My dad used to say “Work fascinates me. I can sit and watch someone do it all day.” Sometimes I think I have the same relationship with happiness.
I’m lucky in that I don’t suffer from depression, but rather just from a driven personality that is always trying to get the next thing completed and always falling short of the grandiose plan. (You should see all the things that I hope to do with this blog.) Any finished thing that is less than perfect leaves me vaguely unsatisfied. Needless to say, I’m almost permanently in this state.
I’ve found a simple antidote that works well for me, when I can remember to take it. Like my vitamins, most days it gets forgotten.
It’s called gratitude. I understand that concentrating on what one has to be thankful for cannot cure every form of unhappiness, much less depression or the pain of those dealing with specific sad issues in their lives, although it probably can help at least a little. But if your problem, like mine, is that you always want more and better, then gratitude may well be the magic pill that you need.
A few weeks ago I wrote about a report generated by Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the Earth Institute at Columbia University about which countries have the happiest people. The results do not come from asking people if they are happy. Rather, they come from asking folks to evaluate various parts of their lives. I was fascinated to learn that six attributes account for most of the variation. I summed these up as wealth, health, love, freedom, fairness and kindness.
Today, I’m thinking of the first two. Because I’m from the United States, I live in a culture that constantly encourages me to spend more money. Because I am female, I’m prodded continually to be healthier (well, at least skinnier). I can’t get through the checkout aisle of the grocery store with out seeing headlines for six dream vacations I have to take and three workouts designed to give me my best butt ever.
Stop, I tell myself. Money buys happiness when it gets you the food you need, a safe home, and medical care. It buys freedom from worry about your car being repossessed. It buys you joy through pretty clothes, a night out with friends, or gifts for those you love. But at some point (it was about $70,000 a year a few years ago) studies show that it has bought you enough of those things and more of it doesn’t make you happier no matter how much you think it will.
America was ranked the thirteenth happiest nation on earth, it part because a larger proportion of its citizens are near, at or above this magic threshold. You would think that this would be a very good thing. However, in order to meet all of the sales goals of all the fine companies that keep this nation great, we need to be persuaded every day that we still do not have enough. Work harder. Buy more. It feeds right into the mantra of a perfectionist like me.
I try to remind myself. You have all that you need, and much of what you want. Be grateful for it. Be happy with it. And no, your next vacation does not have to be your dream one. An affordable yet pleasant time relaxing with someone you love will just have to do.
As to the link between health and happiness, there is no doubt that chronic pain or a worrisome condition wear the human spirit down. An actual life threatening disease or injury puts one in a whole new arena. But for those of us who are just whining about how hard it is to keep weight off while chomping down our calcium pills and extra Omega-3 capsules, it is worth remembering that most of us are basically healthy. We are even basically attractive. We do have to face the painful fact that, like everyone else on this planet, we had our best butt back when we were eighteen years old and nothing is going to change that fact. And we need to get over it.
So, health and wealth. Studies show that both bring us joy, but only if we are wise enough to notice that we have them.
(For more posts on the subject of what makes us happy see If you want to be happy move to a cold country?, None of us are normal if we’re lucky, Four Reasons I Love It When “Love Wins”, Some Kind of Kindness, The fairest of them all?, and When is it time for “More”?)