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June 2001

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 in mansions.

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 Earth.

How much wealth will it take to make us happy?

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 percent.

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."

 


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