"But a lifetime of happiness?! No one man could bear it: It would be hell on Earth!" George Bernard ShawAs Western civilization’s impact continues to be felt across the planet, so too has the culture’s ever-increasing average lifespan spread. But while general health or happiness have been attributed to such a result in various studies focusing on lifespan — including the well documented case of the nuns of Milwaukee — this increased life expectancy hardly seems to be a result of healthier and happier living across the board. In fact, seemingly in spite of ourselves we seem to be growing increasingly un-healthier in many areas of our lives. In her work on happiness, cognitive researcher Nancy Etcoff addresses this conundrum, facing such inconsistencies head on through her studies which monitor global surveys and societal patterns. Her conclusion? Despite societal evolution, “happiness stays the same.” The unfortunate reality, however, is that the happiness levels haven’t actually stayed the same, but rather, appear to be declining.
Regardless of its original intent, the modern “pursuit of happiness” has left our culture painting a rather murky ideal of what happiness is and how to achieve it. The development of self-worth, particularly in relation to what it is that we seem intent on respecting and praising, has evolved into anything but a healthy model for happiness. Though hardly a new trend, global lust for wealth, glamour, and celebrity has shifted perception of personal worth, and has ultimately affected our individual abilities to prioritize real value in our lives. Despite a general upward swing in standard of living over the past century (lifespan, etc.), the past decade in particular has yielded a crass disparity between wages and happiness. For instance, our society’s relentless pursuit of a higher income has not led to happier people, but instead, unprecedented levels of pessimism, anxiety and inequality which continue to fuel widespread cries of dissatisfaction heard around the planet.
The foundation of the world’s economy continues to shake, yet instances of gross indulgence are no less prevalent than they’ve ever been. Along the way, wouldn’t you think that something has to give? The gap between the rich and poor continues to expand, yet as more members of the global community adopt a goal of keeping up with the Joneses, this growing disparity between the haves and have-nots only further inflates our collective ideal of not what we’re thankful for, but of what we’re lacking: We grow jealous that we don’t have the movie-star lifestyle of those we see on TV, movies, magazines, and the Internet, but we so easily shrug off the fact that our lives are remarkable when compared to literally billions of other people around the world. It’s so terribly difficult to fight against comparative relativity and avoid mistaking the good fortune of our neighbors for our own inability to measure up, but shouldn’t an advanced (or at least advancing) world strive to embrace some sort of paradigm shift toward personal empowerment, if not a happier species? One would hope so, but as Etcoff suggests, this won’t happen as long as we continue to focus so heavily on factors such as income and economic development in attempting to nurture such results.
"Dissatisfaction is the root cause of unhappiness." Martin SeligmanOutside of the United States negatively trending happiness levels continue to spread despite overall economic “advancement.” But most of this, as previously mentioned, isn’t a direct link to a rising financial tide, but the rapidly increasing gap between those benefiting from the process and those being left behind because of it. The growing economic gap in China, for example, is leading to lower levels of happiness among the country’s citizens (as if the idea of Chinese labor, such as factory work for low pay, weren’t already bleak enough to rob people of their happiness). The U.K. is hardly resistant to similar trends, as the level of happiness experienced by Britain’s population has dropped considerably over the last six decades while GDP continues to climb: As the BBC reported in 2005, “The proportion of people saying they are ‘very happy’ has fallen from 52% in 1957 to just 36% today.” Certainly these examples don’t draw any concrete correlation, but when considered in the same breath they do speak to a larger issue; especially so when also considering developments in the tiny, land-locked Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan.
"(GDP) measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile." Robert F. KennedyMaking the change from focusing exclusively on economic development, the nation has taken to making “gross national happiness” paramount when considering the real development of its people. For over four decades Bhutan’s prime minister, Jigme Thinley, has led a campaign that has not neglected economic growth, but gauged it alongside the culture, mental health, compassion, and community of the nation’s citizens. The outcome is hardly a shocker as this initiative (which asks of its people questions such as “How do you feel about how you spend your time each day?”) has been so immensely successful that there are now over 40 countries around the world which are actively studying their country’s GNH. The point isn’t that we should abandon our current goals altogether, but that they need to be augmented by realistic qualifiers of what makes a people happy.
After all, money is important (and you have to admit, it can be used to purchase some pretty cool stuff!) and ultimately, financial security certainly benefits those who are able to attain it, so it’s foolish to abort the goal of trying to make a decent wage. When so much value is placed on something such as finance though, that’s often where a false perception can creep in, working its way into our consciousness, gnawing at our self-esteem and persuading us to believe that our lives somehow suck compared to how the other half lives. Despite knowing that not having as high an income or as sound a portfolio as our neighbors doesn’t equate having a worse life, somehow this thinking can still leave us feeling as though we don’t match up. And when we can’t latch onto financial security, there’s a tendency to look elsewhere to satisfy or mask our own potential feelings of inadequacy.
