When I speak to audiences about happiness, I always qualify in my own mind, even before pursing my lips to speak, what type of happiness I am wishing to address.
For there are indeed different types of “happiness.”
There is, for instance, the simple type of happiness that comes on opening a long-awaited birthday gift – perhaps a beloved Apple i-product.
Is having a happy life simply the product of creating as many “birthday” moments as possible? Would life be better if every day was our birthday?
What about a different perspective. There is another type of happiness that comes from getting word of a promotion or raise. Happiness here is tied closely together with pride and satisfaction for a job well done.
Indeed, human emotions are often “blended” in this way.
Then there’s the happiness of seeing our child walk her first steps. Or the happiness that comes from hearing our son perform a solo in the Christmas concert at school.
But is happiness simply an emotion -- a feeling? Or is it an attitude? Or exactly what is it?
Personally I think one of the reasons there is so much stress and unhappiness in the world is NOT because we don’t have enough stuff or money – clearly, we have more STUFF today than those before us ever have had in history. Rather I think it is because we have been taught that the more we have, the newer we have, the bigger we have…the better it is.
Our society is so funny in its contradictions. First we hear, “size matters.” Then we hear, “It’s not the quantity but the quality.”
Perhaps the real answer is that there is no perfect, easy answer. It would be great if oranges were all sweet and juicy and came the size of pumpkins. And it goes without saying that they shouldn’t have seeds. But that’s not reality.
But what do oranges have to do with the price of eggs?
So let’s get back to money and happiness.
What we do know from repeated research studies over many years now is that increasing someone’s income above a certain level does not statistically give them any more happiness. It may give them more stuff. Bigger stuff. Faster stuff. And there is nothing in and of itself wrong with those things. Those are what Aristotle would call goods. But there are lots of “goods” in the world and in life. Self respect. Honesty. Close relationships. The satisfaction that comes with accomplishment. The joy that comes from giving.
The flipside of money and happiness has certainly also been shown repeatedly: if someone doesn’t have enough money to feed, clothe, and shelter herself then she is going to have a hard time being happy – for there’s just too much stress in a life of poverty.
So here’s the thing about defining happiness: since we know from studies that a lot of people worldwide are relatively happy with relatively little and, conversely, we know that a lot of people with a lot of money are not very happy, it seems to make sense that we can drop money as being part of our preconceived factors that go into our definition of personal happiness. Having things is indeed good. But, again, there are many goods.
So what is inherent to the process of living happily?
Did you hear the question? What is inherent to the process of living happily? If you believe this question is valid, it points us in an important direction. Having a happy life isn’t all about filling life with presents and surprises and excitement. Yet we have become confused to think these are the things we need to pursue. Remember? We are supposed to pursue happiness – which is to say it is necessarily external to ourselves.
I’d instead like to suggest that the “stuff” of our life, while important and “good,” perhaps accounts for only about 10% of our overall happiness. The vast majority of our happiness, probably 90% or so, comes from how we live. Sadly, many people don’t think they have a choice. But we all have a choice to live happily.
It’s easy to be happy when we’re on vacation, the sun is shining, and we’re surrounded by things we love.
But those moments are relatively rare. And that probably makes them somewhat special, doesn’t it?
Consider going to your favorite restaurant and ordering your most favorite meal. You’ve had a long day and now it’s your time to sit back and enjoy. The food melts in your mouth and you enjoy every bite. You savor every aroma…you taste every nuance. But what happens to your emotions when your most favorite dessert is finished and your server brings you your ENTIRE meal again – starting with the entrée. This second time around it doesn’t taste quite as good…the hunger, literally and metaphorically, is gone.
The same is true of the stuff-of-life type of happiness. It’s great for a while but then we need a break. We need to get hungry again.
But few seem to have learned this lesson. And little wonder: we are inundated with messages from marketers telling us that every once of our happiness comes from acquiring their product or service. Like Cadillac saying, “Let us know when your neighbors are home so we can deliver your new Escalade.” Or what about the make up makers L’Oreal: “Because you’re worth it.” So, let me get this straight, if I don’t pay $2 more for L’Oreal’s hand cream I must not be worth it?
Yes, the messages are pretty direct, aren’t they? And they are everywhere.
It’s called ST – Shopping Therapy. We go to the mall to buy something because we’ve been working so hard and are in need of a lift. Then we feel great for a little while because we have something new. But then the same old feelings come back and then we get the VISA bill and decide we should get another job to pay for our bills. But now it’s time to get back to the mall for some more ST. After all, the sign says that the more we spend the more we will save! And saving is good, right?
Here’s yet another quick story. Several years ago, a group of university students were asked to participate in an experiment. They were offered the opportunity of getting attached to a machine that gave them the sensation of orgasm. That’s right, the BIG O. Orgasm. The only caveat? They would necessarily be attached to the machine for a long, long time – continuously.
Imagine that: one big, long orgasm.
(Something Aristotle would probably have called a “great.”)
And because of the caveat you could probably guess that nobody signed up for that experiment. Truly, nobody did.
So let’s recap. Is it possible that so many people are so unhappy because they are searching down the wrong path, namely to have more things in their world? Is it possible they have bought into the idea that more is better but then quickly fall prey to the reality of hedonistic accommodation – the process by which we humans get used to fun things?
Is it possible that we should instead be focusing on learning how to be happy? How do we foster a happy attitude? How can we take a lemon and make lemonade? How can we learn to enjoy the scenery on a detour?
Fostering any kind of attitude change takes practice…But it all begins by intellectually acknowledging the path you truly want to take. And that takes perspective.
That said, you’ve heard mine. And now I’m looking forward to hearing your perspective on this issue.