, Rocky’s afterlife is more than he ever could have wished.  Why? Because in it, he gets anything and everything he wants. 

When he desires clothing, he is outfitted in the best threads.  As he wishes for the company of women, they appear.  When he gambles, he wins.  His hunger is met with a four-course meal.  And all of this occurs, of course, in a cushy high-rise apartment.  On the surface, everything seems perfect.

With some time, however, he becomes frustrated.  Getting everything he wants is not nearly as satisfying as he thought.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  Rocky’s wish fulfillment is equivalent to his increasing sense of emptiness, discontentedness, and frustration.

Toward the end of the show, he says to his host: “Look, I don’t belong in Heaven.  I want to go to the other place.”  And, in Twilight Zone fashion, the host (devil?) says, “Whatever gave you the idea you were in Heaven?  You ARE in the other place.” 

The show ends with commentary from Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, who summarizes the moral of the story: “A scared, angry little man who never got a break.  Now he has everything he ever wanted, and has to live with it for eternity.”

True Satisfaction

Serling presents an interesting picture of hell.  That is, eternally getting what we want, but growing increasingly empty and unfulfilled as each preference is met.  Yet to be clear, the problem is not that we possess desires and inclinations.  Indeed, to desire is human.  We were created to love, to value, and to aim ourselves towards something ultimate.  We were created to worship

So to worship is natural and human, but what we worship will constitute the nature of our humanity. 

John Wesley, while commenting on the Beatitudes from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, suggests that it is as if Jesus is saying, “Behold, I show you the thing which your soul longeth for!  See the way you have so long sought in vain; the way of pleasantness; the path to calm, joyous peace, to heaven below and heaven above!”

This, says Wesley, is true satisfaction. 

Keynes’ error in understanding human fulfillment and contentedness is our error today.  Work is good.  Worship is good.  This is not the question. Rather, what we work toward, and what we worship—will be intimately tied to the fulfillment, gratification, and flourishing we seek.

Will we pursue that which comes back void, or in line with Wesley, will we seek “the things that are above” (Col. 3:1), virtues and practices that pave a “path to calm, joyous peace”?