This is a great question. Many times in my 44 years have I asked that question. Unfortunately, often I did not. I spent a fair amount of my time experiencing less happiness, less fulfillment, and less goal-attainment than I probably could have. I expect this might be the case with you, which is why you clicked on this blog. Let me share just a few aspects of my pursuit of “the good life” and attempt to address the question of, What if I’m not happy?
Happiness will, for this blog, be more or less synonymous with joy, fulfillment, contentment, and pleasure, though at a deeper level of analysis that would be a mistake. Flourishing and eudaimonia are also possible ways to differentiate states of well-being, but it needn’t waylay me here.
What if I’m not happy? is a question everyone asks. You don’t have to be a 20th-century French existentialist to come to believe that this life might be an absurd existence, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” as Shakespeare aptly described life from that perspective. Phrases like “life sucks” and “reality bites” and “this blows” are modern manifestations of angst vs. happiness; despair vs. contentment. When the existential writer and winner of the Noble Prize for literature Albert Camus claimed that the primary philosophical question one needs to answer is: “Is life worth the pain of living?”, he tapped into a very deep issue.
Namely, that life might have been toil and trouble in humankind’s earlier generations, but nowadays there is the potential for ceaseless pleasure. Thus, we in modern America have a new aspect of the age-old puzzle. The question of, what if I’m not happy?has as much to do with money, the relation of the person to their employer, poverty and health insurance, a politics gone absolutely haywire, access to dubious recreational drugs, the availability of drugs like Prozac, the financial stresses of the young, and the insatiability that we face.
Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. ~ Proverbs 3:13-14
Insatiability is one of the foci of the smart, short book by a father/son team of economists entitled How Much Is Enough: Money and the Good Life. In it, the “rat race” is treated to a withering critique. They believe that the concept of happiness as developed by Aristotle and others in Ancient Greece has been replaced by chasing our tails. Nor do they think that capitalism or Marxism have been helpful. In fact, they place the blame for insatiability at the feet of the juggernaut of capitalism. For a few centuries, about since Adam Smith, we have been pursuing pleasure and success and superiority over others at the expense of “the good life.” What if I’m not happy? is a question that is reflected in survey data which show that many countries around the world are not particularly happy nowadays, and not just the impoverished ones.
Though, interestingly, Bhutan makes a case for “gross national happiness” replacing gross national product as the national barometer for progress, wealth, and well-being.
Here is a snippet from How Much Is Enough: Money and the Good Life:
“How much money do we need to lead a good life? This might be an impossible question. But it is not a trivial one. Making money cannot be an end in itself – and least for anyone not suffering from an acute mental disorder.” And yes, they do consider the goals and behaviors of someone like Jeff Bezos, as I see it, as being worthy of contempt and scrutiny. They use the word acquisitiveness to describe that kind of behavior, and it’s akin to usury and compulsiveness, I believe.”
Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky continue:
“To say that my purpose in life is to make more and more money is like saying that my aim in eating is to get fatter and fatter. What’s true of individuals is also true of society.”
Thus, the answer to the question, What if I’m not happy? has much to do with money, expectations, the human capacity for adaptation, and modern society. They are wise to cite Huxley’s Brave New World as a way to point out that simply taking a “happy pill,” especially one engineered and administered by those in power, is more like The Matrix than human flourishing. We are off track, they point out.
They decry the “pursuit of growth” that marks modern capitalism, but hesitate to suggest that the goal of society be to simply bring about more pleasure. As they put it:
“To go from the pursuit of growth to the pursuit of happiness is to turn from one false idol to another. Our proper goal, as individuals and as citizens, is not just to be happy but to have reason to be happy. To have the good things of life – health, respect, friendship, leisure – is to have a reason to be happy. To be happy without these things is to be in the grip of a delusion: the delusion that life is going well when in fact it is not.”
An interesting example the Skidekslys use is that of “The drug Ecstasy achieves its effects by changing the face of the world, by transforming it, temporarily, into a kinder, lovelier place. This is why its after-effects are so depressing. Not only do you feel nauseous, you realize your feelings have been duped.”