"Envy is a perfect poison. Taken regularly throughout the day it can ruin anything decent going on in your life. Therefore… don’t forget to take it in measure minute by minute! It can turn a sunny day cloudy, and get your juices flowing when you’re calm." Ben Stein
Celebrity and glamour are so highly valued in the world that we’ve created for ourselves that the idea of being famous or attractive might as well be synonymous with godliness. While the realities of being pretty or popular are the same as wealthy — being so doesn’t necessarily mean being “happy” — it’s easy to get caught up in lusting after those models of “success” when all else fails. Especially as they become, or at least appear to become, increasingly feasible to achieve: If you can’t be rich, you might as well be gorgeous… or on reality TV.
Much as seeking wealth as a primary goal typically overlooks what the consequences of attempting to achieve that goal might be — let alone what the result will actually bring — the concepts of fame or beauty are hardly the express tickets to happiness that they might superficially appear to be. The reality is that celebrities, artists, and even your basic run-of-the-mill beauty models aren’t all that different from us in terms of such simple universal pursuits as self-esteem and happiness. Actually, being famous or beautiful can be kind of rough on people: “there is a surprisingly weak relationship between physical attractiveness and self-esteem”; “movie stars aren’t happy”; the pursuit of celebrity often comes as a reaction to being neglected as a child; and striving for both fame and looks often results in foregoing countless personality-cultivating experiences (such as living a real life; though I could probably argue that with George Clooney’s looks and salary, it might not be that much of a struggle to make such a sacrifice). This isn’t to mention the widespread tendency to romanticize self-destructive behavior among our society’s celebrity, or the rather shattered personal home-lives that many develop from constantly being under the scrutiny of the public eye. More disturbing, however, has been the trend over the past decade to strive for micro-fame through outlets ranging from reality TV to social networks; the reality of fame has so ridiculously mutated that it has now evolved into a horrifying and manipulative machine devouring those who yearn for the 15 minutes of fame they feel they can’t live without. Which brings me back to me.
There’s a big difference between caring and preaching, but when waxing on and on about dos and don’ts it becomes so easy to appear as partaking in the latter. And if simply speaking to the source of societal woes somehow avoids being translated as being preachy, it most certainly encourages claims of hypocrisy. What’s worse is that in this case, such assertions would be largely accurate: I, myself, continue to long for these known happiness-inhibitors.
"I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong." Ovid, MetamorphosesDespite filling my head with informed opinion as to what focus might lend my life more substantial satisfaction, I still find myself in a similar situation as so many others around the world: not simply falling into dissatisfaction traps, but actively welcoming them. Despite knowing what I know and recognizing the risks of gambling with my emotional and physical health, I still overlook historical pillars of health and happiness in seeking a number of the aforementioned empty pursuits I just criticized: I still feel like money would bring me happiness; I still feel like I might be better off if I were somehow more popular; I often value looks over substance; even this very blog is evidence that I have some craving to validated by others rather than figure things out on my own. And when all else fails, I so easily lose my focus and overlook the bigger picture of my goals in life, eventually seeking refuge in overindulgence in food and drink to soothe these negative feelings. When wealth, celebrity, and glamour fail, I look to self-medicating.
George Loewenstein established the term “empathy gap” in explaining how thought and behavior cannot be predicted when in hot or cold states of mind. Further, as the Carnegie Mellon University psychologist suggests, such states as love and rage blur general conclusions made regarding happiness: “If our decision making is influenced by these transient emotional and psychological states, then we know we’re not making decisions with an eye toward future consequences.” Similarly there’s something that has left it very hard for me to plan for my future, which I guess could be called the reaction gap: a tendency to react, influenced heavily by one’s individual psychological prognosis.
All things being equal, there are numerous keystones that have evolved through the ages that should help deliver some form of happiness to those searching for it. But when making decisions within the foggy bubble of depression and dependency, the idea of being happy often takes a back seat to simply trying to avoid sabotaging oneself. That’s where the reaction gap comes into play. For some years now, my professional diagnosis has been that of Major Depressive Disorder with a side of Alcohol Dependency, and considering that overall personal “happiness” for me has devolved into being more about feeling good than doing good for myself, it’s not hard to see how I’ve become lost during my journey. Over 450 million people suffer from mental disorders around the world. There are 2.5 million alcohol-related deaths recorded annually. Such statistics suggest that I’m not alone in struggling to just to simply survive, but that hardly soothes the nagging itch of What’s Missing. This might be different for every individual looking to find the best path toward happiness in their respective lives, but in discovering how to proceed moving forward for myself I feel it important to address my own reaction gap by unearthing and addressing the correlation between happiness and the issues that I’ve struggled most with in my past.