The world has never been busier trying to be happy than it is right now. We buy. We work. We create. We diet. We exercise. We set goals. We work two jobs. We work three jobs. We get more education. Read more books. Attend more seminars. We leave our kids at daycare. We don’t eat together as a family because we’re so busy. We sit in our cars or in trains for hours as we go to and from work. We despoil the planet.
On and on it goes. We’re like mice on a spinning exercise wheel racing towards happiness.
That must be where we think we’re going, towards happiness, or else why would we do all this stuff? Why would we spend less time with our family and friends, less time in our homes hanging out, less time playing together, less time in the garden, less time chatting aimlessly, less time eating leisurely, and less time simply doing things for no other reason than that we simply enjoy doing them?
Why, in one form or another, do we work so hard?
Yes, you might say, but I enjoy my work. I enjoy it more than anything else.
If that’s true for you, that’s great. You can count yourself amongst the lucky ones, because for the last fifty years the trend has been for decreasing satisfaction with work.
As a matter of fact, studies show that there seems to be decreasing satisfaction with many things.
Throughout the 1950’s, Gallup Poll data showed that the British were happier than they are now. In 1957, for example, 52% of the respondents said they were ‘very happy’ as compared to 36% who say they are ‘very happy’ today.
Interestingly, during the same period of time, from the 1950’s to the present, the average person in Britain has experienced a 200% increase in wealth, but a decrease in happiness.
This kind of data has been collected for many countries around the world. R.D Putnam reports in Bowling Alone that in 1955 44% of Americans enjoyed their working hours more than anything else they did. In 1999, only 16% of Americans could say the same thing.
During the same period, from 1955 to 1999, the country had enjoyed great economic prosperity but it did not make people happier.
Japan has experienced a 500% increase in income over the last 40 years, but the level of happiness has remained unchanged, and may even be showing a slight dip, and that was before the current economic crisis.
For fifteen countries in Europe, the decade ending in 2000 showed either no increase in happiness or a slight decline, though Europe experienced great economic expansion during the decade.
More prosperity, more money, and more success, do not seem to make us happier; in fact, the opposite seems to be true.
Of course, we need enough money to buy food, clothes, shelter, necessities, health care, and the like, but that amount of money is surprisingly low in comparison to our aspirations, which can seemingly be unlimited. And those unlimited aspirations, those attempts to be all you can be, and to have all you can have, is making us less, rather than more happy.
We know this. We’ve heard the saying. Money can’t buy happiness. Or love. And yet we go right on doing just that as we increase our unhappiness and deplete the planet.
It’s a long, deep, and convoluted story, and not fully understood, but it has something to do with the way we understand things. It has to do with our brains, our wiring, with the fact that we sort of have two brains, the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere, and that though both contribute to our view of the world, the views are different and they often clash.
Right now the left hemisphere, what we can call logic central, is in ascendancy. And the right hemisphere, the be-here-now, the go-with-the-flow hemisphere is getting a good whooping from the left hemisphere.
Put simply, we’re out of our right minds and in our left minds, and we’ve lost sight of the things that make us truly happy.
We’ve had our eyes on the prize, or prizes, but it’s been the wrong prize.
You can’t go at happiness directly. You have to go towards the things that you think will make you happy or allow happiness to arise. And the very act of going towards is part of the problem. Goal-directed activity is a very left-brained activity and it can interfere with happiness, because happiness is only here and now, in the moment, if it’s anywhere. As the pace of activity has heated up around the world happiness has gone down and depression has skyrocketed.
So if money and stuff and goal-directed activity don’t make us happy, what does?
Health? You’d think so, but research doesn’t support that.
There could be a number of things, but in his research Robert Putnam found that in the U.S. and around the world happiness is best predicted by, ‘the breadth and depth of one’s social connections.’
That’s it. Now we know where the real ‘prize’ is. It’s in the depth and breadth of our friendships and relationships. It’s in our connections with our family, our friends, and our community.
And how might you increase ‘the breadth and depth’ of your social connections, other than the obvious ways of spending more time and energy in these areas of your life?
Fortunately, that question has been studied by researchers, too.
(As you can see, the left hemisphere is a good thing to have because it helps you do this kind of research. The problem occurs when things get too out of balance, as they seem to be doing during this time in history.)
One key to deepening one’s ability to connect with others is a healthy acceptance of ourselves. And how do we achieve a healthy acceptance of ourselves? By being open and vulnerable. By being honest and present and willing to let go of control, predictability and safety. By being okay just as we are, which means standing still and accepting ourselves as we are, unfinished to-do lists and all.
Herein lies one of the keys to the mystery of why we often find ourselves wrongly going after things like money and possessions that leave us less happy. Money and possessions are about security and control. They’re left-brained activities. It’s how the left brain goes after happiness.
They’re the opposite, in many respects, of vulnerability and openness to whatever happens in the moment, the domain of the right hemisphere. Control, invulnerability, and protected-ness interfere with our ability to develop deep connections with others. They interfere with our ability to cultivate the soil of happiness.
We have to stand still long enough to connect. To stand still, we have to accept our selves and our lives just as they are. As we accept, we open, to ourselves and to those around us. As we open, our connection deepens and broadens. And a smile comes across our face, but we don’t know it, not yet, because happiness has found us, and we haven’t found happiness. We’re happy, so happy that we will only know about it later, when happiness has passed a bit and our left hemisphere can take a look at it and enjoy the afterglow.
So, the next time you notice yourself racing towards things you think will make you happy, stop and realize that you will never be happy till you slow down and connect, first with yourself, and then with whatever and whomever is around you. That connection, not more money or things or achievements, is the foundation of the happiness we seek.
I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 805/680-5572.