Happiness And Other Choices
Is happiness over rated? I’ve been throwing that (and similar) questions out on Twitter for a few days now and the responses have been fascinating. Everything from total agreement, to questioning whether I even know what happiness is (apparently because I dared to ask others what they thought about the topic).
I’m curious, because happiness has become something of a buzzword in recent years. Look at the bookshelves and study the popular blogs and you’ll see a veritable happiness industry. It seems there’s a market out there for happiness.
The Words We Use
How we choose to describe our life and how we express our hopes and desires can say a lot about our deepest beliefs. I wonder if the words we use can sometimes shape us; perhaps more than we might imagine?
Happiness is a word I hear and read a lot these days. While being happy, or experiencing happiness over extended periods of time is wonderful. How important is happiness and should it be a primary goal in life?
Take a look at this article which asks you to consider “…10 words that best represent your values, lifestyle, beliefs, desires and needs.” There’s a number of lists, reflecting different cultures and stages of life. None of them mention happiness.
Consequences Are Not Goals
The Island Where People Forget To Die, is a brilliant New York Times article exploring longevity on the Greek island of Ikaria, where residents have a simple, stress-free and incredibly healthy pattern of life and seem to live far longer (and more disease free) than people in more economically prosperous situations.
The lives of the elderly residents of Ikaria suggest plenty of happiness, but also some other, perhaps more important factors, like contentment and what the residents of Okinawa call “ikigai”, or “the reason for which you wake up in the morning.”
I believe the happiness we sense in these people’s lives is a consequence of the way they live and most importantly, a consequence of the way their life is different from most of ours.
The High Cost Of Ambiguity And Choice
The residents of Ikaria have less than most of us who live the consumerist western lifestyle. They have fewer things and fewer possessions, but they also have fewer choices and far less ambiguity in their lives.
How different are their lives? Well, imagine not changing your major relationships, place of residence, religion, or life values for your whole life? How many people do we know who seem to change all of those every decade?
Having options and choices is valuable. It is good to able to reconfigure your life when things are really not working, or your situation is destructive. But, most of us live bombarded by choice, even paralysed by it at times. When even the smallest decisions in life are ambiguous and open to choice, there has to some kind of emotional cost involved (something Barry Schwartz explores in The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less).
“Happiness is a garden walled with glass: there’s no way in or out. In Paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys. It’s loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along its twisted road.”
Making Happiness our goal feels misguided, perhaps even sub-human. Life is at times tragic and those tragedies give our experience a sense of depth and urgency. The happiness obssesed outlook often seems flat to me, it doesn’t do justice to the majesty of human existence. I’m not sure how we can ever really create art (or for that matter, any meaningful social change) when our focus is fixed on day to day happiness.
The Perfect Picnic
I posted this image on Instagram and Twitter and asked the question – “Do Adelaideans have a word for watching an awesome sunset while eating amazing local food with fantastic local wine?” I loved the answers people gave like, awesome, paradise and bliss (though “evening” was the closest anyone came to the ultimate smart alec response, “normal”).
There’s no question this was a happy moment. My daughter had packed a great little picnic hamper and we ate, in between taking photos of the sunset and joking around on the beach. But, it was a beautiful pause in the midst of a taxing week at the back end of a very challenging year. The meaning of the moment was as much in the contrast it added to the rest of our lives along with the joy it gave us for a few hours.