The Three A’s – Why normal life makes you unhappy

A few years back a trusted mentor recommended that I read Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity. I want to talk about one particular point it made, and the degree to which it pervades our society.

Note: Perhaps now worth noting my perspective on discussing religion on this site; upshot being, while this article is based on a book about religion, it discusses a concept applicable to everyone.

The Three A’s

First, a quotation from the book:

By the time we are in early adolescence…our sense of who we are is increasingly the product of culture. We feel okay or not okay about ourselves to the extent that we measure up to the messages we have internalized. In our culture, these messages center around the three A’s of appearance, achievement, and affluence.


[T]hroughout this process, we fall further into the world of separation and alienation, comparison and judgment, of self and of others. We live our lives in relation to…the self created and conferred by culture.

The Heart of Christianity, by Marcus Borg – Emphasis added
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This woman has achieved too much to be attractive slowly.

The Three A’s of Appearance, Affluence, and Achievement are what our culture teaches us is most important. Movies, books, social interactions, advertisements: you can hardly turn on a TV, Radio, go out in public, or walk down a street without getting some form of message that implicitly promotes these.

We live our lives steeped in such messages, we are perpetually bombarded by them. Over and over the constant drumbeat of the world is; the three A’s are what matter most.

Messaging Matters – and can do damage

Of course, when the three-A’s are called out like this it’s easy to recognize that these values are not actually what we want. We know that other values should be of greater importance (e.g. kindness, compassion, integrity).

In practice though, the three A’s still take primacy. Think about the success of many movies you know (think Disney) which purport to value other things. They focus on friends, compassion, family, etc. etc. Now think about how many of those same movies are about attractive characters who often are or become successful or rich. What values do all these movies actually promote then? Even when something else comes along for the ride, the three A’s are still there. And this perpetual messaging inevitably affects us.

Not just affects us, damages us. It’s become a truism that modern standards of attractiveness are so high that even the most attractive feel perpetually inadequate. Achievement and affluence are goals that are inherently unstable. They start a cycle of “never enough”, leaving you unsatisfied even when get them.

Knowing that isn’t enough though. We can see that these values lead to unhealthy places, but that doesn’t prevent us from absorbing the messaging surrounding us. This means that our normal state in the world is one of some degree damage!

Choosing our Values

More so, it means that we spend our lives surrounded by messages promoting values and ideals we didn’t choose.

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The Three A’s – Appearance, Achievement, Affluence

This is key. Whatever you think about the three A’s, these are not values you chose; you are simply bombarded with them. And presumably there are at least some values that you think should be more important to you? If so, what are they? And how, in the constant bombardment of Three A’s messaging, do you hold on to the fact that these other values are more important to you? How do you remember and live that on a daily basis?

In the second part of this article we will explore a few ways in which this might be addressed. In the meantime though, pay attention to the messages you get today or this week. Notice what is being reinforced in you just by living your life. A deeper awareness of this can help, and in part 2 we’ll explore further options as well.

Continue to part 2.

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