Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The nature of happiness (and whether money can buy it)

I was standing on the mountainside this morning and the sun was rising across the valley. The dogs were scuffling enthusiastically through the vegetation and I could hear the sounds of birds and livestock. Just then, a steam engine pulling a dozen carriages toot-tooted down below, and I watched for about 20 minutes while it traversed the valley, puffing out little belches of smoke and hooting at crossings. I really, really love trains, and I suddenly felt so happy I wanted to cry.

We spend so much of our lives in pursuit of happiness, often without really knowing how to find it or even what it actually is. And, sometimes, we’re so busy searching that we miss the times we really are happy – we don’t stand still for long enough to appreciate the feeling.

Happiness means different things to different people – for instance, a total lack of responsibility can be bliss for one person, while someone else might get real joy out of being in charge of many tasks. Still, happiness is often cited as being connected in some way to good health, fulfilling relationships and an appreciation of our environment – all things that are attainable without being wealthy.

Of course, if happiness, or at least contentment, can be defined by an absence of certain things, such as disease, loneliness, anxiety or hunger, then an absence of poverty must also be an indication of happiness – as my ex-mother-in-law, who made piles of money (and, incidentally, subsequently lost it all), once snapped at someone who accused her of tackiness, ‘I’d rather be nouveau riche than nouveau poor.’ But can money actually buy happiness?

Apparently it can, initially at least: as a colleague says, ‘If I have to be unhappy, I’d rather be crying in a brand-new Land Rover than in my buggered-up old Toyota Corolla.’ But once the new-car smell has worn off, that Land Rover becomes just another car. So what happens is that having pots of money raises your aspirations, and those aspirations then turn against you: once you’ve eaten in the finest restaurants, travelled business class, bought your dream house and gone on a 6-week holiday to the Far East, then takeaways from the Spur, flying steerage, living communally with friends or going away camping for a weekend lose their capacity to bring you joy.

Not only that, but too much money corrupts – as the Bible has it, ‘the love of money is the root of all evil’ (1 Timothy 6:10). In fact, several studies on lottery winners have proven this: many people who win the big bucks ultimately find themselves worse off than they were before they struck gold – bankrupt, in jail, fighting substance abuse or depression, avoiding hitmen, in litigation with family members … none of which can reasonably be said to bring happiness.

Someone suggested that if your money isn’t buying happiness, then you aren’t spending it right, and perhaps that’s the reality. If you suddenly have access to vast funds, to use it to help you achieve happiness, you should spend it on * activities that help you grow as a person (painting lessons, say) * things that strengthen your connections with others (modest trips with friends) * contributions to your community (donations to needy organisations) * activities and experiences rather than material possessions (a family reunion) * several small pleasures (a weekly massage) rather than a few big-ticket items.

And, of course, anyone who’s saved hard and long, and finally gets to buy that car or go on that overseas trip or put down a deposit on that house, knows the satisfaction of achievement – which could be another indicator of happiness.

Some things that make me happy
• Clean bed linen
• The silence when the three dachshunds over the road aren’t yapping incessantly
• Completing a project to brief and on deadline, and knowing I’ve done it well
• Cooking for friends and/or family
• Those breath-taking summer mornings, when it’s already warm by 5am and the world still looks new
• When it’s wet and cold outside in winter, and I’m inside, warmly dressed and with a lovely big fire roaring
• The insane way my dogs greet me when I get home (even when I’ve been out for, like, 10 minutes)
• Goldie’s craziness
• Having my kids home (usually)
• Getting an email from my Dad
• Winning the Lotto (just kidding)

What makes you happy?

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1 comment:

Gretchen Bong Spoodle said...

1. New clothes
2. The smell of old books
3. Your homemade bread
4. Waking up with more energy than a Disney character
5. The beach
6. Wine
7. Music
Money makes ife easier, but you always need a little bit more, regardless of what you have. It certainly can not buy the sunset at Muizenberg beach, or the company of the people you love the most. I sound like a Hallmark card. Hahaha