Less is More in Pursuit of Happiness
by Claudia M. Lenart
When foreign exchange students visit Chicago and suburbs, they are
amazed at the size of the houses we live in. A story in a community
newspaper once quoted an exchange student saying that all Americans live
Having grown up in a cozy one-bathroom home, Iím still
sometimes amazed at the ever-increasing number of very large homes being
built in the suburbs. The endless building of mega homes in the collar
counties and pricy renovations in the city are testament to unprecedented
wealth. In fact, weíre surrounded by many highly visible signs of wealth ó
more and more shopping malls with parking lots that are crowded midweek,
homes with multiple television sets and computers, air travel that has
become mass transit.
Of course, not everyone in our culture is
experiencing this phenomenal wealth, yet even those at the lowest income
levels have more material possessions than most people of previous
generations ó and most people outside America.
Despite this mass
wealth, studies show that people really arenít any happier than they were
forty or fifty years ago, according to Robert E. Lane, professor emeritus
of political science at Yale University, and author of The Loss of
Happiness in Market Democracies. Lane found that happiness levels
donít seem to be connected to the ebb and flow of the economy
While people may be more comfortable on one level, they are
certainly more stressed, as evidenced by the increase in depression and
stress-related illness in our society. So itís clichť, but true: beyond a
certain level of comfort, money canít buy happiness. If it could, lottery
winners would be some of the happiest people on earth. But follow-ups on
the lives of lottery winners show their lives are often a shambles;
theyíve lost friends and relationships and the security and happiness that
connections with other people bring.
Still, many people in our
culture are so willing to move far away from their families and
communities following jobs that promise greater wealth. Many people who
say their family is their priority let their children be raised by
strangers. Many Americans call themselves environmentalists, but they
contribute to the rampant consumerism that is killing our best friend ó
How much wealth will it take to make us
The Dalai Lama writes in The Art of Happiness,
with co-writer and psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler. M.D., that "no matter
how much [money] we make, we tend to be dissatisfied with our income if
our neighbor is making more." He points to professional athletes that
complain bitterly about annual salaries in the millions. He says the
comparing mind is an impediment to happiness because there will always be
someone who is richer, smarter, or better looking.
How does one
quiet the comparing mind? First, turn away from the TV. While there are
lots of good reasons not to watch television, one reason is that people
who are inundated with images of more and better products that will make
you look cooler or more beautiful, tend to be less satisfied.
"Watching...TV can triple our hunger for possessions and decrease our
personal contentment by 5 percent for every hour watched," according to a
University of Michigan study cited by David Niven, Ph.D. in The 110
Simple Secrets of Happy People. Another study cited in Nivenís book
says that television changes our view of the world, leading to unrealistic
expectations and reducing our life satisfaction by 50
Thatís not to mention all the time wasted on television
that could be spent developing relationships, improving our communities,
and delving into creative pursuits ó things that actually do increase our
feelings of satisfaction. Anthropologist David Mabry Louis documents the
values of tribal cultures that have very little in material wealth. For
example, he tells the story of a Kenyan boy of the Gabra tribe who learns
that community and friends are everything in his world. In a culture
totally dependent upon camels, he gives one of his fatherís camels to a
stranger whose camels were lost in a drought. This act of giving brings
joy to the boy whose father had told him that "riches are like passing
clouds...a selfish man dies alone under a tree."
That commitment to
community is deficient in mainstream culture, but ever present in cultures
that pursue simpler lives. Artist and family therapist Sue Bender lived
with the Amish and was able to interpret their way of life to outsiders in
her book, Plain and Simple; A Womenís Journey to the Amish. She
writes of how an Amish family can be raising a barn, celebrating a
marriage or recovering from a natural disaster, but is never alone.
Likewise, the Monks of New Skete believe that happiness canít be achieved
without being part of a religious community.
For those of us who
just canít find the right fit within organized religion, the Dalai Lama
offers some comfort; while he also believes that religious community is
important, he doesnít believe it is essential to living a happy and
spiritual life. What is essential, he says, is that people cultivate basic
spirituality ó the basic human qualities of goodness, kindness,
compassion, and caring.
