I’m Really Sure – Money Can’t Buy Happiness

We’ve all heard the proverb Money Can’t Buy Happiness. There are the usual sarcastic responses, ‘Yeah, but it sure eases the pain of poverty’, etc. I don’t know if the saying is world-wide, but it’s all over Western lands. It’s mentioned for many purposes (including marketing of course), said in many ways, and is both affirmed and denied. (A Google search returned 44 M citings!) I’m still convinced it’s true for 2 reasons: first from directly observing a very wealthy family I know well, that was plagued with troubles; and second for deeper reasons I’ll turn to at the end. I realize that generalizing from one example is no kind of science, but allow me to tell the tale.

Harold Frederick Pitcairn (‘Uncle Harold’ to me and sibs), was a well known influence on the early development of airplanes. He wasn’t really my uncle, but a close cousin of Mother. After the Wright Brothers’ success at Kitty Hawk (1903), all sorts of aircraft were beginning, including balloons filled with hydrogen (very flammable) and later helium. After the 1937 Hindenburg explosion in Lakehurst New Jersey,  these ‘Blimps’ or Dirigibles) were phased out. Fixed-Wing Biplanes were popular (and still are). Pitcairn’s biplanes were flight tested in a field separated from my home by a split-rail fence. We’d beg Harold’s son Stephen (‘Steve’) for a ride (to no avail). Harold decided to run a mail route down the East Coast, and sought a state contract for it. When it was authorized, my father – George Synnestvedt (‘Contractor & Builder’) – made a series of buildings for stop-overs, where mail was delivered and picked up. He also built Uncle Harold’s home – Cairncrest – in 1925 shown here. The photo was taken in winter at sunrise. Friends of the family used to play in the third floor, doing balance tricks (‘wheelies’) with wheel chairs kept up there. The building is now used for Bryn Athyn Church offices; it’s part of the Bryn Athyn Historic DistrictBryn Athyn is a community centered on the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg. Its founders were John Pitcairn Jr, and his children, including Uncle Harold. They moved from Philadelphia where a community of believers lived to the farmland they bought on which it has developed. John Pitcairn Jr funded, and Harold’s older brother Uncle Raymond oversaw construction of the landmark Bryn Athyn Cathedral. Samuel Newhouse, of Hidden City Philadelphia, wrote about it (Feb 18, ’20) and cited Uncle Raymond’s comments, especially about the guild system of work that he tried to employ, from which I took this quote: “Of all the works of art created by the hands of men, there are none that seem to live, through the human spirit that breathes within their every part, as do the marvelous churches and cathedrals of the Middle Ages,” wrote Raymond Pitcairn, part of the family that founded Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, in a 1920 letter. He attributed that quality to the guild system, where artisans’ and crafts-peoples’ lives were deeply intertwined with their projects. “The varying minds of many men whose labor was inspired by love and joy abounding in their work are written in these monuments of Christian art.”

The Virginia Aeronautical History Society (VAHS) archives published a news letter by Jack Miller (Dec ’88) recalling his personal meeting with Uncle Harold, from which I’ve taken the follow quote: “When I was a young boy around 4 ½ years old, my family rented an apartment on the beach at Ocean City, New Jersey. This was on 23rd Street at the end of the boardwalk. To my amazed eyes one day in 1925 a giant two-winged airplane landed on the beach and tied down to the pillars of the boardwalk. The plane was there the next morning and I couldn’t wait to go up close and see it. I learned the pilot was there to take up passengers for $2.00 a ride and I remember the pilot telling one man that he would ‘fly him above the clouds for $10.00.’

Pitcairn PA-5 Mailwing (A19580041000) at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. Photo taken by Eric Long.

“I sat on the beach with the pilot many times that summer and found him to be a man named Harold Pitcairn. Many years later I found the name of the airplane to be a Standard J-1 trainer. Mr. Pitcairn has come a long way since those early days, and our example of a Pitcairn Mailwing, heartfully shows the progress. The development of the PA-5 Mailwing began in 1925 when Mr. Pitcairn became interested in obtaining an air mail route on the east coast. He obtained the route cam 19-27 from Hadley, New Jersey (now Brunswick) to Richmond, Virginia and on to Atlanta.”

That route eventually became Eastern Airlines which has al fascinating checkered history, told in this Silver Liners Org account. After several buyouts, the Pitcairn name was dropped. After a few years as GM, Eddie Rickenbacker bought the company in 1938. He was an amazing person – creative, brilliant, courageous, (including surviving the crash of a Douglas DC – 3 where he was given up for dead and ignored by the emergency doctors). Most importantly, though a conservative, he was devoted to the welfare of poor and needy wherever he met them, received the Medal for Merit from FDR for encouraging the effort to join WWI against the ‘America First’ politicians.