A line of thinkers from Aristotle through today have held the belief that there are certain reasons for human happiness (eudaimonia) and that it is about living a kind of life. It would be more apt to say that happiness comes from a contemplative life in which one believes one has enough than to try to figure out how to get $1,000 for a replacement for your current smartphone, or how to get promoted at work, or to try to string together a series of vacuous romantic flings.
So we crave wisdom in the world of business, yet manufacture an economic collapse out of self-interest (greed) and a galling lack of emotional regulation (panic). We understand how important wisdom is to our domestic peace and happiness, yet we can’t break the powerful neural rewards of habit, vanity, self-indulgence, and immediate gratification. We desperately need wise political leadership, yet the enormous economy of politics is bankrolling refinements in appeals to the oldest, most fearful, and most impatient part of our brains. ~ Stephen S. Hall
If a bird had the capacity to ask, What if I’m not happy?, it would probably determine that it needs to be more like the nature of a bird: flying, mating, building nests, sleeping, raising chicks, and shitting on people as they pass beneath them. Likewise, human beings are meant for something particular – something irreducibly human – and this is known as teleology in Greek. If the end of humankind is interesting and harmonious social interactions, appropriate challenges, values such as love, kindness, friendly competition, rationality, and leisure, then making an additional $25,000 at your job in New York City is by definition not going to do the trick. Yet we tend to firmly believe that more money equals more happiness. It’s an amazing and potent bias in the human mind.
This leads to a bit of advice for someone, like myself, who has asked or is asking, What if I’m not happy? Perhaps it’s not that you need more followers on social media, or the biggest television possible, or to get a date with that one person you covet. I dated serially from my late teens through age 34; I kept believing that the next woman would hopefully fill some God-shaped hole in me, as it were (actually, I have felt more like it is a mother-shaped hole through the middle of me). Personally, I do believe that my brain was altered in my youth, either due to prenatal smoking or a stressful and chaotic childhood (and based on a look at my relatives, I was not granted genes that put my set-point of happiness particularly high).
I did the best I could with what I was working with at the time in question, but I realize that I could have done better. I suppose it is fair to say that I do the best I can, but I could always do better. That’s true for us all. For example, I don’t have enough money set aside for retirement, and yet my avocation of writing (and my other career) make the earning of sufficient money somewhat dubious. I do hang on to the idea that more money will make me happier, though. It’s a terribly common malady.
A gentleman takes as much trouble to discover what is right as lesser men take to discover what will pay. ~ Confucius
The love of money is very alluring. Boats make for beautiful sunsets; it feels good to see Jack Daniels being poured over ice; vacations introduce one to a whole new vista of experience and potential. Power and respect and freedom are sought-after goals, and money affords more of all of those goods. I don’t go as far as thinking that a piece of jewelry would be a permanent solution to the question, What if I’m not happy?, but I do have a lingering suspicion that a Maserati just might do the trick.
I would do well to take the advice of the wise, and realize that popularity is vacuous, possessions are impermanent, superiority is a rouse, and that there is a certain amount of money that can realistically be considered enough to have a decent life and to retire on.
It’s worth noting, in fact, that $75,000 is approximately the amount of money a typical American in a typical city or town needs to reach a point of diminishing returns as far as happiness is concerned. That is, the rich are not actually happier than those who make $60k – $80k. Sure, if you’re poor, you’re screwed, and if health insurance costs $8,000 a year it’s onerous even for someone making upwards of $80-90k. I personally find it amazing when I hear of the suicide of someone like Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade (and I would include Tom Petty and Prince in this category) or some other person with a lot of money. For them, money certainly didn’t buy happiness. It can buy therapy and antidepressant medication and drug treatment, though!
Happiness is almost always based on perceptions and relativity; that is, owning a $500,000 house in a neighborhood with a mean value of $400,000 will make one feel much happier and successful than owning a $500,000 house in a neighborhood of $1,000,000 homes. Humans just can’t help but to compare ourselves to each other and, typically, try to outdo the members of one’s comparison group.
