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—we’re too busy. We sit in our cars or on trains for hours, going 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. Why else would we do all this stuff? Why would we spend less time with our families 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 doing things simply because we enjoy doing them?
Why, in one form or another, do we work so hard?
“But I enjoy my work,” you might say. “I enjoy it more than anything else.” If that’s true for you, great. Count yourself among the lucky ones, because for the last 50 years the trend has shown decreasing satisfaction with work. In fact, studies show decreasing satisfaction with many things.
Throughout the 1950s, Gallup Poll data showed that the British were happier than they are now. In 1957, for example, 52 percent of respondents said they were “very happy,” a percentage that has dropped to 36 percent today. Interestingly, over the same period of time, from the 1950s to the present, the average British person experienced a 200 percent increase in wealth, alongside the decrease in happiness. This kind of data has been collected in many countries around the world.
R.D Putnam reports in Bowling Alone that in 1955, 44 percent of Americans enjoyed hours spent working more than hours spent doing anything else. In 1999, only 16 percent of Americans could say the same thing. During the same period (from 1955 to 1999) the United States enjoyed great economic prosperity—but its people didn’t get happier.
Japan has experienced a 500 percent increase in income over the last 40 years, but levels of happiness among the population have remained largely unchanged, save for a slight dip in happiness that occurred before the current economic crisis.
Despite great economic expansion through the 1990s, 15 European countries showed either no increase in happiness or a slight decline. More prosperity, more money, and more “success” do not appear to make us happier. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Of course, we need enough money to pay for food, clothing, shelter, and necessities like health care, but that amount of money is surprisingly low compared to our seemingly unlimited financial aspirations. And those aspirations—the attempts to be all you can be; to have all you can have—are making us less happy, not more.
But we already knew this. We’ve all heard the saying about how money can’t buy happiness. Nor can it buy you love. Yet we carry on, trying to buy our happiness and our love, as we increase our unhappiness and deplete the planet. To ask why is to invoke a long, deep, and convoluted story. It’s 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. 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 or go-with-the-flow hemisphere, is getting a good whupping 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 always had our eyes on the prize, or prizes—it’s just 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 challenge. Goal-directed activity is very left-brained. 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 declined and depression has skyrocketed.
So if money, stuff, and goal-directed activity don’t make us happy, what does? Health? You’d think so, but research doesn’t support that. A number of factors could exist, 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. 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, researchers have studied this question too. (As you can see, if not for the left hemisphere, this research would never be done. The problem arises when things get out of balance.)
One key to deepening one’s ability to connect with others is the healthy acceptance of oneself. We can achieve this by being open and vulnerable; by being honest and present and willing to let go of control, predictability, and safety. We must feel that we are okay just as we are, which means standing still and accepting ourselves—unfinished to-do lists and all.
Herein lies one of the keys to the mystery of why we often find ourselves wrongly pursuing things like money and material possessions, though they leave us less happy. Money and possessions are about security and control. They’re left-brained treasures; chasing them a left-brained activity. They define the left-brain’s happiness. And 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 protection 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 lives and ourselves just as they are. As we accept, we open not only to ourselves but also to those around us. As we open, our connections deepen and broaden. Smiles come across our faces, but we don’t know it—not yet. Happiness has found us, but we haven’t found happiness. We’re happy—so happy that we only know about it after the matter, after the happiness has passed and our left hemispheres can take a look at it and enjoy the afterglow.
Next time you notice yourself racing towards the things you think will make you happy, stop and think. Realize that you will never be happy until you slow down and connect, first with yourself, and then with whatever and whoever is around you. That connection—not money nor materials nor achievements—is the foundation of the happiness we seek.
I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 805/680-5572.