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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Purpose, Passion and Happiness

"If you observe a really happy man, you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his child, growing double dahlias or looking for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that had rolled under the radiator, striving for it as a goal in itself. He will have become aware that he is happy in the course of living life twenty-four crowded hours of each day." ~W. Beran Wolfe

 Happiness, it the most sought after of all the human emotions and yet, for most, the most elusive. We even struggle in our efforts to define it but one thing is certain…we know when we have it and are perhaps even more acutely aware of when we do not. We engage in all manner of behaviors and enlist the help of a myriad of chemicals to either achieve it or at least, make its absence more tolerable. In this chapter we are going to explore what causes happiness and how passion and purpose relate to it. Did you know that according to recent studies that Japan is the least happy developed nation in the world and Denmark is the most happy? What could be behind the huge gap in the GNH (Gross National Happiness) of these two countries? Well there are, of course, numerous factors however a simple few seem to be the difference that makes the difference. After World War II, Japan’s infrastructure and economy were decimated. The government knew that if the country was to recover from the devastating effects of the war, a near maniacal work ethic had to become a part of the very fabric of the society. The massive government propaganda initiatives to make this happen were hugely successful and Japan’s meteoric rise to economic superpower was the envy of the world, but at a terrible price. The citizens were so overworked that the resulting stress began killing them…killing them in sufficient numbers that a new category for death statistics had to be created. The term is Karoshi and its literal translation is “death from overwork”. There are today regular Karoshi memorials and support groups across the country.

 Contrast that to Denmark with the highest GNH in the world. There are the obvious factors that contribute such as free healthcare for everyone from birth until death and free education through the college level however there seems to be something else at work as well…community. In Denmark, more people live in communal types of environments that in any other developed nation. Groups of families live in shared housing on plots of land that they farm collectively. Many things are shared including chores, child care and more. So that brings us to the question of just what does and, just as importantly, does not create happiness. There are essentially two types of goals that we humans tend to adopt, intrinsic goals and extrinsic goals. We most often focus on three types of goals in each of the two categories. Within the intrinsic group there is service to community, personal growth and relationships. The extrinsic three are money, image and status (power). Virtually every study conducted in the last 30 years has found that groups of people who tend toward the pursuit of the intrinsic goals are happier on average than those pursuing the extrinsic goals. One need not look very far for empirical evidence of this. As a matter of fact, we need only look in our own back yard. The United States citizenry consumes more anti-depressant drugs, per-capita, than any nation on earth and yet we have more economic opportunity than virtually anyone. So what is the mechanism that is responsible for this? If the most current research in the emerging field of positive psychology is any indication, it is our largely external focus.

 We have all heard the phrase, “Money can’t buy happiness.” Well, yes and no. A survey of people ranging in economic conditions from homeless to $500,000 in annual income found that the difference in reported happiness in the income range from $0 to $50,000 annually was substantial however; the reported happiness jump from $50,000 to $500,000 was far less. What this points to is that a certain amount of money is required for most people to experience a basic level of happiness. Enough money to provide adequate housing, food and clothing seems to do the trick. On the other hand, a significantly higher income beyond that level does not produce a corresponding jump in reported happiness.

 So if money isn’t the panacea that most of us have been led to believe by society, school, parent or media, then what is it? What is it that, as found in another recent study, allows Indian rickshaw drivers living in what we would consider deplorable conditions to report being happier than most affluent Americans report being? Perhaps it is image? Image is one of the big three extrinsic goals and in America, image is king! Simply turn on your flat panel, high definition television and have a look. We are constantly bombarded with the message that in order for us to be happy we must drive the expensive car, wear the designer clothes, eat at the happening restaurants, etc. Not to say that there is anything at all wrong with these things if you enjoy them, just don’t expect them to provide sustained happiness, they will most certainly disappoint.

 This is primarily thanks to the rule of hedonic adaptation which describes the tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. Essentially, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. Brickman and Campbell coined the term in 1971 in their essay "Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society". During the late ’90s, the concept was modified by Michael Eysenck, a British psychology researcher, to become the current 'hedonic treadmill theory' which compares the pursuit of happiness to a person on a treadmill, who has to keep working just to stay in the same place.

 We’ll come back to happiness, let’s shift gears and talk about purpose. For many people it is the overarching question of their lives…what is my purpose? For many others, it is a question that long ago faded from view, obscured by jobs, mortgages, kids, bills and the like. But whether it is something you contemplate daily or haven’t given a passing thought for decades, it is probably THE single most important question you can ask yourself. Why? Simple, because until your life is aligned with your purpose, happiness will remain a coy and elusive mistress to be glimpsed but never possessed. So what exactly is purpose? It is the thing you that you are most suited to do…the gift unique to you that you were meant to share with the world. To the Buddhist or eastern mystic, it is what you chose to incarnate on this earth to do. To the Christian or Jew, it is God’s plan for your life. However you choose to understand it, it is what the universe has uniquely equipped you and only you to accomplish. It is the essence of your higher self and the truth of your soul.

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