“If we thought of life as a gift, we might not demand nearly as much from it. And if we lived more graciously, giving of ourselves more freely to the well-being of others, many of our personal concerns would disappear, and life would become easier for all.”
— Lowell Bennion
Thanksgiving has just come and passed, and the end of another year of “if only’s” is not so far from ending, and we are stuck on the same square as last year. The problem with holidays is that they remind you that you are coming close to passing “go” again, but if your life is anything like mine, you do not get to collect $200. In fact, if you’re like me, we’re both still stuck on Vermont Avenue, or worse. Reflecting on what we have to be grateful for this year, it’s easy to get distracted by the failures, the color of your square, the conspicuous absence of cash and a house (forget about a small red handful), but it makes me feel better when I think about the real measure of happiness, according to the people who quantify it.
According to Dr. Tony Delamothe, in an article for the British Medical Journal in 2007, levels of income in developing countries show very little correlation with an increase in happiness over the last 50 years. What does this mean?
“Researchers believe that it’s relative income, rather than absolute income, that matters to people. However well we’re doing, there’s always someone else doing better. The pleasure of paying off the mortgage on one’s modest abode is neutralised by news that a 19 year old footballer is erecting a neo-Georgian mansion, complete with indoor swimming pool, three car garage, and cinema. As we realise one set of aspirations, it seems we immediately trade up to a more expensive set, to which we transfer our hopes for happiness.
As Samuel Johnson noted: “Life is a progress from want to want, not from enjoyment to enjoyment. (Demamothe, 2007).” This is simply a fancy iteration of keeping up with the Joneses. We miss the forest for the trees.
Who can’t relate to this? Denmark is consistently rated as one of the happiest place on earth-and one factor attributed to this happiness is the relative income equity among its citizens. When you think about Delamothe’s observation, if peels a layer off an important truth about all the manufactured wants of our time. They distract us from what we DO have, and rob us of happiness. If we could figure out how to block out the noise of what other people have more of and do better than us, we would be able to more fully enjoy our own lives. Americans live in a time of extremes between wealth and poverty; the idea that someone else can get rich off inventing garden burgers or lotteries or novels about wizards drives the rest of us down crazy bunny trails, believing if we could just invent the right product, or write the right book (this is my particular treadmill), or scratch the right ticket-everything would be perfect. But the other important fact that Delamothe’s research revealed is that-in the end, it wouldn’t matter! A fascinating conclusion was made by Delamothe’s research, which he summarizes this way:
“Given the choice between winning the lottery and being left permanently disabled by injury, everyone would take the money. Yet a year after either of these events, people apparently return to their previous levels of happiness.”
I’m fascinated by this thought. All of us going through life thinking “If only X happened, then I’d finally be happy,” are probably wrong. I mean, not me of course-I KNOW I’d be happier, but the general population;) But here’s the real news. Perhaps you are like me in more ways than one; maybe you’re stuck on Vermont Avenue, but don’t realize you’ve already won the lottery?
1.) Do you make a decent living wage? According to one source, the global median income is $1,225 a year. My family currently exists on an income that is considered poverty level in the US, and yet we FAR exceed this dismal number, and my bet is you do too. Think about this: “The poorest five per cent of Americans earn on average the same as the richest five per cent of Indians” (Gye, 2012).
2.) Do you have children? The issue of infertility is so prominent in our generation, that I doubt you need a statistic to be aware of it. But, if you have never experienced it, I doubt you can understand the gift you have received if you had children the “natural” way. Perhaps you are thinking that even people with problems conceiving can solve them with money, but even *if* you have the $20,000 required to go through an adoption or fertility treatment, and even *if* you’re successful, it doesn’t erase the heartache that accompanies the process.
3.) Are your children healthy? 27 -28 percent of children in developing countries are estimated to be underweight or stunted. And indoor air pollution kills 1.5 million people each year. Half of these numbers account for children. 1.4 million children die each year from access to safe drinking water and lack of sanitation. (Shah, 2010). When we or our children breathe clean air, drink clean water and have ready access to sanitary conditions, we’re already richer than many in the world.
4.) Can you read this? That means you are literate. According to a 2012 UNESCO report, about 15 percent of adults in the world are illiterate. And if you live in a community with a library, consider that the cherry on top. I live in a community in South America with a pitiful library-and it’s not until you no longer have access to the treasure trove of free resources libraries afford in the US and Canada (and I’m sure many other developed countries) that you can appreciate them fully. Literacy and a library promise that even if you have nothing, you have access to everything!