How convenient, for example, that in Renaissance Italy, coincident with the rise of the great banking families of Florence in the fifteenth century, the most astute scholastic minds decided that a fundamental prerequisite for wisdom was wealth, just as those in our era accepted until recently that greed, in the form of economic self-interest, was a virtue. ~ Stephen S. Hall
The question, What if I’m not happy? is a great one to ask. It shows self-awareness, insight, and a proper kind of self-consciousness. Reflecting on a sense of unfulfillment, according to the Skidelskys, Aristotle, many others, and I does not certainly indicate you believe that there is something “wrong with you”(e.g., you need Prozac). Nor does unhappiness mean that you need to earn more money, or that there is some material possession that will cause the serotonin to flow liberally.
In fact, I think pets, social relationships, novelty (such as travel), a proper sense of mastery, the pursuit of “flow experiences”, reading and exploration about the world of ideas, work (or an avocation) that brings fulfillment and meaning (at the 25-40-hour-a-week level of engagement), and doing good for others are the true ways to face the frightening but significant question, What if I’m not happy? If you’re not living the right kind of life, accept it and make needed changes. The aforementioned factors and physical health and exercise (and diet and mindfulness and proper sleep) are enough to tip anyone’s scale toward greater happiness and fulfillment.
You don’t have to be superior to anyone. There will always be someone smarter, better-looking, richer, and with more accouterments than yourself. Consider adopting the meditation as: Why am I not happy? Perhaps I am comparing myself to others, to “the perfect,” and to my parents (coach’s, spouse’s, friends’) expectations and values.
Ask yourself what you believe, what you want, what really makes you tick. Does it matter, then, that someone out there has a yacht, or is 6’2″, or got their Twitter following to 1,000,000, or has a bigger ring, or drives a sweet ride, or has a better-looking/fitter/more successful spouse? Like, does it really matter, in the radical, physical sense? If we pursue material possessions and money we will always feel behind the 8-ball.
There are people who have money and people who are rich.
Indeed, the Skidelskys note that Aristotle had a flaw: he was a patrician in an era of slaves and very limited psychological development. They write: “Let’s just note, by way of reassurance, that our vision of the good life is not premised on a contrast with other, lower ways of life. The pleasures of mastery and condescension play no part in it. …We would not wish to resurrect Aristotle’s ideal of the ‘great-souled’ man, basking in the consciousness of his own superiority.”
I think in addition to the above advice about the folly of comparing yourself to the real or imagined fortunes of others, again, the short answer to the question, What if I’m not happy? is probably akin to the fact that you’re not doing the right things with your life. Organize your time and your priorities differently. Concentrate on the right goals, and spurn the “glittering prizes and endless compromises” which, according to the rock group Rush, “shatter the illusion of integrity.”
Have you heard the phrase, “Lighten up!” Gosh, I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said that to me. I am prone to be perfectionistic, severe, and judgmental. Well, if you want to improve your mental health, your sense of well-being, and the degree to which you are flourishing, you should seriously consider “Getting deeper.” Reading a blog that takes 20 minutes is a good thing; it’s not distracting you from other, more important stuff. It is the important stuff.
Also, remember that social media is addictive and meant to make revenue for the directors and shareholders of the companies, not to bring about greater wellness and fulfillment. Research shows that social media makes one less happy, in fact. We pursue likes and social interaction, only to often feel inadequate, deflated, and isolated. It’s truly pernicious for the young.
I’m here to help. You could literally – and I’m not kidding – spend 1,000 hours going through the Values of the Wise website, Wisdom Archive, blogs, and books without repeating a page. There is that much wisdom of the ages and sage spiritual, psychological, and philosophical opinions. It’s yours, free*. With my compliments.
This digital haze obscures our view of the future and keeps our focus ever more relentlessly on the present, with ever more insistence on speed as a virtue in and of itself. Only the brave, the strong, the mindful, and perhaps the poor (who cannot afford this arsenal of self-absorption) have any chance of resisting the technological pressure to live faster, more in the present, less contemplatively. ~ Stephen S. Hall
*The books sell for $3 to $18 because they took a lot of time and money to produce. But most people who own them feel they are worth it.All the quotes and the blogs and the tools are yours to use without charge. Just pay it forward for me, and tell five people if you love the site.