Friday, May 11, 2007

In Search of Happiness

If I were somehow able to compute the amount of time I have spent in my life pondering the nature of human happiness, I’m sure it would be an embarrassingly large number of hours. My mother used to coach me that the secret to living well was to do things that brought me happiness. I have cogitated over constitutional issues from the first day I encountered the document and noted that one of the rights guaranteed to all Americans is the pursuit of happiness. The danger in this lies in making poor decisions about what makes us happy.

Last week while listening to one of my favorite radio programs, The People’s Pharmacy, a health oriented talk show hosted by Joe and Terry Graedon, a couple of pharmaceutical types from the University of North Carolina, I heard a most interesting interview with Daniel Gilbert, PhD, Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He has written a book called Stumbling on Happiness. His main assertion is that human beings suffer from an inability to identify what it is that will make them happy so that they can act in a way that will bring them true happiness.

As I recall it, Dr. Gilbert found through extensive research and study that happiness comes from wealth only to the extent that the wealth lifts us from insecurity to security in the knowledge that we do not need to fear starvation or exposure to the elements. In other words, if we increase our income enough to lift us from poverty into the middle class, our happiness increases commensurately. After that, though, happiness must be sought in other ways because, he also found that increasing wealth above that level does not increase happiness commensurately.

This comes as no real surprise. Just look at the American culture. Here is a people that has complete control of the richest continent on earth; a people who compose about 5% of the world’s population but consume over 25% of its wealth; a people who have the most cars per capita, the most square footage of housing per capita, the highest earnings per capita of all the people in the world. And yet, here is a people who live in a paranoid state -- constant fear that it will all be taken away somehow -- believing politicians who tell them that others are jealous of their wealth and their freedom; so jealous that they would wantonly kill us to take it all away.

We don’t just live in fear of “the others”, though. We more realistically live in fear of our own citizenry; that segment of our population that does not have real access to that wealth. Our upper classes and more and more of our middle class members live in gated communities; secure at night only in the knowledge that the gates are closed, the guards are on duty and the security system is armed and functioning.

With all this wealth, why is it that we are so insecure? Is it really because we have so much that we are afraid others are going to take it away from us? I don’t think so. I don’t think that level of insecurity arises from that kind of logical rationality. I think it is more deep seated than that and at the same time closer to the surface.

As Dr. Gilbert says, increasing our wealth above the level of security brings little or no return in the form of happiness. In fact, there is no doubt that a more equitable sharing of wealth could increase our personal security. If we were all on nearly the same level a great deal of the motivation for attack and theft would be removed. Why would we “covet thy neighbor’s goods” if they were little or no different from our own?

I’m not advocating a communistic system that in its utopian embodiment would equally divide the national product. “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need” is a wonderful sentiment, but not a working manifesto. What I am advocating is that we as individuals and we as nations could operate more effectively under some manifesto other than “winner take all”, which I see as the way the U.S. has tended to operate throughout its history.

Want happiness? Then listen to Dr. Gilbert. Listen to Maslow. Listen to Skinner. Listen to Gandhi. Listen to Jesus. Listen to Mohammed. Listen to Buddha. They all brought it down to the same formula. Seek self actualization through material gain only to the extent that you are secure, then seek it through expansion of your mental and spiritual capacities and the well-being of others.

Not only is all that glitters not gold, but all that’s gold is not of equal value. Individually, we must sift through what is available to us and learn to recognize that which is of true value and that which is frivolous. Beware the velvet trap -- the belief that we will thrive if we have all the soft, cushy, fun little luxuries that demonstrate to others that we have “made it”. That’s the American syndrome -- our national neurosis – and it has predictably made us not happy but rather stingy and obnoxious. We want it all. We’ve got it all. And like spoiled children, instead of gaining friends by sharing what we have, we create enemies by clutching it to our chests and screaming for more.

Our so-called leaders keep telling us that “they hate us for our freedom”. My response to that is in the last verses of my song “Bob Dylan Revisited”:

They don’t hate us for our freedom, They’d just like to have their own.
They don’t hate us for our riches, Though they know we’re sonsabitches,
They just don’t want us stealing it from them.

‘Cause we use it for our pleasure, And don’t pay them in fair measure,
And we sit and eat our popcorn while they starve.

If we could each find our personal peace in the comfort of our own accomplishments, we would have little to envy one another for.

Be the change you wish to see in the world. – M. K Gandhi

Individually we have little voice. Collectively we cannot be ignored. But
in silence we surrender our power. Yours in Peace -- BR

No comments: