In my presentations and seminars I like to ask people to define success. Money, status and a date with their favourite supermodel always feature near the top of the list. Then I get the kill-joys ‘No’, they say, ‘success is family, health, or love.’ So imagine you had all of that and more there was only one snag, you were bitterly unhappy? Now what if you were a poor farm labourer with no family or possessions but you were blissfully happy. Who would you rather be, who is more successful? Surely you’ve got to go for happiness. Success is a feeling. Sometimes it’s a short term feeling called pleasure but when we really get it right it’s a deeper more sustained emotion called happiness. The aim of everything we do is to feel good or at least, feel better. There is huge variation in how we attempt to get our highs and we often get it wrong. For a murderer it may be revenge, for a saint its self-sacrifice, for a drug-addict it’s the next hit.
We are happiness seeking hedonists of the highest order. Sadly we’ve confused the means with the end. While giving of ourselves is a fairly reliable route to happiness, money, love and Visace underwear can help to make us feel good but often don’t. We have come to expect too much from them. Take money for instance, a word virtually synonymous with success. Research consistently links a materialistic worldview with lower levels of life satisfaction. Some money brings some happiness, more money brings more money. A study of 22 people who won the lottery found that over time they wound up no happier than 22 other people who never won. Those with self-created wealth tend to be a little happier than the average but not as much as one might expect. Money and status are like chocolate cake, they taste good but they don’t nourish you.
My brother is a postman. At first it really bothered me. When people asked what my brother was doing I told them he was a distinguished man of letters, then I’d have to confess, he works at the post office. Why does he do it? Because on his deathbed he wants to be able to say: ‘I wish I spent more time at the office.’ What he loves so much about his office is the fresh smell of the early morning air, his long daily walk into the countryside area that he works, the people, if not the dogs, that he meets on his way. Would I want his job? No. But he is one of the happier people that I know. Who is more successful, him, or a friend of mine who became a millionaire and sank into the most depressing year of his life? I’m not here to preach a gospel of poverty, I love the good that money can do. But money is no happy pill.
We live in the most unprecedented comfort in the history of the world. Yet what has an over flowing shopping trolley done for us? Longitudinal studies show that severe depression is ten times more prevalent today than it was fifty years ago. It’s become the leading cause of disability for people over the age of five. A quarter of the worlds’ population is effected by mood disorders. About 1 in 10 Americans are on SSRI’s (the class of drugs that Prozac belongs go). Despite this we have been collectively hypnotised to equate deep-seated contentment with Silkine hair-care products and Calvin Klein underpants.
These things haven’t made us happier even if they have made us a little more hygienic in our misery. Yet somehow that advert for that new thingamajig manages to convince us that the reason we’re unhappy is because we don’t have something that we’ve never heard of before. According to Dr Martin Seligman a past president of the American Psychological Association who has done extensive research into the subject, very few external conditions are correlated with increases in happiness. Living in a wealthy, liberal democracy, being married and having strong friendships are some of the few externals that do help. Having the sense that our work is a calling more than just a ‘job’ is also an important factor but take note that this is not an external condition. It’s not our work that makes us happy, it’s how we think about our work. A Doctor who is only in it for the money, has a ‘job’, he will be less happy than a garbage collector who is passionate about making the world a cleaner, healthier place. The garbage collector is happier because he has turned his job into a ‘calling’.
Why do external things and events have so little impact on happiness, probably because of hedonic adaptation. ‘Hedonic’ of course means pleasure, and pleasure is something we quickly adapt to. Initially any new agreeable delight is going to fire up the pleasure neurons of the brain like a Christmas tree but as we begin to take it for granted and stop noticing our good fortune, our arousal levels recede. That’s why love at first sight is often only love at first sight, like everything else, once that person is part of your life you forget about their value. That’s incidentally why gratitude is such a strong happiness booster, it’s not what we have, it’s our continuing awareness and appreciation of what we have that keeps us buoyant.
What ever exactly creates happiness, the benefits are far reaching. Happiness boosts the immune system, reduces the probably of disease and extends longevity. In a landmark study, Hundreds of Harvard graduates were followed for thirty years. Those who said they were happy and extremely satisfied with their lives were ten times less likely to be afflicted by serious illness and early death than those who complained they were unhappy and thoroughly dissatisfied. There is a whole new science dedicated to researching the effects of our emotions on our health, its called psychoneuroimmunology, (that will give you 39 points in scrabble, not including double word bonuses).Psychoneuroimmunology is beginning to suggest that happiness may just be the world’s greatest medicine.
Happy people are more likely to find a romantic partner and forge long-term friendships. When we’re in a good mood we’re more creative and solution orientated, we select bigger goals and we’re more likely to achieve them. In one study a group was followed for 18 months, those who were happier got better evaluations from their supervisors and received higher pay.If you still want to define success as love, health, work and money, well you can be sure that success produces happiness less often than happiness produces success. When you’re happy the rest of your life tends to fall into place.
© Justin Cohen
Justin Cohen is an international speaker, trainer and author. For more personal development resources go to www.justinpresents.com .