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We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – [emphasis added] US Declaration of Independence
Happiness is a tricky thing to understand. We feel endowed with this right to happiness, and as we move through our days and lives we often feel that this happiness is lacking.
There has also been a ton of research done on happiness, just look at the Google search results:
Happiness nets 163,000,000 results
Happiness research nets 44,600,000 results
and there are 771,000 sholarly articles on happiness.
In our lives and the society we live in today we find ourselves seeking happiness in the belief that it is our right to be happy. That not only do we deserve to be happy, we need to be happy. This kind of seeking shifts happiness from a state of being to an end in itself, and ends up tying it to external conditions.
The most generally accepted external condition for happiness is financial wealth. However when we look at the research we find that more money doesn’t really make you happier.
The main reason more money does not make us happier comes down to something we’ve talked about before.
More is a relative concept. What that means is that the perceived value of what we have changes relative to what others around us have. So if I have a salary of $75,000 a year, I am happy according to this study. But if I have that same $75,000 a year, and you make $150,000 a year, my $75,000 suddenly has less value in comparison to your $150,000.
Understanding that relative value changes lets us understand that what we believe will make us happy changes. The key here is the perception. In fact one of the most powerful concepts to understand is our perception
It is with our perception that we accept and define the conditions of our lives and the world around us, and it is with our perceptions that we accept things such as relative value.
This goes deeper than just relative value and delves into the belief systems we hold and the facts we accept within those belief systems.
Just look at the statement I made above about financial wealth being the generally accepted key to happiness. This is a perception, we accept the idea that money will make us happy. We think it will make us happy because with money we believe we will have the freedom to, “do what we want.”
While more money can afford us a certain amount of freedom to “do what we want”, the relative nature of value creates a cycle that Penelope Trunk illustrates here:
As a society, we are not actually all that interested in happiness. If we were, people would stop relocating for jobs, people would stop eating french fries, and people would stop scheduling their kids for activities that happen close to dinnertime. If anything, I think people are focused on hiding the fact that they desperately want more money and more passion in their lives even though it’s not fashionable to admit it. [link]
I would disagree that we aren’t all that interested in happiness, just look back at those Google results. I would argue that this desperate and relentless pursuit is an ill guided attempt at pursuing happiness, and it illuminates a couple of things.
First, it highlights the relative nature of value. People “desperately want more money and more passion in their lives”, despite the money they have to relocate for jobs, eat french fries, and have their kids in activities. Yet these very activities show a passion for the relative value we think these things will bring us.
Second, it highlights the real crux of the problem, which is that we don’t know what the hell we actually want.
We think we want happiness, and we pursue more money to get it, so that we can do what we want, but when we get that money, we don’t know what to do and then we’re still unhappy. We think we want our kids to do all of this stuff, so that they’ll be happy and fulfilled, but we don’t actually know if they want to do any of it, or if it even makes them happy.
We just don’t know.
The fact is that money has an impact on happiness, but not in the way we think. Money, affords us not happiness, but an alleviation from unhappiness.
On a national scale, it has been shown that country to country, higher GDP leads to higher overall happiness. However, when you examine higher GDP nations what you find isn’t more happiness, but less suffering. This is because higher GDP nations have less infant mortality, better health care, readier access to food and longer life spans.
People in these nations are happier because their children arent dying and their basic needs are met without much struggle.
Therein in another layer of perception. When a level of basic needs are met with less struggle, the relative value of our happiness changes and we seek further fulfillment elsewhere, thus elevating the level of our basic needs through relative value.
It is here however that we have to pause and take a look at what exactly we mean by happiness. When you think of happiness, what comes to mind?
Not so long ago happiness in life was securing survival and perpetuating your family. Rising above the struggle to feed and care for your family was a happy and meaningful life.
As society changed and advanced, we looked for struggle elsewhere. This is when happiness shifted to the workplace. Here we pursued happiness through our jobs, we were lawyers, doctors, executives, manufacturers, etc. The pursuit of a career became our struggle because it was no longer a struggle to sustain ourselves and perpetuate our genes.
Now the landcaspe of employment has changed, and jobs are transitory and less meaningful. As of early 2011, 86% of jobs in the United States are service sector jobs which are arguably more demanding, less fulfilling, and lower paying jobs.
This change has moved our desire for meaning and fulfillment out of the workplace and into the realm of the self, bringing us closer to the root of happiness, to the true affective nature of happiness. Yet by most measures we’re still evaluating happiness as a relative measure of how good we perceive our lives to be.
Happiness is defined as a state of well-being characterized by emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy, [link] and if we take pause and raise our awareness, we will see that happiness is both pervasive and absent from all the scenarios mentioned above.
Do you laugh at work? Do your spirits lift as your spouse or partner walks into the room? Do you smile as you walk down the street? Do you whistle a tune in the shower? Do you savor the deliciousness of a piece of chocolate?
Do you recognize these things as happiness? They are. This is the affective nature of happiness.
Happiness is not a salary or a job or a person or a place. Happiness is the thread woven throughout our lives that ties all of these things together. Happiness is the challenge, joy, humor, frustration, and contentment we find in the things we do, and happiness is also the challenge, joy, humor, frustration and contentment that doing the things we do brings us.
So it is here that we can see that the pursuit of happiness in our lives is relative, and it is in the pursuit of our lives that we find our happiness. Not as an end point to be reached, but as a by-product of life.
In other words, It’s not what you do in life that brings you happiness, it’s how you do what you do.
Which brings us back to the Declaration of Independence, and I believe the authors of the Declaration got it right.
It’s the Pursuit of happiness.
Can feel the joy that these ideas bring me? Can you feel the challenge and struggle of creating this piece that led to that joy? If so feel free to re-define your pursuit of happiness and share this via the tweet and like buttons below.