Our society is obsessed with the attainment of happiness - why this goal may ironically lead to discontent. Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at freedigitalphotos.net
Our current obsession in the Western world of the pursuit of happiness may set us up for short-term gratification, but longer term a life devoid of meaning. Along with the lack of meaning, we may miss out on something that might not sound as great as ‘happiness’ but is probably more authentic.
It may actually be unhealthy to strive for ‘happiness’ all the time. Our society has advertisements full of people grinning, book shops are replete with shelves devoted to its attainment. Sadness is an uncomfortable emotion – we grow up avoiding it, rather than being taught it is part of the ‘being human’ deal.
Along with this message we are also fed subconsciously societal values communicated through media, for example, of what will make us happy. Money, sex, success, popularity….
Not that it is wrong to value these things…however it is useful to think about why we hold these things as important. I don’t think that many people think hundred dollar notes are pretty or wonderful – it’s what it can help us to attain. It is very individual to what degree money is personally desirable. There is nothing wrong with wanting more or less. It’s just it’s useful to find out what your values are by thinking about what you would buy or do with that money. That, not the money itself would then be considered to be important. Would you take the family for a holiday? Perhaps family is an important value. Would you buy a bigger house? Perhaps personal space and surroundings is important to you.
Is sex important to you? Intimacy may be important, or companionship, or physical touch – it is very individual and it’s all okay.
However, when you look closer at what is important to you by asking yourself ‘why’, sometimes people can get surprised.
always, but sometimes people may have grown up with the message that money is important. People may realise deep down that its parental approval that is an unmet need. People may be living out what society has and does tell us – that money is important and is associated with happiness.
I just want to make a comment that there is nothing wrong with wanting money or even a lot of it. This isn’t an article designed to judge about what are right or wrong values. It’s just that I have been looking at satisfaction and contentment myself, and it’s led me to thinking more deeply about what is important, to me personally . This is because values are essentially ideals that are of personal importance to us. Therefore, each person of course has a different value system, as unique as the individual who possesses it.
For example, one person’s value system may be “career, financial success, a great body and welfare of family” and another’s “personal growth, spirituality, care of animals and being a great friend”.
Living in line with a personally held value system may not always lead to happiness as such: sometimes it may be difficult. For example you may value ‘personal growth’. Suppose you engage in activities that help you grow as a person, but may be emotionally difficult for you. For example, if you value self-honesty or authenticity, this may lead to undesired emotional responses from others. This may be difficult but if you live in line with you values, you can feel true to yourself, and conversely if you don’t you may feel uncomfortable.
There is another insight that I’d like to share, again just a personal thought that others may or may not agree with. I thought, could it be said that sadness has a role – without it, how would we know what we value? Without sadness, how would we recognise happiness? If a loved one dies, and we feel sadness, it indicates that person was valuable to us. Sadness may be present if something is missing, for example if one is following values that are not true to what is really important to us. For example, I remember at uni thinking I would be happy if I got a distinction, and less than that ‘wouldn’t be good enough’. However upon receiving a high distinction I was dismayed when the positive feeling dissipated in less than a day!
Upon reflection I realised perfection was not a personal value, but rather one I adopted from elsewhere. Trying my best and learning are personal values I later discovered. If I enjoyed the process of learning and being happy with not achieving an excellent result, I would have felt more at peace/satisfied/contentment. I feel these states are more sustainable long-term than happiness.
To a certain degree we need to incorporate values of others into our lives because it is irreversibly intertwined with our own. We need to be successful at work for example to provide for our children. “Success” may not be of value to us in and of itself. However, it is what it can provide for us and our family that is. Our partner’s values may become intertwined with our own due to the give and take inherent in any healthy relationship.
Another mention – some societies, such as Asian culture may value interdependence and working as a community, and that also needs to be considered.
A meaningful life does not always guarantee things will be smooth and happy all the way. What gives our lives meaning which may or may not result in ‘happiness’ is in the doing, the day to day application, of putting our values into action.
If you feel you are not sure whether your values are your own, or whether without realising it you are unconsciously pleasing your parents, partner or adopting a value you think you ‘should’ have, take time to:
1. Reflect about what is important to you personally. Forget the messages you’ve been told. Get the advertisements and television shows out of your mind. Forget about what others say you are or what others think are important to you. When are you at peace? What gives you satisfaction? Most important what gives your life meaning? For example, time with your pet/family, personal growth in your career, health and well-being, spirituality, personal development? Take time to have a rounded picture and consider
Relationships, contribution, health, finances…?
2. Think if some values take priority or more time. For example, you may pray first each day if it is your most important value. If health is important diet and exercise may be central. If career goals are important what is success for you, and think about what it means to you rather than success per se…
3. Take action!
If we keep our value system close and use it as a compass to guide our decisions, behaviour and how we choose to spend our time, we can feel a sense of acceptance if not happiness. Importantly, we feel at peace with ourselves that we are living authentically.
Thanks for this thought provoking article. I love the way you put forward your personal thoughts and then ask lots of questions, encouraging your readers to think what is important to them. I appreciate the way you do not judge or tell others what their values should be.