(This article first appeared in the November 15, 2017 issue of The Independent Newspaper)
What is happiness and why does it seem like the human race is on an eternal quest to find it, define it, and conquer it?
Long Island artist and friend Asia Lee once challenged me to a verbal game of “What Ifs.” Rather than damning myself in the negative I was provoked to imagine the positive. What if I landed that dream interview? What if I wrote a successful book? What if I married the man of my dreams?
The purpose of the exercise, as I learned, was not to passively see my life as something happening to me but rather to envision an optimistic future for myself in which I make proactive decisions.
The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a monthly publication published by the American Psychological Association, claims that the leading contributor to happiness is autonomy. Defined by Merriam-Webster, autonomy is “the quality or state of being self-governing,” “self-directing freedom and especially moral independence.” In short, our personal right to choose. Growing up we retaliate against our parents demands by screaming, throwing tantrums, maybe even dating the bad boy or girl. Enter adulthood and our choices seem equally stifling while “working for the man” or succumbing to the harsh realities of financial responsibilities. When thinking about it, suddenly this autonomy realization seems like a no-brainer.
The discovery was revealed after researchers at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand collected data from 63 countries over a nearly 40-year span begging the question, “What is more important for well-being, providing people with money or providing them with choices and autonomy?”
Their conclusion was “Money leads to autonomy but it does not add to well-being or happiness” (as cited on http://www.apa.org, where you can read more about their findings). In other words, money can’t buy you happiness.
After reading the above I decided to do some more digging. Amazon lists 27,096 books on “self-help happiness,” 20,287 in English. Out of this number I admit to having read one-and-a-half. The Secret by Rhonda Byrne (that’s the half) and Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner, former foreign correspondent for National Public Radio. In Weiner’s best-selling novel, though it’s really more of a travel memoir, he uncovers how 10 other countries pursue and define happiness. Did you know Bhutan measures its peoples’ satisfaction with a gross national happiness index? Or that there is actually a world database of happiness located in the Netherlands?
Of course, my findings are only a sliver of the whole in what contributes to life’s pleasures. It’s unrealistic to assume any two people on earth can equally quantify their measure of satisfaction. But researchers try, and the rest of humanity continues in an unremitting quest. For now, I dare you all to question “What if?” and let happiness into your future.