How can one be happy?
We all have our own answers – or perhaps our own delusions.
So many of us are driven by extrinsic motivations: money, power and fame. And yet it is logically apparent (if one cares to look) that true happiness comes from intrinsic motivations: the things that we do without regard for reward or recognition. The things that don’t cost money and don’t require power or fame.
To focus primarily on one’s desire for extrinsic rewards is to travel a rocky path fraught with disappointment (and worse). And yet you probably already find yourself on that path. I want to show you a better way.
Money and Happiness
Currency has been around in one form or another practically since the dawn of mankind.
We are a naturally societal species: we thrive through co-existence and cooperation. As such, we rely on the help of each other to survive. Before money we had bartering, and before that our most primitive of ancestors had separate responsibilities that, when combined, added up to a cohesive whole that enabled a tribe to survive.
My point is this: the coexistence and exchange of unique skills is necessary for the survival of humanity. And the capitalist system has proven to be the most effective means for this requirement to be fulfilled. It has allowed humankind to thrive over the past several thousands years.
But money is ultimately what you make of it: a tool that can be used and abused.
Unfortunately, the perspective that most people in our generation have on money is dangerously skewed. They see it as a means to have more – not in a sense of simple subsistence, but in terms of unnecessary material wealth and possessions.
It is believed by most that material growth will lead to greater happiness. But in reality, material growth has very little to do with happiness.
Don’t get me wrong: for most people, having money is a requirement of living happily in our society. The vast majority of us need money to subsist. Our happiness can be affected hugely depending on whether we live above or below the breadline, which correlates directly with the amount of money we have.
But beyond the point of subsistence, the effect that money has on happiness changes drastically. Multiple studies have demonstrated that the effect of money on happiness dissipates drastically once a person has enough to subsist. To put it another way, once you have everything you need (on the most basic level), getting hold of the material objects you want doesn’t have a huge effect on your happiness.
Despite this, we build our lives around the desire for more money. I know I have in the past, and still do to an extent. I have been brainwashed by our society from an early age to believe that earning more is the key to happiness. The idea of earning no money than I currently do in the long term still strikes me as somewhat depressing, despite the fact that I can objectively rationalize the falsity of my reasoning.
Even worse, we build our lives around the need for more money – not just in an emotional sense, but in order to sustain what we consider to be a necessary way of life. We take out mortgages and loans for houses and cars we can’t afford, then experience ever-growing levels of stress when the reality of our financial situation catches up with us. We put ourselves in positions where we feel that we have to continue to earn at least the same amount of money – or even more – just to keep ourselves afloat in the material world we have created for ourselves.
And all this is for what exactly? Money doesn’t ultimately bring happiness. In my experience, it is far more likely to bring stress or worry (or worse) into our lives through its misuse.
Where Happiness Comes From
I recently watched a documentary entitled Happy. It tells a compelling story of what happiness is truly about.
When watching this documentary, I was fascinated (yet not particularly surprised) to observe the pure, unadulterated happiness of so many people who many of us might delude ourselves into feeling sorry for.
On the purest level, happiness has very little to do with extrinsic rewards and everything to do with what comes from within. Love, compassion, and altruism. Close personal and societal bonds. Meaningful interactions both with the people we love and the natural world in which we live. Personal growth in ways that feel most genuinely rewarding to the individual. Fulfilling work.
And yet so much of this is at odds to the society in which we have built. I don’t know how we’ve got to where we are as a society (I don’t yet understand how it all went so wrong), but in my opinion, here isn’t where we should be. If you want to be happy, you must make a concerted effort to focus on what truly matters, even if it flies in the face of what society teaches us.
What This Means in Terms of Leaving Work Behind
I still come across people who don’t appreciate what I intend the phrase ‘leaving work behind’ to mean.
It’s not about quitting your job and never working another day in your life. It’s not even necessarily about quitting your job (although that is in this site’s tagline!). It’s about living life in such a way that your work doesn’t feel like “work” in the negative sense that so many people perceive it. With this site I try to provide means for people to achieve that (through articles like this and resources like Paid to Blog, Paid to Blog Jobs and so on).
There is nothing wrong with hard work. In fact, working hard can be very good for one’s physical and mental health (just observe the pensioner-age Okinawan woman featured in Happy who seems positively gleeful about the physical demands of her daily agricultural toils). But we must get away from doing work with the sole aim of earning more.
Chances are that you don’t need more – you probably need less. A smaller house and a more economical car. No cable TV and fewer kitchen gadgets. Less reliance on your supermarket and a greater willingness to grow and cook your own food. Not only can these ‘sacrifices’ reduce your need for more money, they can also ultimately contribute to your wellbeing and happiness by encouraging more intrinsically rewarding actions.
You must get over the notion that you are what you have, and that you need what you have. What you need is within you. It cannot be purchased.
If you are already well ingrained into a material way of living, or even just a fixed manner of living that prevents you from getting away from the immediate need to chase for more, adjusting your priorities and detaching yourself from financial burdens is easier said than done.
I am not suggesting that you have it easy. But to recognize that happiness comes from within – not from what you own or how much money you have – is the first step you must take in creating a new habitat for your healthier outlook on life.
And it’s not just about acknowledgement: it’s about belief and action. One can acknowledge the relative unimportance of earnings above the breadline while contradictorily seeking more. The key is that you truly believe what you acknowledge, and take action based upon that belief.
You can start small by doing anything from making your own bread to canceling your cable subscription. More pivotal steps would be to downsize your car (or go without) and even your home. And perhaps most exciting of all, you could seriously consider making a change in your working situation, even (or perhaps especially) if it means taking an unconventional approach.
Each of us deserves a roof over our head, a warm place to sleep and food in our bellies. Those can reasonably be called our needs. Beyond that, we should all take a long hard look at what we have and whether we need it. Because happiness beyond subsistence is far more about what can be obtained without money than otherwise.
Photo Credit: Phil Dokas