The Pursuit of Happiness - The Beautiful Idea With A Life Of Its Own
When perception means more than reality
Imagine someone walks up to you and asks you a simple question, "What is more important - to be happy or to appear happy?". Most of us wouldn't even think about it before giving a firm "to be happy" answer. And I know we do believe it. But have we lost sight of this?
Happiness has become a pivotal point in the lives of most people in the developed and developing world. We seem to focus a lot more on what makes us happy and think more about happiness than those generations before us. I remember studying Maslow's hierarchy of needs back at university, it was one of the foundational theories on human motivation in the workplace. For those who do not know about it, I will just summarise it as a hierarchy of the universal needs of society, usually represented as a pyramid with different layers. At the base of the pyramid, you have the most basic human needs, required for our existence - food, water, shelter, safety. Then, as we work our way up and these basic physiological needs are satisfied, they give way to more psychological needs like acceptance by others, emotional satisfaction, sense of accomplishment, and fulfilment of our full potential. Happiness would certainly sit towards the top of this pyramid. I guess, this is a clear indication that many of us live a comfortable life and our basic human needs are satisfied. Not a bad start.
We Focus More On Happiness, But Are We Happier?
We certainly think a lot more about happiness than previous generations, but are we actually happier? We have a lot more comfort these days than ever before. We have big TVs, more comfortable, faster and safer cars, we can order pretty much anything under the Sun from the comfort of our sofas, we can connect to friends and family at the other side of the world instantaneously, we have virtually unlimited entertainment at our fingertips. Not much of that was possible only 40-50 years ago, let alone in earlier time periods. It is crazy to think how much the world has changed in only a few decades, a lot faster than we can emotionally keep up with. It is beyond doubt that we have a lot more comfort today, but it will probably not come as a surprise that despite all this, we do not live any more happily than the generations before us. There are various studies in this area, which make this point and as a matter of fact, many can be explained by two main factors:
The hedonic treadmill is the human tendency to revert to stable levels of relative happiness, despite short term spikes and drops following positive or negative experiences. Think about your most recent promotion cycle. Did you get a promotion and if you did, how long did the euphoria last? Or if you didn't get what you wanted, how long were you gutted for? A couple of days, a week? We, as humans, are pretty adaptable creatures, we quickly get used to the new environment and soon it becomes nothing more than a distant memory. So, to put this into perspective, various advances do make our lives easier, but we just get used to them and factor them into our expectations going forward, so in the longer term, our happiness levels remain stable. Consider the following example. Before commercial flights between Europe and America started, it would take a few days to sail across the Atlantic on a ship (or weeks depending how far back we go). Today, we fly over for a few hours, but it doesn't make us any happier than before, because we are used to flights taking this amount of time, just like people in the past expected to sail for days before reaching the other side.
Social comparison is the other big factor in play here. This is our tendency to measure happiness not in absolute terms, but in relation to others, or put simply to keep up with the Joneses. The implications of the social comparison theory are quite profound. It doesn't matter what or how much we have, it only matters what and how much we have compared to others. We compare on anything (or probably better to call it compete, because this is what it is - a competition) - do we earn more or less than others, do we drive a better car, did we fare better or worse than our peers at the recent exam, are our kids more accomplished than the neighbour's kids, etc. I don't think it would take much to convince people in the merits of this theory. I will just reference one study done in Sweden a few years back. People were given a hypothetical choice between:
earning more in absolute terms, but less than others
earning less in absolute terms, but more than others
Guess what the overwhelming majority of the participants preferred. If you thought option two, this is indeed the correct answer.
Social Comparison on Steroids
Let me elaborate on the social comparison point. We compare ourselves to others, but have we not always? Why would it be different now? Yes, we have, but it is very different today due to the advent of mass social media platforms. Life was a lot simpler before Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or whatever people use. The average person back in the days would probably only keep regular contact with few dozen people - some colleagues at work, some friends, some neighbours, that was about it. Today, the average person has a few hundred friends, contacts, followers on social media platforms and everyone is posting anything from what they eat to what they do on a daily basis, where they have gone on a holiday and what they have achieved. Suddenly we find ourselves competing with hundreds (or maybe even thousands) of people. It is not easy. There is always going to be someone better, smarter, more accomplished, with a bigger yacht or more expensive watch than us. This is particularly harmful for younger people, who tend to be more prone to social comparison and virtually live in a digital world these days. It is not surprising that, as a result, various studies record lower happiness and higher depression levels among younger people today than ever before.
Part of the problem is that social media is overflowing with positive statuses, posts and pictures. This is the easiest way to broadcast to the whole world how happy or successful we are. Who has passed an exam, who has got a new better job, who has bought a new car or a bigger house, who has got married and whose kids have won some prize at school. This is nothing more than the ugly side of our ego. Boasting about our promotion on social media will not make us any better at our job or make our house any more comfortable to live in. It is all a big vanity parade - our way of telling the world "look how amazing I am and how great my life is". I know everyone does it, I do it too, so not judging. Social comparison is not new, we have been doing it since the dawn of time, it is just that it is so much easier now, too easy.
Where It All Goes Wrong
I don't think there is anything fundamentally wrong with celebrating our successes and achievements. As a matter of fact, I think it is important we take time to recognise what we have done and how far we have got. The real crux of the problem is that we only tend to broadcast the good, but not the bad and the ugly. This creates a very unrealistic view of life and our place in the world. We know what we do well, but also what our weaknesses are; we know we have achieved X, but might have failed at Y. We know our lives are not perfect, but everyone else's seem to be. And it is easy to get caught up in this illusion that we must be inferior to everyone else, because look at how happy and successful everyone else is. Where are we getting it wrong?
While some of us would be sitting there reflecting on our failed lives, others would do the most obvious thing - fight back! We are no worse, we deserve to be happy too, so let's show that to the world. Basics of Social Warfare 101.
Step One - pick the battlefield - what is it we want to compete on - luxury cars, latest electronic gadgets, social status, intelligence, career progression? Pick one or two.
Step Two - Arm yourself - whatever you want to compete on, you have to invest time, money, resources, effort in order to produce tangible results. Whether this is a fancy holiday, a more expensive belonging, seemingly perfect family, you have to make it happen.
Step Three - Attack - make sure everyone knows. Pictures, posts, hashtags, it is a full fledged war, throw all you have.
However, somewhere along the way, we lose track of what we are fighting for. The pursuit of happiness has turned into a pursuit of "selling" happiness to others. It almost doesn't matter if we are happy as long as others think that we are. We invest time, effort and resources to chase a stupid idea, losing genuine connection with people and building up credit card debts in the process.
So, What Should We Do?
The driving factor behind social comparison is ego and its need for external validation. Many would advocate managing our egos. There is a virtually endless list of self-help books out there with various suggestions how to manage our egos and be happier with who we are. I am sure these books have value and could help, but I am always sceptical about their applicability in real life. They work in theory, if we assume that we are logical human beings, but this is exactly where the problem is - we are not. Despite what we would love to believe, we are emotional, often illogical creatures, who have not caught up psychologically with the speed of our technological progress as a civilisation. Without trying to sounds pessimistic, I don't think we ever will. In my humble opinion, all we can do is try and understand the true nature of life as a complex mixture of good and bad, success and failure, happiness and sadness. Only when we accept the ugly part of life, can we stop chasing this illusory idea of complete happiness and success, which everyone is trying to portray and hence, reduce the pressure on ourselves to keep up with nothing but a dream.