Uncle Harold liked going fast, in any kind of vehicle. When the first Chrysler 300 came out – Model 300C in 1955 – he drove some of us around. (I was 17). But his interest was always with the Auto Gyro he helped develop, which he preferred to the Helicopter (that works on different mechanical principles). During WWII, the government co-opted his patents and he sued. Grandfather Paul Synnestvedt and some of my uncles worked in a law firm – Synnestvedt and Lechner, Attorneys at  Law –  specializing in patent law. They took up Uncle Harold’s suit, which was carried on by other attorneys after the uncles retired. In 1978 – 18 years after Harold’s death – the case, United States v. Pitcairn No. 77 – 65  was won in the Supreme Court without contest. The $79 M was at the time a record-breaking award. (See NYT archive 1978/01/24.)

To get much of the family history and biography (careful to omit names of those who might take offense), I used Geni.com, and especially Stephen D. Cole at Find a Grave. com. Stephen’s primary interests are lives of the deceased in Bryn Athyn or nearby. I also consulted my first cousin Jerry, who knows all things hostorical of peopl and events in Bryn Athyn. He still works for the BA Borough.

Uncle Harold died in April 1960 by suicide. Aunt Clara died 4 years later. Both are buried in the cemetery of the Bryn Athyn community. When I go, I hope my earthly remains are put in our family plot. Its a place of uplifting, peaceful spirits.

Mother used to tend the gravesites as a kindness to the community. To the right, you see her quite at home, practicing the knowledge and love of Trees, shrubs and flowers she mastered her whole long life. She was also a skilled pianist and singer, in the Chorus under Leopold Stowkowski. Here she is, stooping to cultivate, and remove unwanted weeds from parishoners’ graves, while she was still in this world.

Uncle Harold’s father and mother (John Jr. and Gertrude Starkey) suffered great losses. Their son Thelemason lived 1 day; Walter lived 27 days; and Vera died at age 23. So Harold grew up with heart rending pain. He and Aunt Clara had 8 children over 13 years. Joel (’20 – ’91) was a close friend of my brother-in-law Ted Glebe. John Pendleton Pitcairn (’21 – 2010) worked for Pittsburgh Plate Glass and Wallpaper (PPG), whose holders are the Pitcairn family. He later went to Corpus Christy where he was admired as a big hearted social activist, dying at age 89. Charis (knick-name ‘Cary’) Pitcairn Cole (1922 – 2017) married Louis Snowden Cole (1916 – 2008). The latter was nick-named ‘Wump’ from the sound of kicking a football. They lived across the meadow less than a mile from my home. They had an enormous fawn-colored Great Dane. Usually good tempered, this beast attacked Louis, who thrust his fist into the dogs throat and choked it; then got a gun and put it down. Stephen (the airplane tester) lived a long, successful life (1924 – 2008), but got cancer late. He died in Abington Hospital to which he contributed generously. Judith Pitcairn (1926 – ?) would be 96 if she still lives. I never read anything about her, or heard her name mentioned. Robert Raphael Pitcairn (1930 – 1985), died from alcohol. He and his spouse adopted children, because they couldn’t have  children. I’m told he was not a kind father. Bruce Pitcairn (1933 – 1975) was a likeable man, but also died from alcohol, I’m told.  Edward (‘Ned’) Hugh Pitcairn (1937 – 1976) died at an alcohol treatment facility in Marthas Vinyard, Mass.

Aunt Clara not only lost her husband to suicide and various children to alcohol or disease. She also accidentally killed a good friend Flora (‘Flo’). One day she drove Flora home after a visit and dropped her off in her driveway that sloped towards the street. The car rolled backwards while the door was still open. Aunt Clara reacted automatically, putting the car in forward gear, and crushed Flora between the door and a tree.

Here’s a story about Bruce Pitcairn from my older brother who was there.  Bruce was alcoholic; he was also a master sailor, even when pickled. My brother was with him somewhere on the South Atlantic coast, perhaps in the Carolinas, when a nasty wind storm blew up. Seas were very high and visibility only a few yards. One of the crew fell overboard. Of course Bruce couldn’t stop to pick him up. Instead, he sailed in a perfect circle, and after a few minutes came back to the exact spot where the crewman was floating in a life-jacket and was helped aboard.

Several times I was invited to visit the family vacation home on Lake George, NY as a friend of Ned who was a year older than I. We could take small motor boats out for a joy ride, or pull each other on water-skis, seeing who could release the rope at just the right moment to coast to the dock and sit down. Or we could go to the yacht club, and order sandwiches (and beer when no-one was looking). We were treated with hospitality and service I’d never known before. Each of us was given his own socks with our names sewed in! We were served at the dining table by hovering maids, one of whom the boys named ‘Scuse-me’ for obvious reasons.

