Someday, when asked that simple question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, I hope the child answers with a single word: happy. This simple, unconventional answer may cause the “adult” inside to question if this means the child is currently unhappy, but that would be missing the point. The child is probably happy now. The question the child is answering and the adult is expecting are two different things. The confusion comes from our adult inability to tell the difference between what one does for work and what one truly is. One can be happy now and hope to be happy in the future. What one does for work has little bearing on this, as we shall see.
Unfortunately, this confusion embedded into our psyche from a young age seems to continue well into adulthood. There are even well-meaning articles on how to best answer that seemingly easy question. Basically, it’s very easy to fall into believing the following:
One works hard, bringing success, which by its very nature brings happiness. It sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Too bad it’s a lie….
Happiness resides not in possessions, and not in gold, happiness dwells in the soul.
Here, I think, Democritus is defining “possessions” to be both the physical and the ephemeral earthly rewards. Don’t get me wrong. I am a strong believer in hard work. I believe it is necessary for human achievement and well-being, as well as being good for the soul. But, as we will see, in and of itself, it will not bring happiness. Other ingredients are needed.
Now, this article isn’t going to attempt to fully define happiness, what makes us happy, or how we can achieve happiness in general. The libraries containing the research, musings and outright speculations on those subjects are already nearing capacity. The greatest minds in history have bent their minds’ power to answer this question (and their answers vary). The world religions discuss happiness ad nauseam (and their answers vary much less than one would suppose). All want to believe that “man are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). Thomas Jefferson enshrined the concept that “the pursuit of happiness” was not only self-evident, but also an unalienable right in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
So, where is the problem?
Happiness is not something you postpone for the future; it is something you design for in the present.
~ Jim Rohn
This is one of our problems as people. The three step process noted above (Hard Work -> Success -> Happiness) has a fatal flaw in it: human psychology. Under this model, every time we experience any type of success, we simply move the goalpost, thereby redefining success. As Shawn Achor, a practitioner of positive psychology, discussed in his TEDxBloomington talk, this behavior pushes “happiness over the cognitive horizon”. So, under this model, there is no way to ever actually achieve happiness.
One must then conclude hard work alone does not bring happiness. Incidentally, neither does laziness. But, happiness itself helps us work not only harder, but also faster and smarter (or shall I say, more creatively) than when we are neutral, negative or stressed. Being happy gives us an advantage–a significant advantage. Therefore, the trick is to learn to be happy now. Shawn Achor suggested several simple actions for this:
- Showing gratitude
- Keeping a journal about positive things
- Performing random acts of kindness
One will notice these are all internal acts. In fact, one’s external circumstances is a very poor predictor of happiness, assuming basic needs are met. In reality, external circumstances generally can only decrease happiness, not increase it or create it.
A man who as a physical being is always turned toward the outside, thinking that his happiness lies outside him, finally turns inward and discovers that the source is within him.
~ Søren Kierkegaard
Often, we spend our time rushing from one goalpost to the next, only to angrily watch our perceived potential happiness flutter away before us. We spend so much time trying to reach happiness that we never allow ourselves to be happy. In his talk entitled “Of Regrets and Resolutions“, Dieter F. Uchtdorf posed the following question:
Do we listen to beautiful music waiting for the final note to fade before we allow ourselves to truly enjoy it? No. We listen and connect to the variations of melody, rhythm, and harmony throughout the composition.
He followed it up with:
We shouldn’t wait to be happy until we reach some future point, only to discover that happiness was already available—all the time! Life is not meant to be appreciated only in retrospect. “This is the day which the Lord hath made…,” the Psalmist wrote. “Rejoice and be glad in it.”
So, to some extent, it is about living in the present, while keeping an eye on the future. Perhaps, if a holiday reference can be excused, it is as the reformed Ebenezer Scrooge declared:
Scrooge’s realization money, while it could buy him power, it couldn’t buy him what he truly needed in life. The paradox of money is that while it can buy most anything, there are some things it simply can’t. One such thing beyond the reach of money is, according to The Beatles, love.
This leads us to another question:
What about happiness? Can money buy happiness?
One’s natural response is probably to respond with an emphatic “NO!”. This, however, appears not to be the actual case. It’s true, money itself is amoral and agnostic. One of my favorite quotes from Douglas Adams‘ seminal work The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is as follows:
This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much all of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.
So, maybe it all has to do with how one uses one’s money. Michael Norton, a Harvard Business School associate professor, believes money can, in fact, buy happiness if it is used in one particular way: benefiting others.
Help others and give something back. I guarantee you will discover that while public service improves the lives and the world around you, its greatest reward is the enrichment and new meaning it will bring your own life.
~ Arnold Schwarzenegger
Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success.
~ Albert Schweitzer