Saturday, March 12, 2011

What's the Secret?

This post will be a bit longer than usual.  It will probably be my last for a week or so... you see, I have writer's block.  I need a chance to push past my writing policeman and allow the words to flow from my mind to my fingers to the keyboard.  Anyway... I wrote this literary essay while at university.  The intended audience was Australian University Students.  Please note, this was written in 2004, so a few of the references may be "out dated" however this does not render them insignificant! 

What's the Secret?

I recently stumbled across a study of American and South Korean University students claiming that money can't buy happiness (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, February 2003).  Apparently, our esteemed colleagues placed money at the bottom of their list of things that make them happy.  This made me wonder.  When one considers all the conversations on campus about money, I don't know if we follow their way of thinking.  Phrases like, "I will buy my textbooks after I have paid the rent!" and "I will feel a whole lot better when I get paid," fill the cafeterias and libraries of university campuses all over Australia.  After all, we're all here so that we can get better jobs,  faster cars and bigger pay packets, aren't we?  When we eventually graduate, get our faster cars and our bigger pay packets, will we really be happy?  Will we reach that level of true contentment?

If this Study is correct in its findings and money is not the answer, then what are we all striving for? The question has plagued us for centuries.  What is the secret of happiness? Ever since Adam accepted the forbidden fruit from his mate we have been wandering in the desert, in an attempt to rediscover Eden.  The history of Greek Philosophy shows that the concept of happiness was the centre of speculation and many disputes among ancient philosophers.  Thousands of years later, not much has changed.  One only needs to "google it" to find literally millions of websites that promise to reveal the secret of happiness (for a price).  Books have been written, films and talk shows have been produced, all attempting to help us along in the pursuit of happiness.  The industry of self-help is a multi million dollar one.  However, in the thousands of years that man has walked the Earth, we have not yet found our Eden.  I'm not saying that our search is futile, far from it, in fact.  They say that you shouldn't wait for your ship to come in, you should go out to meet it.  So; which port do you head for?

The quest for the "possession" port is a common one and maybe some people find their bliss in the abundance of all things material.  According to this study, all experiences either fulfil or forfeit a psychological or physical need.  It could be argued that having enough money to satisfy all your physical needs and even some of your psychological ones would bring you happiness.  But, while it is most likely that we are going to be unhappy when we don't have enough money to pay the bills, having money doesn't result in our jumping for joy.  US students listed autonomy as the number one feeling that makes them happy.  This all seems to make sense.  When I can make my own decisions and don't have to do what my parents or my boss tell me to do, I'm happy.  However, so many of us are still on the quest for lasting happiness, setting goals of fast cars, big houses and truckloads of money.  As they say, whoever has the gold makes the rules.  Money is power.  Therefore, we aim for the fast cars, the big houses and most importantly the big pay cheque in order to have the power to make our own decisions.  When we "bring home the bacon" we feel like we have achieved something.  But how many millionaires out there are slaves to their work? They do not have to worry about how they are going to pay the rent or the phone bill, but what about the living part of life?  They choose career instead of family and while they have the "package" they may be eating alone.  While money is power and power seems to be one of those needs that we have to fulfil to be happy, money is certainly not happiness.

The "love" port is another one often visited.  The third need on the students' list is healthy relationships.  When your boyfriend says he loves you, your mum isn't nagging you and your best friend likes your haircut, you're happy.  Savage Garden sang it best; "I believe that family is more important than silver or gold."  If someone loves you, nothing else matters.  Think about it.  All those warm fuzzies that we get are usually a result of someone loving us.  Family and friends are important.  They are the support network.  Money can be a nice reward for the hard day at work, but wouldn't you rather a massage from your partner, or Mum's home made hot chocolate.  Having someone to come home to and share it with, the happy and the sad, is more important than the bank balance.  Money can't give you a cuddle.  Unfortunately, this quest for love is often one that leads to more heartbreak than we need.  Everyone has been touched by relationship breakdowns, the end of the road for that particular source of joy.  While the warm fuzzies are coming in at the "love" port, when the ship sails all is eventually wrecked.  Love is not the answer.  Although, hearing "I love you" and having someone to come home to can contribute to making us happy.  Of course, if you don't feel good about yourself, it doesn't matter how good that hot chocolate is, it probably won't help.  Money isn't happiness and neither is love.

The 'competence' port is probably the place where we will all find that our "cup runneth over." The second and fourth psychological needs on the US students' list were competence and self-esteem.  Perhaps these are the most important.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "Happiness is not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort."  Regardless of how rich you are, or who loves you, if you don't love yourself you won't be happy.  It's as simple as that.  So how do you love yourself?  When you complete an assignment and receive a top mark relief turns to joy.  When you lose those last five kilograms and the size ten dress fits, you revel in the feeling of 'thin.'  When you realise your dream of becoming a teacher, engineer, doctor or architect you celebrate.  You're happy because you worked hard and now you have this amazing sense of achievement.  You feel good about yourself and the work you have done.  We know that money is not the answer and love can be a quick fix.  Therefore it is the way you feel inside that makes you happy.

What about the days when you discover you have gained 5 kilograms, you failed the assignment, mum is out of town or your partner decides to leave.  How do you maintain that feeling of inner peace?  The true contentment that we are all seeking can be found in the moments of elation, achievement, love and wealth but it is also available during the times of sorrow and loneliness.  Dr Collins, a psychologist from London Medical Centre asserts that, "We can all be happy in a heart beat if we make the decision to be so."  Apparently, happiness is a choice.  You can choose to hate yourself because you are a size 12 or you can accept it.  You can choose to be depressed because you don't have a boyfriend or you can enjoy meeting new people.  You can dream about the one hundred thousand a year or you can be satisfied with a minimum wage.

I've come to the conclusion that Happiness is a personal decision.  It is a combination of health, wealth, love and achievement, combined with an acceptance of circumstances.  Some people won't be happy unless they have the fast car, the big house and an abundant cash flow.  Some people will find that their family is the source of their happiness.  Other people will find that only hard work and achievement will bring them joy.  However in this day and age all of these can be fragile.  The secret to true contentment is choosing to be happy with who you are and what you have.  It doesn't matter which port you go to, or what ship you find there, what really matters is what you do with the cargo.