About 150 years ago, the number crunching, suit wielding men of the economics profession decided happiness was too hard to analyse, so instead took the simpler task to measure consumer preferences to judge humanities progress (2). The impact of this was that a nation’s success was now defined by how much we earn, spend and sell. In fancy terms, success from therein was going to be measured by Gross Domestic Product and economic growth, and individually, how much money you have and how much more you are earning each year.
Things have basically been viewed this way ever since. The only problem is although we are awesome at earning heaps of money and buying stuff, mountains of it in fact, happiness appears to be going backwards. The self proclaimed greatest contry in the world and world champions in wealth generation, the United States, ranks only 18th in the world for happiness (3). In fact income per capita has more than doubled since 1972 while happiness has remained roughly unchanged or has even declined (3). There has never been a safer more economically prosperous time in history, so how is this possible?
Aristotle knew what was going on about 2,300 year ago (1). All those years ago, he basically said a single minded pursuit of wealth is no way not be happy.
Because a good life is a balanced and a virtuous life. Not a single-minded pursuit of income (1).
What this great thinker was getting at, was that we need to restack our values and aim for things that will lead to a fulfilled life.
Unfortunately, in this modern world we have been programmed from a young age to suppress our internal values and instead focus outward to what others value. The education system is not designed to create independent, critical thinking humans. It is formulated to prepare you to work. That’s all. Which is unsurprising when you remember the overarching measure of success is money, and you get money by working. You see, we are all stuck in the thought process that wealth equals success. Everyone wants to be successful, so we strive for it. Unfortunately, chasing wealth is like trying to count to infinity, there is no destination.
Because a good life is a balanced and a virtuous life. Not a single-minded pursuit of income.
Always stretching the finances to afford that next purchase that we think will buy our happiness and other people admiration. Only to find that shortly after our latest purchase the excitement wears off, and set our sights on the next goal. This cycle is called hedonic adaptation. A classic study performed in 1987 compared the happiness of lottery winners and victims of traumatic accidents at periods of time after both events (4). What they found was that in the long term neither was happier than the other.
What had happened is both groups had returned to their baseline happiness level. This cycle was coined hedonic adaptation and really showed that unless you take steps to change your baseline happiness (feed your values), most other changes will wear off and leave you feeling the same as when you started. Think about if you ever had a promotion, how long was it until you forgot about the extra money?
Which really erodes the importance of one of the main odes of western capitalist society – wealth generation above all. If you listen to the leaders of the western world, characters like Donald Trump (USA), Teresa May (UK) and here in Australia SCOMO (Scott Morrison), all you will hear them bang on about is economic growth. Because they still maintain the blind faith in the wealth generation equals happiness mantra.
One significant issue is that we have been taught that to challenge the way the system works, is the biggest crime of all. But why? I can only think that this harks back to the communism vs capitalism times. When it was cemented in all our minds that to challenge capitalism is to associate yourself with crazies like Stalin. Times have moved on and people need to learn that. The white elephant in the room is that capitalism is based on endless economic growth. And that economic prosperity is placed above all other values.
We will kill the planet and humanity if we continue down this path. The global financial crisis, where the common person had to bail out the big banks with trillions of hard earned money, really showed that the system needs adjustments. Brexit and the rise of Trump have been more recent red flags that show people are unhappy with the status quo, but aren’t quite sure what or who to blame. Because remember, we have been told not to challenge the roots of the system.
Interestingly, Bhutan in 1971 decided to challenge the system and change how they are to measure success (5). They decided to measure Gross National Happiness and reference all new legislation against a cost-benefit-happiness ratio (5). This approach from Bhutan was then adopted by the United Nations and now the world has the World Happiness Report (2).
I know from my own personal experience that in Australia, Politicians bark on about national security, terrorism, economic growth and jobs. But would never mention national happiness. We seem to be caught in a race to the bottom with the USA and United Kingdom as to who can be the most nationalistic and self-protecting all while the populous develops more distrust for everyone including the government. Incidentally, Bhutan’s choice to focus on happiness appears to have been a great success both economically and socially in their tiny nation (5).
Human beings such as David Attenborough or Jane Goodall shine with their environmental conscience. The Scandinavians generally can be appreciated for their focus on happiness and education reform. Authors and academics like Noam Chomsky provide fresh thought, and even YouTube stars like Riley and Elayna from Sailing La Vagabond lead by example while showing everyone that life can be lived differently. Sports stars like John John Florence show us the balance between being driven for achievement and humility at the same time.
But I actually think that social media is being framed for this crime by white elderly faceless male conservative politicians that are actually holding the smoking gun. The bullet is money, the gun is the banking system and the philosophy that economic growth is to be put above all is the doctrine. This doctrine needs to be shot down itself, and the best way to do this is to just make the changes yourself. Block out all the noise, and focus on what you actually want out of life.
Block out all the noise, and focus on what you actually want out of life.
If you are tired of sitting at a desk for 9 hrs a day and spending more of your life with your work colleagues than your family and friends, it’s time to take five for a rethink.
Step number 1 is to list your top 10 values in life. And if you have a partner get them to do it as well. Talk about what they mean. Maybe ask yourself a question: is my life right now aligned with my values? If so – then great, you should be a happy individual. But if not, we can all learn from looking at our lives at the present and seeing where and what we spend most of our time doing. The gap between what we value and where we are spending our time is the gap that needs bridging.
Start with the easiest things to fix first. Pick 3 easy things and make that a routine. Then pick the next 3 and you will actually turn your life ship into the right direction with each little step. It doesn’t have to be a massive life crisis. Just small steps all put on top of each other and you will be better off.
The gap between what we value and where we are spending our time is the gap that needs bridging.
(1) Aristotle, ., Thomson, J. A. K., Tredennick, H., Barnes, J., & Aristotle, . (2004). The Nicomachean ethics. London: Penguin Books.
(2) Dubner, S,. (2019). Freakonomics Podcast: How to Be Happy (Ep.345) http://freakonomics.com/podcast/happiness-rebroadcast/
(3) Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2018). World Happiness Report 2018, New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network. http://worldhappiness.report/
(4) Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(8), 917-927. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.527
(5) ABC News Australia. (2017). What happens when a country strives for happiness – at any cost https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-06-23/bhutan-strives-for-happiness-but-at-what-cost/8633424