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When I ask my students to imagine the lives that we lead from the eyes of a cave-dweller or from those of someone from around even a mere 50 years back, they think that those from the past would consider our lives to be cushy and comfortable. Indeed, most of my students believe that our ancestors wouldn't be able to imagine why we would be as unhappy and miserable as we are. After all, many of the major concerns that our ancestors had-access to clean water, medicine, food, warm shelter, etc.-are things on which we spend little time worrying. So, most of us recognize that life in the modern age is easier and more comfortable than life in the past. And yet, most of us are not as happy and satisfied with our lives as we think we should be.
When I ask my students to rate how happy they are and then ask them to rate how happy they should be given everything they have, more than 50% state that they are less happy than they should be; in contrast, only 15% say they are happier than they should be. (35% state they are as happy as they should be.)
Why aren't many of us as happy as we think we should be?
The main reason is that many of us have erroneous views about the true determinants of happiness. So, we pursue things that we think will make us happy and are surprised when they don't. For example, although findings show, time and again, that money (beyond a certain limit) doesn't contribute to happiness, and that the size of our house doesn't matter as much as does commute time, we continue to chase money, and we continue to desire bigger houses even if living in one significantly increases our commute time. Likewise, although research has shown that we are happier when we trust others and to give them the benefit of doubt, we continue to be quite cynical of others. We could spend an entire lifetime researching the true (vs. false) determinants of happiness, but the answer, it seems, is actually quite simple: most of us have simpler needs than we think we do. Beyond fulfillment of the "basic needs" (food, clothing, shelter), we need to find meaning in our work, and have at least one good personal relationship. That's about it, but most of us don't recognize this. We feel like we need more than we actually do.
But, there are at least two other reasons why we aren't as happy as we should be. As I elaborated in another article, many of us say we want to be happy, but when it comes to making our choices and decisions, we often don't act in a happiness-maximizing fashion; indeed, we often select the happiness-eroding options. For instance, although most of us recognize that an intrinsically-motivating job with a decent pay will be more happiness-enhancing than a high-paying job that involves work we hate, most of us find it difficult to resist the lure of the high-paying job. In other words, there is a difference between how important we say happiness is and how important it actually appears to be, given our choices and decisions. This difference is perplexing because most of us understand that the chances of achieving a goal are greater when we have the clarity to accord greater priority to that goal. So, for example, we realize that, to become a top athlete or to lose 40 pounds, we need to make those goals a priority; otherwise, wouldn't achieve them. And yet, when it comes to happiness, many of us don't feel that we need to do anything special: we continue to live life "business as usual," yet, somehow (magically), expect to feel better!
The final reason why many of us aren't as happy as we should be is because we feel that we don't deserve to be happy because we feel guilty about being so much better off and having so much more than the others, especially those living in third-world countries. But here's my argument for why this line of reasoning-even if it appears justifiable at first blush-is incorrect. Findings in positive psychology show that you would significantly enhance the welfare of the others around you if you felt you were happy. There are at least three reasons why your happiness promotes others' welfare. First, happy people are more generous (e.g., you would be more willing to help others when you are happy), and this means that the others benefit from your altruism. Second, research on emotional contagion shows that, through mimicry, others tend to reflect our emotions, which means that when we are happy, we make others happy through contagion. Finally, happy people are more productive (they work harder) and less needy (e.g., they are less likely to fall sick); hence, happy people both offer more and soak up less resources.
If you didn't think that happiness could be associated with all these positive benefits, it may be because of how you define happiness. Happiness is such a broad term that it can be used to refer to almost any desirable emotional state, including feelings of superiority and importance (such as pride), and feelings of joy and gratitude, and feelings of compassion and love. While it may be true that pride does not promote altruism and generosity, findings show that gratitude and love do. So, perhaps you would feel more deserving of happiness if you associated it with gratitude and compassion, rather than with feelings of superiority or pride.
If you continue to feel that happiness is selfish even if it is associated with gratitude and compassion, consider the findings discussed earlier again. Based on those findings, couldn't it be argued that feeling unhappy and miserable-rather than happy and joyful-is the more selfish emotion? Most of us seem to intuitively recognize that it is unhappiness and misery that are selfish: findings show that, given a chance to mingle with either a happy set of people or an unhappy set of people, we tend to gravitate towards the happy set. The reason we do this is because we recognize that happy people will be less needy and more giving than the unhappy people.
So, if you are one of those who can't bring yourself to be as happy as you should or could be because you feel that you don't deserve to be happy, ask yourself this question: would you rather be selfish by thrusting your unhappiness and misery on others or would you prefer to be someone whose company the others seek because of the joy you spread?
I think you know the answer to the question. It is the answer to which you would arrive if you asked yourself the question: "Am I obliged to be happy?," rather than the question: "Do I deserve to be happy?"
That said, I should mention, in closing, that although it may appear (from what I have said thus far) that you should force yourself to be happy even if you don't feel like it, that is not my intention. Rather, my intent is to remove an important "obstacle" that many people feel is stopping them from being as happy as they could be: the feeling that one doesn't deserve to be happy.
So, don't force yourself to be happy if you don't feel up to it, but do give yourself the freedom to feel (and act) as happy as you think you could be, given your life circumstances.
The world deserves it.
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