Are you actually happy? It’s a hard question to answer at the best of times. What does make you happy? Is it money or love or power? Maybe it’s just being able to have a meal a day, or have some friends who understand you, or maybe it is having millions of pounds and a supermodel wife?
The answer is different for everyone, but if we take away the concept of wealth and imagine a world where all people are equal what would make you happy? I suspect most of us would be content with being loved, known, and having some basic comforts. A great deal of research has been done into the subject (including Harvard University, and there is even a Happiness Institute) You can go ahead and read any of that you fancy and make your own conclusions but something that tends to be a trend in the research is that people who are wealthy are generally less happy than those who are poor. If it’s hard to imagine think about this.
How happy would you be if you had no money but you gained £1000?
How happy would you be if you had £1 billion and you gained £1000?
The first scenario would likely bring greater pleasure, it’s simple but helps to think about how gaining on top of excessive wealth becomes meaningless at a point.
As a poor person you are probably thinking that’s absurd. Rich people tend to disagree. Mental Health issues like depression don’t discriminate, and don’t care how much fame or money you have. Recent cases of suicide by big name stars (Chris Cornell being a well-known one and of course Robin Williams) shows that having everything doesn’t make you happy. But poor people kill themselves too. If you were to interview tribes in the Amazon, they’d probably tell you they have no concept of whether anyone else is happy or not, they live their lives and get on with the day to day necessities to stay alive. They will tell you they don’t want their environment destroyed but that’s caused by factors external to their normal existence.
The same is for people who work in low paid jobs, or don’t have jobs, you tend to get on with your life and make the most out of it. Having hope is useful, and hoping for better could make you more or less happy depending on your situation.
The question of happiness is one that will likely never truly be answered until we do live in a world of equity. Genocide, bigotry in many forms and war all still exist and continue and will of course, cause great unhappiness for many. I want to focus more on whether not having much is better than having it all for your life. I grew up with very little, my parents split up when I was 7 years old and we lived off state welfare and my mum doing part time jobs to survive. We didn’t suffer, we ate and had a TV to watch, but I learned later that my mum put herself in debt to achieve this (all since better) what I did really gain from having little was a good work ethic, I need to work if I want something. I also gained an appreciation of the value of money and what you could achieve with very little resources (this has continued to be useful for my entire life) And, I have gained an attitude that having money or status, or success by others standards does not equate to happiness or fulfilment.
Personally, I think happiness comes to me when I am with people who are important to me and when I am doing the things that are meaningful to me. Sometimes just eating a nice meal, even if that meal is a cheap burger but is enjoyable is blissful. Sometimes having a cold beer on a hot day is all it takes, or a hug from my partner. None of these would be made any better by having more money in the bank.
Having people in your life you value is definitely one of the keys to happiness, being liked and liking others is incredibly important. Not suffering certainly helps people be happy but having an expensive car as it turns out, doesn’t make you any happier. Additionally, those who start with nothing tend to find joy in smaller things and those who stockpile money don’t get any happier the more they get. Greed tends to be a false feeling, people who are greedy are never satisfied so are never happy with what they have. Many years ago (don’t remember when) I read an article where someone had researched pessimism versus optimism (don’t remember where the research came from, but it really doesn’t matter). The overall outcome was that pessimists are happier, because they don’t expect much and are pleasantly surprised by life when it’s good. Whereas, optimists are less happy because life has a way of letting you down, so being continually positive about a potential outcome left you let down more frequently. The outward demeanour of a person does not indicate their levels of happiness. You can look at many of the people currently in power in the world (Yes, Donald Trump again…but the guy makes a fantastic case study) on the outside they appear incredibly happy with their lot, however, he would never have even felt the need to become POTUS if he was happy with his life, and he needed more. More importantly, he spends most of his time causing others to suffer, he can’t possibly be a happy person (we won’t get into psychopathy just yet)
Being a poor pessimist would appear to be a better place in life than a rich optimist. Sounds wrong but it’s not. Being able to do things makes people happy, right? Not necessarily either. I have worked with people with disabilities for 17 years, and have had the pleasure of meeting thousands of people with disabilities who are certainly happier than I am, as a general rule they are happier with more simple pleasures. Ambition tends to be more modest, the little things in life give them more joy. Just getting a part time job brings more pride and satisfaction than a million pounds would.
