A Mirage of Satisfaction and Succession
A perspective on the pursuit of wealth and the path to lasting happiness.
In our hyper-modern, always “on” culture, we’re often lulled into a belief that contentment lies in the pursuit of more — more gadgets, clicks, likes, experiences, sales, and ultimately financial success. It’s a mentality that views our life’s worth in terms of acquisition — a race with no finish line, where the only constant is our ceaseless chase for more.
I’ve recently binged “Succession,” the well-written and acted HBO series, which provides a profound exploration of the culture of wealth accumulation, power dynamics, and family relationships. I must confess when it first aired years ago, I watched the first episode and found the characters so revolting I couldn’t bear to watch. It’s a compliment to the writing and performances that the characters reminded me of more than a few people with whom I’ve crossed paths in my travels. I gave it a hard pass.
But I kept hearing from people I respect that it was worth my time if I could tolerate the characters for what they are: avatars for personal struggles, insecurities, and the complexities of family dynamics. “Succession” provides a deeper exploration of power, legacy, and the high-stakes world of corporate America.
The characters, part of a powerful family that controls a global empire, constantly vie for control and influence. Wealth is equated with power, self-worth, and status. Their wealth, which to almost everyone else on the planet would be the very definition of embarrassment of riches, serves not just as a tool for comfort and luxury, but as a means to manipulate and dominate their surroundings. Ethical lines are regularly blurred as the pursuit of obscene wealth and influence justifies ruthless strategies and tactics.
Patriarch Logan Roy’s obsession with ensuring his empire’s future instigates fierce competition among his heirs. Despite their wealth, the characters display a lack of empathy, arising from their disconnect from everyday realities, further perpetuating a cycle of ruthless competition and manipulation. Put simply? They’re just plain mean.
“Succession” is a study of individuals burdened with such low levels of self-regard, always primed to debase, if not thoroughly demean themselves, merely to maintain their seat on the moving express, skirt past the velvet rope, and look down upon the multitude as if they were mere pygmies. It’s an alarming void; a coarse, juvenile echo of our most primal urges.
“What are people?” Logan Roy asks himself. His answer? “They’re economic units. I’m one hundred feet tall.”
But he also, near the end, wonders if being one hundred feet tall is ultimately everything it’s cracked up to be.
“You think there’s anything after all this? Afterwards? I don’t think so. I think this is it,” he says. “Realistically though, that’s it. You don’t know. You can’t know. But I’ve got my fucking suspicions.”
Interestingly, the show glossily depicts how wealth, in such a context, does not necessarily lead to personal satisfaction or happiness, offering a tasty critique of the culture of endless wealth accumulation.
It is fiction, but the human need for security, status, belonging, and comfort are powerfully real forces. There is also the terror of the incompetent. Impostor syndrome is far from a rare malady — and I suspect more prevalent in the minds of the privileged than most of us dare to consider. Often what appears to be confidence — or overconfidence — masks a fear that someone will be found out.
The conspicuous accumulation of wealth and its trappings serves as insulation not only from the criticism of others but also as a deflection from facing feeling unloved or unwanted. That seems obvious.
Looking deeper, I think it is also a means of staving off the inevitable. People waterskiing behind yachts or globetrotting in their “PJ” (private jet), immersed in the intrigue of adding a few more “bil” to the pile don’t have time for navel-gazing about the meaning of life. Free advice to the Roys and their ilk from a guy with a mortgage who flies economy: ignoring reality does not change it (more on that in a minute).
Imagine then a contrasting philosophy, one that shines like a lighthouse amid the raging storm of consumerism. This principle, known as appreciation, teaches us to celebrate and be thankful for our present blessings.
Accumulation: A Mirage of Satisfaction
Case in point: the Roy Family and their sycophants as Americans. Our nation’s collective obsession with accumulation, “influence” and luxury is like signing up for a marathon with no end. Studies remind us that the exhilaration of a new purchase is fleeting, thanks to our tendency for ‘hedonic adaptation,’ pushing us towards the next shopping spree. It is on full view in “Succession” in the micro and the very climate of our planet in the macro.
To add salt to the wound, this non-stop race fuels a culture of comparison, where our joy hinges on outshining others. It’s a precarious game of one-upmanship, creating a sense of dissatisfaction and defeat, despite our attempts to ‘win’ through acquisition. Satisfaction is a mirage. It can be very pleasant in the moment but it will not quench your thirst.
