As a kid, I didn’t have much. My parents fought a lot, often about money. Money became important to me. You can picture it: the poor kid grows up wishing he had the things his friends had and vows to make a better life for himself. I believed that money would solve life’s problems. It would make me happy.
You’ve probably heard of the studies that report that happiness doesn’t increase over a certain income level. Basically they show that it’s stressful not having enough to get by; but relatively soon after that point, more money doesn’t equal more happiness. As people gain wealth, they start exchanging one set of problems for another. Instead of worrying about paying the bills, they start worrying about something else.
On some level we all know that money doesn’t equal happiness. We’ve grown up hearing the platitudes that say as much. But so often we fall prey to this kind of thinking:
When I have that car, life will be so great. When I have that house, I’ll be satisfied.
And as you know, it doesn’t stop there. We graduate from wanting things we can buy to putting off our happiness until we have the perfect spouse, child, family, career etc. We’ve been sold the perfect picture of the perfect life and spend our waking hours in endless pursuit. And by the way, I do mean sold; we see it in every movie, advertisement and Facebook post. If you want to be happy, these are the products you need and this is what your life should look like.
If you find yourself following the “when I have [insert item], then I’ll be happy” line of thinking, I can save you some time and tell you how it ends. You won’t be. There will always be that next thing on your list.
One problem is that most of us have no idea what happiness really means. We equate happiness with pleasure and thus feel the need to be constantly entertained. But a simple definition of happiness might be that over an extended period of time, we experience more positive feelings than negative. Pleasure has a part to play in this, but it’s a minor role. Author and psychologist Martin Seligman includes pleasure as one of his three components of happiness. The other two he describes are engagement and meaning.
Pleasure is an easy one to grasp. Eating great food, enjoying entertainment, laying on the beach – these things bring us pleasure. Pleasure is the easiest of the three components to attain, but it’s also the shortest-lived. Many people wish they could win the lottery so they could lay on the beach everyday in perpetual pleasure. But people that have won the lottery realize that the pleasure gained from such a lifestyle only lasts so long. Eventually you need more in your life, which explains why very wealthy people keep working after they’ve acquired wealth.
I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer – Jim Carrey
Engagement refers to the meat of your life: your work, family, friends and hobbies. Building these areas of life takes time and can certainly bring great rewards, especially if you’re working on relationships (building relationships requires giving something of yourself, a boon to happiness). But even these engagement items can be a trap of sorts. If you believe that happiness is a checklist of items to attain, you’re back to the “When I have, then I’ll be” type of thinking again. You might put off happiness until you obtain them; once you have them, it doesn’t guarantee happiness. That’s because the engagement items are still external to who you are. To find happiness, a change has to happen from within.
Meaning is about contributing to a larger purpose – essentially, helping others. Meaning can provide more lasting happiness because it draws your thought away from yourself (selfishness is a happiness killer). In the search for meaning, you go from a mindset of getting to one of giving. This improves your self-worth and your level of happiness. The thing about your subconscious is that you can’t trick yourself. If you’re selfish, at some level you realize it and it diminishes your self-worth. You have to do something worth liking to start liking who you are.
To help with this, there’s something you can try. Wake up each day and ask yourself just one question: How can I give today? And then follow through with what comes to you. Try it for a week and see what happens.
Pleasure, engagement and meaning can improve your level of happiness. There are lessons to be learned from working on them, and I will teach my kids about them. But the thing I’d want my kids to remember in the end is this: it’s not a house, a job, a family, a charity or anything else that’s going to make you happy. Happiness comes from a moment-by-moment appreciation of the things that are in your life right now. I’ll say that again.
Happiness comes from a moment-by-moment appreciation of the things that are in your life right now.
Here’s what I mean. Two things made me really happy the other day. In fact, I was feeling pretty down until they happened. The first was seeing a little girl riding past me on a motorized scooter. She looked up and had just about the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t help smiling back.
The other thing was my wife. We were riding in the car and she talked about needing to head back to Hobby Lobby to exchange the scrapbook paper she had bought for our baby book. She wanted better paper; it needed to be more soft and baby-like. That was it. Nothing earth-shattering. Just a small statement that made me happy because within it I recognized her care and compassion. It got me out of my head, out of the downward spiral of me, me, me thoughts. It affected me because I was open and ready to receive it; I took time to think about it and appreciate it and her.
We can each find happiness if we put effort into appreciating what’s in front of us. Like most things worth having, it takes willingness, work, focus and persistence. It’s one of the reasons I started The Dad Dynamic– to take time to better appreciate the things in my life.
What have you found brings lasting happiness to your life?