I do believe that starting with little or nothing helps people to find greater satisfaction, happiness and pleasure more simple experiences than if you’re born with everything in your hand. Would I like to have more money? Yes. Would I like to be rich? Yes. But I would like to think that should I become rich I wouldn’t turn into a Donald Trump, and I would use it to help others. Becoming selfish when you find yourself with a fortune is a common thing. Money can equal power, and power doesn’t make people happy, it just leads to greed for more power.
Having little or nothing isn’t just to do with material items and money. It also has to do with how you are taught to value anything in life. If your family and peer group value relationships over property you will likely have the same values. If you are surrounded by people who value expensive cars you’ll likely value those too. But what about someone with a deficit in love and affection? Raised without anyone caring for you? This cannot be good and many children who are orphaned or raised away from their families also find relationship building hard later in life. It appears that many people born into great wealth don’t have value for other people either (yes, a generalisation and there are many people making themselves wealthy and contributing back to their world, but considering the majority of wealth is held by a tiny percentage of people, you can’t argue this unless they start to share more) If your entire existence is about having more than the neighbour, your attitude towards people is likely to suffer.
Being poor and abused is going to affect you significantly and having both of those deficits in your life isn’t going to help you have a positive start. Does that mean you’ll turn out a horrible selfish person? No, it doesn’t. Being born into wealth won’t definitely make you a horrible selfish person either, but it appears more likely to. Generally more poor people are born into suffering, yet it’s those with money and power who have the least regard for other people.
I do believe it is better to have less. I’ve written before about the recent trend of decluttering and how removing unnecessary things from your life can help you feel more centred and happier. As a minimalist when it comes to possessions I get this entirely, but then I never owned much anyway. The decluttering movement (if you could call it that) and often came from a Japanese style approach to a simpler life. This was really targeted at unhappy rich people, not people with real hoarding problems, those are two very distinct issues. I do think being overly focussed on possessions is unhealthy to a point, but in the end you can collect and enjoy what you want. Wherever the unhappiness or dissatisfaction is coming from is not going to be fixed by throwing out your things.
By starting with little and earning what you have is going to make you happier than having handed to you on a plate. There are some exceptions to this, but I have met very people who feel this way. What is meaningful about just having things without effort? We used to have to put effort in just to survive, to eat, to stay warm enough. Our ethics of work have rightfully changed over the time of human existence and I don’t want to go back to a hunter gatherer existence, I like my bed and my heater and that I can have a pizza delivered to my door. But all of those things are things I have earned and I am fully aware of the privilege I have of being able to earn that. I wouldn’t appreciate that if I hadn’t had to earn it.
You will appreciate something much more when you have it less, junk food, alcohol, sex, whatever it may be it definitely feels better after a break from it. Things become meaningless when they are on tap. Drinking water out of a tap that won’t make you sick is something we in the UK take for granted and we’ll likely be outraged should we lose that, yet there are people who have never had clean drinking water, or flushable toilets. I believe we all should and there are enough resources in the world to make that happen were it not for greed and capitalism.
This is not me telling you to have less or get rid of things. This is me telling you not to be focussed on what you can’t have and to be happy with your situation. There is nothing wrong with ambition and aiming to achieve goals, but what’s important is why you have those particular goals. I gain great satisfaction by finishing things, even this article, once it is done and published I will be happy till my next bit of work. I would love it if millions of people read it and I earned a fortune but that is entire secondary to the process and purpose in the first place, I will be happy if one person reads it and gets something out of it.
There are many who use their privilege for good, I hope I do. Socially the majority of people will change and shift with time, look at history and you will see how far we have come. However, it seems that too much privilege can be a negative thing. Just as being too poor is negative but not having much doesn’t always make people unhappy.
With recent changes in the way we see disposable culture we are starting to shift (some people are) away from seeing it as a right to have anything, convenience and access to anything has created a life in which we value things less. Music can be streamed online without the artists getting paid, it used to be record companies who ripped off musicians now it’s just as much the fault of the listening. We have coffee imported from distant places and buy one for enough money to feed a family then throw away the cup we bought it in. These are attitudes that are changing, maybe too slowly but it is a sign that not even people who are wealthy can be wasteful with their privilege. I would love a society where equity exists, everyone has enough to survive and can follow their passions but the cynic in me knows that there will always be a person who will take advantage for personal gain unless we have real change politically and legally. Banning of plastic bags is a good example, make them illegal and they will eventually stop being made in the first place, people used to be happy before we even had them.
Maybe it’s up to the leaders of the world to impose changes, maybe it’s entirely up to you to find your own contentment but it is true that “having it all” means different things for different people and being wealthy definitely doesn’t mean you have it all, nor does being poor but you’ll appreciate things much more if you are.