Happiness in hard economic times

This year may prove to be difficult for many, as the seeds of statism sown over the years grow into seriously poisonous foliage. Since government has a monopoly on the medium of exchange in our economy (via fiat currency and legal tender laws), it’ll be hard for anyone to escape the consequences. With that, how are we to maintain our happiness? I came across an interesting article and thought some of the ideas in it were worth addressing:

Briefing: Holding on to happiness in hard times – THE WEEK

How does money affect happiness?

There is no universal answer: A hedge fund manager and a Tibetan monk provide two very different models of satisfaction. But most experts agree that the correlation is direct—up to a point. Poor people become happier as they escape poverty, studies have shown, but once people are free from privation, the tie between money and happiness begins to fray. Wealth in America grew dramatically in the second half of the 20th century, but surveys found that Americans on average were no happier. One study found that the “happiness benefits” of money peaked at the modest income of $20,000. Middle-class and affluent people who seek more wealth are often stuck on what psychologists call a “hedonic treadmill”—a perpetual pursuit of material goods, which reduces the available time for personal relationships and yields minimal emotional rewards. The kick of owning a big house or a giant flat-screen television tends to be short-lived, as these possessions become the next, unexciting norm.

Is this indeed the case? Last week I attended a talk in La Jolla about a popular book on getting one’s financial house in order, Your Money or Your Life. I thought it offered some sound concepts regarding becoming acutely aware of, and then cutting, expenses and living a more minimal lifestyle. Here’s a thorough summary. The 9 steps to financial integrity can be downloaded and explored too. The “hedonic treadmill” mentioned above relates to feelings of fulfillment and then apathy or dissatisfaction, following from a cycle of wanting something, buying it, and then moving on to the next want.

As Your Money or Your Life keenly noted, money buys necessities, ensuring your survival. Money provides you the means to be more comfortable and to experience fulfilling things, such as vacations, nice dinners, or better work environments and better living spaces. Money can also buy you luxuries, which may become hard to distinguish from comforts after you attain a certain level of income; this of course can lead to unfulfillment and wanting more, no matter how much you’ve acquired and experienced beyond basic comforts.

The key is to realize that happiness depends on whether you feel in control of your emotional perspective, or whether you believe it’s the result of various circumstances beyond your control, which buying more things can supposedly alter. Here are a few sentence stems to ponder (btw, a 3-day stems program explains how to do them, so fee free to join the email list in the upper right sidebar) :

“Money buys happiness” to me means…

If happiness is actually my birthright…

If, once my basic needs are met, I could be happy without worrying about my future…

If I can find satisfaction in the process of being creative and achieving things…

As I reflect on the psychological traps I fall into regarding money…

One way to change my perspective on money issues might be…

I am becoming aware…

Here’s another excerpt from the article:

Then why do we pursue wealth?

In order to have a “positional” advantage over a rival, whether that be a brother-in-law, the loudmouth who lives across the street, or some imaginary “other.” Surveys have shown that most people would be happy making less money, but on one condition: that everyone else made even less. In fact, most people prefer that scenario to one in which their income rises but everyone else’s income rises more. In other words, it’s not how much we have that counts. It’s how much we have compared to how much the Joneses have. That could explain why people in more egalitarian societies generally report higher levels of satisfaction with their lives. Scandinavian countries with large social safety nets consistently score highest on the happiness scale.

Obviously, the wish for happiness egalitarianism reveals deficient self-esteem (lack of self-confidence and self-respect), something cultures throughout the world are very ‘good’ at fostering. Your own happiness has little or nothing to do with other people’s level of wealth or satisfaction. Looking to others to check your happiness level is misguided and neurotic at best and pathologically anti-social at worst–that is, when coercion (via governmental uses of force) is used to make people feel better about their lot in life by hindering others’ achievements and living at their expense.

The take-away here is to remain grounded in yourself to experience happiness on your own terms. What can you do to make your own life more fulfilling? Here’s an interesting summary paragraph from the article again:

Where does that leave us?

Even within a robust, sometimes shaky system of capitalism, psychologists believe that increased happiness is attainable. Distilled to its most basic level, positive psychology encourages people to strive for “mindfulness”—living in the moment, recognizing the beauty of nature, and appreciating the positive aspects of our lives. Research has also shown that happiness is enhanced by optimism; religious faith; acts of generosity and altruism such as community service; and work or hobbies that produce a frequent experience of “flow’’—a state of total engagement.

Being mindful, living in the moment, recognizing the beauty of nature, and appreciating the positives are indeed extremely important to being happy. Yet, the researchers then dive off the psychological cliff by offering faith (rather than reason) and community service-oriented altruism (oftentimes self-sacrificial and duty- rather than self-interest-oriented) as antidotes to being unhappy. This is equivalent to saying, “Cheer up by closing your eyes to reality, believing in things that don’t (and can’t) exist, and work on helping others (who are also unhappy) instead of yourself!” Granted, lending assistance to those less fortunate can be extremely fulfilling, but as I noted in my section on ethics in my first book, the plight of those in dire conditions is commonly perpetuated by corrupt codes of morality coupled with coercive, anti-social systems known as governments. We’d likely all be able to experience lots more flow–and wealth and opportunities–in our chosen activities if people in society respected individual rights and thus believed in mutual respect.

This brings us full circle to our present economic conditions. We all need to realize that things could be so much better if no one relied on coercion to get their way in society. Relying on coercion, be it a “stimulus package” or regulations for “helping” people, is merely a race to the moral and economic bottom. That “sometimes shaky system of capitalism” is only shaky because misguided intellectuals have built it on an unethical foundation. Grounding your happiness in your own achievements and taking responsibility for your own emotions (and accepting and working through them), rather than looking to others and deferring to the hockshops of authority, will keep you on the enlightened path.

Your happiness will then be as good as gold (the type of money we’d be using in a happy society, btw).


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