I’m about to suggest you challenge your beliefs. Why? Because I’ll bet many of them aren’t working. Yes, you — the guy with the comb over!
Unless you are unlucky, you possess a level of convenience far greater than the kings and queens of history. I’m referring to indoor plumbing, TV, and computers. You have the possibility of air travel, superior medical care, and a better chance of a long life. Are you happier than they were?
Perhaps the route we plot to emotional well-being isn’t the best one.
- Material wealth (aka, “The American Dream”) is not the road to happiness. Beyond income of $70,000 per year, money doesn’t generate much moment-to-moment improvement in your emotional state.
- Most people don’t spend money wisely once their necessities are obtained. Research suggests you will achieve more well-being by purchasing experiences over things. Moreover, if you buy coffee for the guy behind you in line you’ll get more bliss than if you order a more expensive drink for yourself.
- Comparisons to people alive today (in terms of wealth, status, and the things they own) probably matter more to you than comparisons to your ancestors. We are reminded far more than our forebears of our relative disadvantage next to the highly placed folks around us. People tend to compare “up” — to those better off — more often than “down.” Thank radio, TV, and the Internet for highlighting your disadvantage. No such information sources existed 100 years ago.
- Once you get something you want (an object, an accomplishment or a baby), the achievement will shortly lose its fascination. Like the kid at Christmas, your new toy soon moves to the shelf. (Warning: Don’t put your kid on a shelf!) The data demonstrate that growing children make parents less happy than they were before the stork delivered them. As to trophies, they become part of the background, not the foreground of your life. The thrill disappears and your level of happiness drops. This is called hedonic adaptation. We live on a hedonic treadmill and find it impossible to permanently race ahead and keep our joy elevated.
- Rest — many of us want more — is a recipe for disaster. Too much time on our hands permits troubled thoughts to unsettle us.
Put those items together and you will recognize we aren’t very good at knowing what will make us happy. Worse yet, we believe we are entitled to happiness. I doubt that our grandparents believed this. Notions of “fairness” and “deserving” weren’t as common. The idea of being singled out for punishment by man or fate was unseemly to talk about. Being a “man” meant not complaining. Bad things happened. Mistakes were made. Rub some dirt on the wound and get back into the game.
I am not talking here about frank physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, but rather the common ups and downs of life including betrayal by friends, cheating of all kinds, the loss of jobs, non-devastating accidents and injuries, and even illness.
Today we challenge authority for inadequacies routinely accepted as a part of life 50 years ago. We complain about doctors and school teachers. Perfection, or close to it, is expected. Things are supposed to work, not break down. We blame someone else when they don’t perform as advertised. Since everything does eventually wear out — human and machine — we feel cheated. Somehow we’ve lost an understanding of the temporary nature of our creations, the imperfect nature of everything. We are unhappier for believing in permanence and near perfection as the natural state of things — assumptions about what life is supposed to be and won’t ever be.
Technology has spoiled us. We don’t typically observe our loved ones suffer and die in our homes any more. They are elsewhere, caught in the miracle of medicine. In a world where 60 is the new 40, no one is expected to die at 50, the average life expectancy in the first decade of the last century. We’ve become aggrieved and petulant, demanding someone else make our lives better. We wait for perfect cures and perfect washing machines never requiring repair or replacement, with a guarantee of happiness because of them.
Humanity makes a crucial mistake. We misunderstand a common phrase: “the cost of living.” Ask 100 well-educated people for a definition and 99 will say, “the money a family needs to survive — enough food and a decent place to live.”
The real cost of living consists of the bruises, injuries, and heartbreaks endured in any life; the disappointments and the wearing away. The need to replace things, change ideas, and say goodbye far too often. The betrayals and violations. The personal mistakes and poor choices. The Humpty Dumptyness of life. The regret, guilt, and anxiety. The tears. The fear of the future and the wish to “do over” the past. The decline and fall of things more personal than the Roman Empire.
I don’t think this is a dystopian view of life, but a realistic one. Much else makes life worth its toll: friendship, love, sports, and books. Or food, art, architecture, and the beauty of nature. How about kindness, music, and sex? Add victory, accomplishment, and learning — all of these are wonderful. Worth, to me, the cost of living and more.
Consider a suggestion: erase all your assumptions about how life is supposed to work, whatever advice your mom gave you, and take a second look. Decide for yourself whether your beliefs are working. Be an iconoclast. Break the graven images in your home and in your head. Start with a blank sheet of paper and challenge all you know. You might need to look for happiness in new attitudes, activities, goals, and people.
One other thing. Give life everything you have. Don’t play it safe in the hope of avoiding a knockout punch.
Life will impose its cost of living whether you take your best shot or not. You might as well get your money’s worth.
The second image comes from page 9 of Denslow’s Humpty Dumpty. It is sourced from Thornamentalist via Wikimedia Commons.