On Sunday mornings, I have made it a habit to watch a documentary while finishing up my work for the week. It allows me to learn more about a topic, while usually finishing a task or chore that can be monotonous. A couple of weeks ago I chose a film titled “Happy.” In this documentary, the filmmakers traveled internationally to find out just who is happy and who is not.
If you were lucky enough to take psychology or sociology in high school or college, you are probably familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If not, please look it up and explore the different levels of his triangle. In short, Maslow discovered that until a human being’s basic needs are met, they cannot become the person they are meant to be. Until a person feels as though they have food and water, shelter, adequate rest, until they feel safe, that they belong and feel respected, a person cannot be happy.
One of the speakers made some really good points about happiness vs. money. In our culture we tend to focus on the almighty dollar as a measurement of our own happiness. This gentleman asked the audience the question “Does money buy happiness?” The answer was, it depends. If you are homeless, not getting enough food, water, or sleep, don’t feel safe or that you belong anywhere, then of course coming into money will make this person happier. Once that person feels as though the bottom levels of Maslow’s triangle are filled, they can now move onto more fulfilling life activities. Research on money and happiness has found that once you have these basic needs met, your level of happiness stays stagnant. Anything we buy brings us fleeting joy, not long-term life fulfillment.
Another aspect to a person’s happiness is how quickly they can bounce back from a bad life event. In other words, how resilient are you? How long does it take you to recover from a setback or loss? Fortunately, resiliency is a skill that can be learned. It’s not something you are born with and then stuck with for the rest of your life. There are all kinds of books, articles, and therapists who can help people to learn the skills necessary to navigate all that life throws our way.
The filmmakers concentrated on two countries in particular as dichotomies of happiness. The Japanese have some of the lowest levels of life satisfaction, while the Danes have the highest. The Japanese people put such an emphasis on work that they lose connections between family and friends. They actually have a word, “karoshi,” that means dying from overwork. In Denmark, people live more cooperatively with one another and form deeper connections and are guaranteed than most other industrialized nations. Research on work-life balance has shown that people who have connections in their personal life are happier in their work and in life in general. Working yourself to the bone, while ignoring other aspects of your life has the opposite effect.
Another simple activity that people can do every week is to write down five things they are grateful for. That quick, simple act can really reframe how people see the world. I know that I am not the only one out there that tends to focus on the negative and not the positive. I also found a lot of good suggestions on a website called projecthappiness.com, which has a lot of great suggestions, backed up by research, on how to be a happier person. The good news is that we can change the way we perceive the world and our situations and start on a path of greater life satisfaction.
Shannon Green writes from Frederick.