The older boys liked playing tricks. A bell by the lake shore, on church property, beckoned  the faithful to worship in the mornings. It was a sweet sound to me, but the boys didn’t like it. One night they went to the bell, turned it upside down, and filled it with cement!

At home in Bryn Athyn, the boys would perform ‘scientific’ experiments. (The girls were always proper.) E.g. one of them – maybe Bruce – got hold of some Nitro-Glycerine and threw it against one of the basement pillars to see what would happen. Fortunately it didn’t explode. Ned carried out his own experiments. He was enamored with all things nautical, especially British naval history. He loved guns. If he’d had a cannon I don’t doubt he would have used it locally. He constructed some make-shift pistols, e.g. from a piece of iron pipe, a cap with a hole for a wick, gun powder inside, and any suitable object to propel. Then he’d aim at the storage shed down the hill from the house (not at the greenhouse closer to the main home), and fire it with a match. These toys got more and more sophisticated. We were duly impressed.

About the origins of Money Can’t Buy Happiness, Jean-jacques Rousseau is often cited. He doesn’t use those exact words, but his idea is that the wealthy bourgoisie and royalty were wrecking true society. An idealist, he felt that ‘civilization’, in the form of large cities and their arbitrary rulers, was the ruin of humanity. The ‘state of nature’ is good, but only when implemented by a true democracy. On the other side, Thos. Hobbes called the ‘state of nature’ a ‘war of every man against every man’, and that survival demanded an absolute, irrevocable government – his notorious Leviathan. This was not appealing to subsequent philosophers or theologians for obvious reasons.

These men and others, like John Locke and Adam Smith, were 18th C. Enlightenment  figures. More than a thousand years earlier, Plato and Aristotle thought about happiness as well, with opposing views. Aristotle said Happiness is the final goal – i.e., the ‘end’. It is reached by practising the ‘Golden Mean’ – i.e. nothing in exess. Plato said happiness is a trap for worldly thinkers. Our goal should be to attain wisdom, and thereby reach the realm of the Gods. He added that for some, this blissful state is not eternal; they may eventually lose their wings and return to earth. But true philosophy can restart the process until heaven is achieved.

From Internet Encyclopedia Western Concepts of God, I take this quote: “To Plato, God is transcendent-the highest and most perfect being-and one who uses eternal forms, or archetypes, to fashion a universe that is eternal and uncreated. The order and purpose he gives the universe is limited by the imperfections inherent in material. Flaws are therefore real and exist in the universe; they are not merely higher divine purposes misunderstood by humans. God is not the author of everything because some things are evil. We can infer that God is the author of the punishments of the wicked because those punishments benefit the wicked. God, being good, is also unchangeable since any change would be for the worse.” I believe God never punishes, but may permit the wicked to punish each other, if that will keep better order, and improve their sorry state as much as they allow. Those in hell never stop trying to destroy those who resist – an eternal battle ground.

Of the dozens of scholarly articles about happiness I browsed in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, here’s one about the “Social Minimum” – an unfinished discussion of what a ‘good enough’ society should provide it’s members.

There’s much talk nowadays about the ‘quality of life’. I believe however that the idea of measuring it with statistics is at best a wasted effort, and that using emojis is painfully ridiculous, especially with serious issues, like poverty, family relations, health, natural disasters and loss of life. (‘So aside from that Mrs Lincoln, on a scale from 1 to 10, how did you enjoy the play?’. At times, I feel my life sucks, though rationally I know I’m fortunate, compared to many millions of fellow citizens and numberless humans around the world, who are desperate for money. Even writing this post may appear hypocritical, considering I’m in the upper middle class. But I think our nation can do better.

Finally, be reminded – those who believe – that we can trust that all our truly important needs will be met in the end, whether or not that happens in this life (which is, after all, only a blip on eternity). As Isaiah 55 promises:

1“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. 2Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. 3Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live.

One thought on “I’m Really Sure – Money Can’t Buy Happiness

  1. Thank you for writing this. It’s a treat being able to read about your childhood shenanigans and some of the history of Bryn Athyn. The photo of your mother tending to the cemetery is especially moving, I would love to paint it someday.

    Uncle Raymond’s point about the guild system resonates with me. Immersion in a craft with a community of shared enthusiasm. I think there is some of that in the modern world, but so much of it happens online now. Our guilds are now our jobs, which usually lack craft and community. But I think there is a growing group of people trying to change that. Small, self-run, or local businesses can get together to create something together, instead of being told what to do by someone else. Or knowing that friends and family matter more than our jobs (though 40 hours a week makes that hard). I guess it’s not spending money but spending time that buys you happiness 🙂

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