Appreciation: The Path to True Contentment
Conversely, appreciation is about pausing, reflecting, and cultivating gratitude for what we already possess — our relationships, experiences, simple joys, and yes, even our material possessions.
Psychologists affirm the transformative power of appreciation. It turns out that gratitude is not just a nice-to-have; it’s essential for our mental well-being, diminishing stress, and amplifying our satisfaction with life. It’s about shifting from a ‘lack’ mindset to one of ‘abundance,’ focusing on the full half of the glass, sparking inner peace and joy.
I have a small backyard with trees, green grass, noisy birds, and trickster squirrels. It also occasionally hosts destructive gophers, but still, it is my happy place. It would look like a pathetically unkempt, tiny flowerbed to the mega-rich Roys. But to me, it is a minor paradise.
Embodying appreciation also means practicing mindfulness and savoring the present without yearning for a different reality. This state of being heightens our satisfaction with life, enhances relationships, and bolsters our overall well-being. I often will sit on my little patio, casting my gaze on those unremarkable blades of grass and just breathe — living not in the past or the future, but in the here and now, wanting nothing more than the chance to do this again tomorrow.
Do I still want things? Am I attracted to the shiny and the new? You bet I am. I love clothes and barware and gadgets. I want the approbation that comes with selling thousands more copies of my books. But I have worked for years in my oasis: want is (usually) miles away from need in my little backyard.
Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times
Here’s where things get Old School interesting. Stoicism, an ancient Greek philosophy, offers a remarkable framework highlighting the importance of appreciation over accumulation. The Stoics encouraged the cultivation of self-discipline and resilience to quell destructive emotions and gain true happiness and peace through acceptance and understanding of our limits.
Take Epictetus, the legendary Stoic philosopher, who eloquently put it, “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not but rejoices for those which he has.” He emphasized the joy of gratitude over the despair of lack, freeing us from the endless loop of desire and disappointment tied to accumulation.
Another Stoic heavyweight, Seneca, practiced “premeditatio malorum,” which involved contemplating loss, hardship, or adversity to enhance gratitude for the present and reduce fear of future misfortunes. This mental rehearsal of worst-case scenarios is designed to deepen our appreciation of our current state, bolstering our resilience to actual hardships. (I do this in my public relations practice for clients. We call it a Black Swan exercise. It can be amazingly effective in preparing for actual problems or just easing the mind.)
By celebrating contentment, gratitude, and acceptance of the present moment, Stoicism resonates with the tenets of appreciation over accumulation, emphasizing that the true measure of wealth and happiness lies not in gaining more, but in appreciating more.
Living Appreciation: Practical Steps
Please understand embracing appreciation doesn’t mean we need to reject material possessions or experiences. Instead, it’s about finding joy in what we already have before seeking out more. Keeping a gratitude journal, expressing thanks to loved ones, or even savoring a tranquil moment in your backyard or a stunning sunset can nurture an attitude of appreciation.
Critical to this mindset is eschewing comparison. Our life’s journey is unique, and there’s no universal benchmark for happiness. It’s about recognizing and cherishing our unique experiences and achievements, not weighing them against others.
Equal in the End
I’ve touched on facing our mortality. While some may find that morbid, I believe it is essential. In the context of accumulation versus appreciation, it gives me comfort knowing that if life really is some sort of contest, we all finish tied for last — or first, as it were.
Indeed, contemplating the concept of mortality can bring about a unique perspective and comfort in the universal human experience. While people have different lives, varying achievements, wealth, health, and status, death is the common denominator for all. This fact can ground us and remind us of our shared humanity.
As capricious son Roman Roy of “Succession” said, “Death just feels very, one size fits all.” His recognition that we are all equal in the end is a rare insight coming from that morally squalid pack of jackals he calls a family. Perhaps there’s hope for him, yet.
I know that in a world where ‘bigger’ often means ‘better,’ endorsing appreciation over accumulation feels almost rebellious or like some kind of virtue-signally palaver. Yet, it’s a revolt promising a more rewarding, sustainable path to contentment. As we learn to appreciate and take joy in our current blessings, we liberate ourselves from the draining cycle of relentless wanting.
Sometimes you win an argument by smiling and walking away.
By moving our focus from accumulation to appreciation, we earn greater contentment, mental wellness, and a deeper grasp of what truly enriches life. After all, the true richness of life is measured not by what we accumulate, but by what — and who — we cherish and appreciate.
You cannot, it would seem, take it with you. What a relief.