HEALTH CARE: The price of happiness

What would make you really happy? Do you think earning a six-figure income would make you happy? Would an expensive car make a difference? How about a second home?

You might think these things would make you happy, but think again before you make your wish. A higher income might be nice, but often this requires long hours of work away from loved ones. If you had an expensive car, would you worry about people scratching or denting it? You may fantasize about being on the beach at your second home, but do you enjoy the maintenance of the home?

Most of us believe that the acquisition of money or things will bring us happiness. In recent surveys, 75 percent of students entering college believed that “being very well off financially” was “very important” in life. We spend a great deal of our lives frantically pursuing this belief, only to be confronted with the depressing reality we may actually be less happy than before.

Perhaps the most famous example of this pursuit is the tale of King Midas of Phrygia. Midas, a very wealthy king, was granted one wish by the wine god Dionysus. He wished that everything he touched would turn to gold. He was granted the wish and everything he touched did indeed turn to gold–including his food and, most tragically, his daughter. Like Midas, by the time we realize the true cost of our wishes and actions, it is often too late.

Recently, it was reported that whereas the inflation-adjusted per capita income of Americans has tripled since 1960, the percentage of people who state they are “very happy” has declined during that same period from 40 percent to 30 percent.

Although many people have gained tremendous economic benefits during the extended bull market since 1982, they have at the same time become victims to a growing sense of emotional, social, and spiritual impoverishment.

This impoverishment of the nouveau riche is not only paradoxical but has devastating consequences for individuals, family structure, and the very fabric of society. As Midas discovered, there are often tremendous hidden costs of acquiring wealth. Some of these high costs include having much less time to spend with our families and friends, which in turn often leads to increased stress, divorce, troubled children, and physical symptoms and expressions of our “dis-ease.”

As people come to the disturbing realization that their things and their money are not making them happy, they may turn to medications, alcohol, drugs, overeating and–not surprisingly–buying more stuff. In this way it is similar to an addiction, where we require more and more to have the same small and fleeting effect. If we look deeply, these are often desperate attempts to distract ourselves from our boredom, loneliness and depression.

Study after study has concluded that income has very little relationship to how happy people feel. A study of billionaires concluded they were only slightly more happy than people who earned an average income. Increased income appears to make a meaningful difference only to the well being of individuals who live in poor economic circumstances. This effect drops off dramatically after life’s necessities are addressed. Even though people fantasize that winning the lotto will make them happy and solve their problems, the reality is that lottery winners’ lives are actually more complicated and less happy than they imagined.

If money and things are unlikely to make us happy, what will? Some people believe that finding the perfect person or relationship will do the trick. The only problem with this strategy is that there are no perfect relationships, or people, and furthermore your partner may be waiting for you to be perfect and make them happy! Waiting for someone else to come along and make you happy is a perfect way to remain unhappy and burden someone with your own unreasonable expectations.

If we can’t buy happiness, and other people are unlikely to make us happy, is true happiness even possible? The good news is that we can learn to be happy. The difficult part is that we must constantly practice changing the thoughts and behaviors that make us unhappy. The tale of King Midas teaches us why we are unhappy: he was forgetful and he was ungrateful. Like so many of us, he did not appreciate the wealth that he already had–that he was alive, that he had his health, that he could touch his daughter. He did not count his blessings until it was too late.

We can be very happy if we practice being mindful, or more deeply aware of the “wealth” that is already in us and around us every day. If you suddenly became blind or paralyzed, you might desperately pray “for a miracle” to be able to see or walk one more time.

Most of us can walk and see already, but we suffer because we have forgotten that these are miracles, and we are ungrateful for them. If, on the other hand, we are willing to slow down and practice awareness and gratitude, we will find that we rarely need anything else to be happy. Increasing our awareness and practicing gratitude is the true price we must pay for our happiness.

Greg Holmes, Ph.D., is a psychologist with a practice in Traverse City. BIZNEWS