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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Unlock the Happiness

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
~Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

It might have been 1854 but Henry David Thoreau saw into the future of the world when he decided to seclude himself away at Walden Pond. Long ago, Thoreau posed a challenge we are losing today: fight materialism and live a simpler yet more fulfilled life. As people of today’s globally consumerist culture, we equate happiness and fulfillment in life with money in the bank, a car in the driveway and expensive possessions. YouTube is filled with beauty gurus showcasing hauls of their purchased merchandise and we are always on the lookout for the newest and most technologically advanced Smartphone. We live in a world where we constantly want MORE MORE MORE but when is it enough?  

The world is saturated with people looking for happiness, and why shouldn’t we be. We pick up the latest self-help bestsellers from our local bookstores or spend hours and thousands of dollars on therapy sessions that for many, don’t tackle the issue. Last year alone we spent approximately $118 billion on traveling and $200 billion on the latest electronics. Is it difficult to find happiness and fulfillment in life or are we looking in the wrong places? Thoreau was an 18th century hipster that decided to moved into his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s cabin in the woods to live more simply. His book, Walden, was part memoir and part spiritual quest as he spent over 2 years stripped away from all superfluous luxuries, living as part of nature and reflecting on life.  He had this basic idea; in life we do not need all the most modern advances but instead believed the more we have, the more we want.

There is something to be said about happiness in Thoreau’s experiment at Walden pound. The World Happiness Report published by The Earth Institute, explains how research shows that wealth does not necessarily equal happiness[i]. This report launched at the United Nations, explains that although the poor who gain wealth do experience an increase in happiness, the high-income communities only gain momentary ‘happiness’ then quickly drift back to their usual level of fulfillment. The citizens of countries lacking resources do gain happiness when they are able to fulfill their basic needs and live above their usual lifestyle but what do we westerners gain from a new salary increase or electronic toy? We were already more than able to put a nutritious meal on the table and have a warm bed to sleep in at night; all our basic necessities in life have long been filled. While the stresses of poverty are gone for us, we now face many other problems brought on by increased wealth.

“Affluence has created its own set of afflictions and addictions. Obesity, adult-onset diabetes, tobacco-related illnesses, eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, psychosocial disorders, and addictions to shopping, TV, and gambling, are all examples of disorders of development. So too is the loss of community, the decline of social trust, and the rising anxiety levels associated with the vagaries of the modern globalized economy, including the threats of unemployment or episodes of illness not covered by health insurance in the United States”[ii].

We put heavy faith in getting a promotion at work, investing in a new phone or computer, which will make our lives ‘easier’, but research shows it does not increase our happiness over time. An article in TIME magazine references ‘consumptive happiness’. The article, The Happiness of Pursuit, by Jeffrey Kluger explains that today in the US we gain momentary happiness from items we reap but this positive high is not lasting[iii]. This fleeting feeling of happiness has created a community of people looking for happiness in all the wrong places. A possible part of the solution is to understand that happiness may “lie not in a product … but simply in a better understanding of the particular way Americans define happiness in the first place”.

It’s funny that a man in the 1800s realized our dependence on possessions, which has just progressed as an issue in today’s world. Thoreau found that luxuries in life did not give him happiness but distracted from it. Don’t get me wrong; technology has made life much easier. We are able to live and commute in ways Thoreau would not have understood but what he did know is that it would not solve all our problems. In today’s 4G world, we live by instant gratification which is more about reaping than sowing. As novels have become 140 character Tweets, our attention spans have shortened and we demand things to happen instantaneously. A poll by TIME found that 25% of women, 5% of men are taking antidepressants and 48% of women, 44% of men admit to eating as a means to improve their moods. We are harvesting our natural resources and tugging on every bit of them hoping to find the next big thing to fill the void in us. Instead, we should be of putting less responsibility on the ever dwindling natural resources and locking ourselves in our own metaphorical cabins to self-reflect. By realizing how we define happiness we can reflect on what actually brings us lasting fulfillment. Quality time spent with loved ones, rest and hard work towards goals brings us a more lasting feeling of accomplishment and happiness rather than fleeting moments of it.

Looking for happiness in all the wrong places and for instant gratification are key themes in today’s society. We must have faith in our character and let hard work and dedication drive us to our end goal. Enjoying the scenery during the ride is important and where are character is strengthened. See the journey as part of the process and live through it. We can’t live exactly the way Thoreau did in his experiment. We can remind ourselves that when we don’t have the latest phone or when we are stuck taking public transportation there is something to learn from it. Hard work, dedication and proper planning will get us all to achieving our goals and equip us to enjoy them as well. Sometimes we just need to stop and list what we are thankful for instead of what we are missing or what would make us happier.

[i] Sachs, Jeffrey D., John F. Helliwell, and Richard Layard, eds. "First World Happiness Report Launched at the United Nations." The Earth Institute, Columbia University (2012): 1-170. Web.
[ii] Ibid
[iii] Kluger, Jeffery. "The Happiness of Pursuit." TIME 8 July 2013: 66-72. Print.

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