5.) Do you have shelter? The United Nation Commission on human rights (2005) reports that 100 million people worldwide are homeless. There are around 42 million displaced people (refugees) in the world (IRC). Someone I love very much once spent 4 months living in a Bronco and taking showers on a public beach. It gave me a new appreciation for a warm, full length bed and my own bathroom. Having any place to call home is a blessing. If you doubt it, try sleeping in your car for a night and going without your own bathroom for a few days. You won’t care much when you get back to your bed what the thread count of the sheets is.
6.) Do you have electricity? If you’ve ever had an outage, you realize how much you really do depend on it. A quarter of the world lives with out it. (Shah, 2010) So the next time you feel bummed because the electricity went out, try to appreciate that at least it will come back on!
7.) Do you have a friend? Someone to call when everything falls apart? When you lose your job, or shelter, or country? James Taylor wrote a beautiful song decades ago called “Fire and Rain.” His lyrics say “winter, spring, summer or fall, all you have to do is call, and I’ll be there.” Asking for help is not easy, but everybody needs it sometime. When we have someone we can call on in any season, fire or rain, we are rich!
8.) Do you feel like you and your family are safe? If you can call the police and know they will help you, not hurt you, you are much better off than people living in many other countries. One of the factors for happiness in the World Happiness report is living in a place without corruption, and trusting your community and government. If you are a woman and you feel safe walking down the street where you want, wearing what you want, and know you can make a report against someone who harms you and get results, you won a lottery ticket when you were born into a culture that values you.
9.) Do you have, or did you have, parents who love and support you? This is the other side of the coin when it comes to infertility. Some couples long for children, but more heartbreaking are the children that long for parents. And more frightening is the knowledge that they are vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation. If you were once a child who was safe and loved, you won the lottery when you were born.
10.) Do you have happy DNA? This is the Jackpot! Some people are born happy, and some have to work harder for it.
“Just as some people have to work harder than others to lose weight, some people must work harder at being happy. Research shows that we’re all born with a happiness “set point,” which is a genetically determined baseline for how happy (or grumpy) we are. But set point is only 50% of the
happiness equation, explains Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of California at Riverside and author of The How of Happiness. Another 10% is determined by circumstances, such as personal appearance and finances. That leaves 40% of happiness that is ours to affect through hard work and motivation.” (Evans, p. 41)).
I am pretty sure my set point for happiness came out pretty high. I am probably not working hard enough on the 40 percent I can control, but one more thing research tells us is that we must start with gratitude. What I’m fascinated by is that circumstance only affects 10 percent of our happiness. Which means a lot of us just ran out of an excuse to not be happy!
I have one theory about happiness, and it involves failure. Give up. Stop trying to reach just one rung higher. Stop trying to lose 1 more pound, or beat one more person. But we are so conditioned to always want *just* one more thing-especially when we look around and see that “everyone” else has so much more. Because we’re STILL on the ladder, our little knuckles white with hanging on. And by we, I mean you, of course;) Because I fell right off your ladder, and caught another one on the way down. My wish list is smugger, because there’s so much you have that I don’t. You want a remodel? I want a flushing toilet and a drawer that opens. You want a nanny or some quiet time? I want a baby and some noise. You want a house? I want furniture. Not better, newer furniture. Just furniture. You want a spa day? I want health care. You want to eat out more? I want food in the fridge.
I need to work harder on remembering I already won a few lotteries. I got happy DNA, a great family, electricity, and a full length bed. I’m on the one year rebound-back to the original happiness set point. What else could I ask for? (Except, of course, a library. A library with a Starbucks in it of course, and maybe a…)
Happy Thanks Giving!
List of References:
Delamothe, Tony. (2007). Happiness. British Journal of Medicine. http://www.emjournalclub.com/uploads/Happiness.pdf (Nov. 24, 2012).
Evans, Julie. (2009). Come on, Get Happy! Curves Magazine. http://toddkashdan.com/Diane2009_Happy.pdf (Nov. 24, 2012).
Gye, Hugo. (2012). We Are the 1%. Mail Online http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2082385/We-1–You-need-34k-income-global-elite–half-worlds-richest-live-U-S.html (Nov. 24, 2012).
International Rescue Committe (IRC). (no date). http://www.rescue.org/refugees. (Nov. 24, 2012).
John, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs, eds. World Happiness Report. http://www.earth.columbia.edu/sitefiles/file/Sachs%20Writing/2012/World%20Happiness%20Report.pdf. (Nov. 24, 2012).
Shah, Anup. (2010) Poverty Facts and Stats. Global Issues. http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats. (Nov. 24, 2012).