Reflecting on the Essence of Happiness

January 7th, 2009

Happy Buddha, Longhua Temple, Shanghai China (CC).

Happy Buddha, Longhua Temple, Shanghai China (CC).

The past several months have been an unpleasant blur. I didn’t have a terrible car accident, lose my home, or anything most people would consider all that traumatic. The unpleasantness arose from my work. A few months ago, I moved and started a new job. The job was on paper a good job, but the practical reality of the situation was a starkly different. There were long hours stuck in front of a computer with no breaks, with the only human interaction coming from a boss who’s idea of being nice was letting you have lunch. The job was slowly but surely sucking away all my joy in life.

Despite the sluggish economy and fear of an unknown employment future, I left the job.  Some people might argue that leaving a decent paying job in the midst of a down economy and bad job market is a terrible idea.  But the rational person would counter that money isn’t everything.  While my job was paying the bills and leaving me some discretionary cash, it was also the primary reason I was unable to spend quality time with my wife, develop ties to my community, interact with friends and family, exercise regularly, or even eat regular meals.

Many people willingly make these sacrifices everyday for their work.  But is it a wise choice to substitute work for other aspects of our lives?  The studies on what brings people happiness tell us that we derive fulfillment from a number of factors.  Some people are driven to succeed and derive their fulfillment from work accomplishments, but others only derive their joy from endeavors outside of their professional lives.  Plenty of people associate money with success and happiness.  Money and happiness are correlated, but only up to a certain point.  Money buys a lot of joy when it brings someone out of poverty and provides the basics to a comfortable life (housing, food, healthcare, etc).  However, after the basics are met, the returns in happiness for greater income quickly level off.  The results on work and money bringing happiness are mixed.

There are other factors affecting happiness which are not in dispute: health, family, and friends.  Our parents (and grandparents) were right when they told us to pay attention to our health.  Without a healthy mind and body, our ability to fully live life becomes hampered.  Pursuits which hamper our ability to nurture ourselves and preserve our health only set us on a destructive path to self-injury.  Willingly sacrificing health is a questionable choice since it accomplishes nothing of value and has pretty significant downsides.  Actively staying healthy is the more fruitful endeavor; our health plays a significant role in our contentment, and preserving health in the present is much more effective than trying to regain health later.

Equally important to our feeling of fulfillment is our connection to others.  Though we can survive as solitary beings, we thrive when we have positive interactions with family and friends.  Humans are essentially social creatures.  People are happier when they have strong family bonds, close friends, and ties to the community.  In surveys by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, 40% of married people described themselves as “very happy” vs. 25% for the perpetual singles.  People with 5 or more close friends are 50% more likely than those with fewer close friends to say they were “very happy.”  Close bonds with our fellow humans effects our happiness; however, our interactions do not merely have to be with a close circle of friends and family.  Research shows that even happiness from total strangers can rub off and boost your mood.  The key element lies in enjoying the company of other people.

Over the past few months, both the basics of nurturing my health and building interpersonal relationships were notably missing from my life.  It was no surprise that I was miserable; my job was actively depriving me of the fundamental elements which bring joy into my life.  The New Year has brought the opportunity for a fresh start without the baggage of the less than pleasant past.  Though the future is nebulous and just a bit scary, I am not fretting (yet).  I’m enjoying the moments of contentment from rejuvenating my mind and body and reforging my connection with others.

Other Happiness Articles:

  1. Can money buy happiness? – Money Magazine
  2. Maybe money does buy happiness after all – New York Times
  3. Can money buy happiness? – The American
  4. Holding on to happiness in hard times – The Week
  5. Road to happiness lies in health, family and friends – The Age
  6. Your happiness could be contagious – MSNBC
  7. The only guide to happiness you’ll ever need – Zen Habits

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