"Without these, human existence remains
hard, very dry. As a result, none of us can be a happy person, our whole
family will suffer and then eventually society will be more troubled,"
says the Dalai Lama. "Itís all right to remain without any religion but be
a good human being, a sensible human being with a sense of responsibility
and commitment for a better, happier world."
Again, we can learn a
lot from the Plain people, including the Amish, who live in farm-centered
communities, growing crops and livestock in a manner that is gentle to the
Earth. They work hard, but close to home, allowing lots of quality time
with their families, even as they are working the fields, preparing the
meals. They shun automobiles, televisions, and most of the conveniences of
modern life. But they donít feel buried in drudgery, because they believe
that all work is of value.
Bender explains that the Amish value
process as well as products. As a result, they donít hurry to finish one
task in order to go on to something more important. "The Amish understand
that it is not rushing through tasks to achieve a series of goals that is
satisfying; itís experiencing each moment along the way," writes Bender.
"Recreation and work are not rivals."
Similarly, In the Spirit
of Happiness, a book by the Monks of New Skete, devotes an entire
chapter to discussing the merits of "good work." The Monks of New Skete
live and work in a monastery in Cambridge, New York and are better known
for breeding and training German Shepherds and for their books on dog
training. The monks believe that not only is work necessary for our
survival, it is necessary for us to be whole. They say we should strive
for excellence in all the work we do, even if it is scrubbing floors.
"If we clean house conscientiously, even lovingly, our spiritual
intentions become evident and are reinforced, and anxieties and petty
concerns are put in perspective. Donít fight the task: just carefully and
calmly do good work," write the monks. "None of us will ever find peace,
happiness, and fullness of life if we do not give our best in all our
endeavors. When we decide to work conscientiously, honestly,
wholeheartedly ó at whatever we might do ó we will gradually find inner
peace, because we no longer permit ourselves to be affected by outward
circumstances and our own negativity. This process isnít easy; but it
certainly is possible. That is the real meaning of good work."
Itís interesting that while these examples are Christian, the idea
of being in the moment is an integral part of Buddhist philosophy as well.
Possibly any authentic connection to spirit is what will allow us to find
happiness in each moment. Perhaps itís not the circumstances of oneís life
that determines whether one is happy or not. We all know people who
suffered greatly, yet theyíre smiling and optimistic. Others seem to have
it all, yet theyíre perpetually negative and grouchy. The Dalai Lama lost
his country, yet he considers himself a happy man.
And if it is
not the circumstances of life that lead to true happiness, then it follows
that simply doing things that we find enjoyable canít lead to true
happiness either. While we may totally enjoy twenty minutes relaxing in a
hot tub, weíre still the same people once we get out. "Happiness that
depends mainly on pleasure is unstable; one day itís there, the next day
it may not be," says the Dalai Lama.
"No matter what may happen in
life nothing will be able to touch true happiness," says Father Laurence,
abbot of New Skete. Those who have studied or meditated on happiness seem
to be saying the same thing ó what we really need to be happy is an
attitude adjustment. Itís not how much we have, itís how much we
appreciate what we have, whether thatís a lot or a little. Perhaps the
definition of a happy person is one who can feel a sense of fullness while
doing the most mundane chores. One who sings while washing the dishes ó
now thatís a happy person.
In Simple Abundance, Sarah Ban
Breathnach suggests that at the end of each day we write down five things
that happened that day which we are thankful for. These need not be major
accomplishments. They can be as simple as finding a good parking space,
watching a child burst into laughter, meeting a work deadline, tasting a
delicious dessert, or the view of a colorful sunset. Any of these can
foster appreciation, and appreciation is a step toward developing a more
optimistic, more contented disposition.
"Being happy means
entering wholeheartedly into everything ó no matter what kind of challenge
it presents, no matter what the possible difficulties involved ó entering
into it body, soul, mind, and spirit," says Father Laurence. "We have to
enter into it in such a way that weíre no longer separate from what weíre
doing. We forget ourselves at the same time that we give ourselves
completely. And when we do enter into life totally and completely, then,
if we stop and reflect for just a moment, weíll notice that somehow weíre
beginning to experience happiness. This is what weíre made for."