Let’s dive straight into this. Is Generation X happy or not?
Happiness is an ideal. By definition, it’s unachievable.
Don’t jump off the building just yet.
There’s more to it than that.
Am I Happy Yet?
Happiness is surprisingly complex. See for yourself:
- Fact: You can be happy instantly by devouring a bowl of ice cream and binging on Game of Thrones. Or Orange is the New Black or whatever.
- Yet: If you Google “How to be happy” you’ll get over 3 billion answers.
- And: None of those answers involve ice cream or Netflix.
If we are happy smashing back a bowl of white-choc vanilla swirl while gasping in shock at the next hairpin plot turn in Game of Thrones, then why are we crying into our keyboards searching for some illusive secret to happiness?
Why Can’t I Find Happiness?
What I’ve recently learnt (but what the rest of Generation X has probably known for decades), is that ice cream and TV bring pleasure, not happiness.
Pleasure is caused by external stimuli like sugar or Piper Chapman’s adventures in a women’s prison. This triggers squirts of brain-candy chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and endorphins.
These chemicals are familiar to you not because you paid attention at school, but because you have spent every day of your life in pursuit of their brain-gasmy goodness.
We are, essentially, pleasure junkies.
But pleasure is fleeting. Eventually, guilt or brain freeze stops you devouring ice cream and your chemically-dependent pleasure disappears.
What you feel then, after a moment of comparative disappointment, is your level of happiness.
Because what remains is you and your life.
What is the Secret to Happiness?
While the path to greater happiness has zigged and zagged over time, bent by science and fashion (and commerce), the road to unhappiness has never changed. It is sign posted by isolation and poor relationships.
People need people.
Without meaningful relationships, we can expect, on average, to live short, unhealthy, unhappy lives.
One of the world’s longest studies into happiness – an 80-year Harvard study tracking the lives of 268 Harvard sophomores since 1938 – found that meaningful relationships are the key to happiness.
Even more than money, social status or IQ, real connection to others (friends and family, but also neighbours and community) is the foundation of happiness.
Bonus Points: They also help us weather life’s inevitable storms and cope with stress better. Add to this better health and the delay of mental and physical decline as we get older.
Check out Robert Waldingers’ hugely popular TED talk (23 million views!) at the end of the post if you want to learn more.
Can Money Make You Happy?
Sure, kind of.
The Pursuit of Happiness is a preoccupation of those that already have money.
Everyone else is engaged in the Pursuit of Not Dying Young, Violently or Preventably.
To those at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy, money is crucial to happiness as it provides life essentials like food security, healthcare, safety and the option to leave a bad environment for a better one.
Once you have enough money to be healthy, sheltered and safe, more cash brings diminishing returns.
There’s little difference to your level of happiness in buying a much-wanted 18 ft daysailer to leasing your third gold-trimmed 400 ft motor yacht.
Some studies even manage to put a number on the point of diminishing returns: $95,000/annum. Above that amount, money doesn’t bring much to the table.
Are Celebrities Happy?
Jay-Z or Nicki Manaj or even the least annoying of the Kardashians are unlikely to be much more happy than you. They still have many of the same dramas as you (ie, people-based), and would find real happiness (ie, not pleasure) in the same things (ie, real relationships). They just get to skip cues, never have to worry about paying bills and have much softer toilet paper.
In fact, based on the proportion of drug, alcohol and behavioural problems celebrities commonly exhibit, you could argue they are on average less happy than you.
Of course, it’s much more fun to make that argument while sailing around on a 400ft gold-trimmed yacht…
Can Hardship Make You Happy?
More facts and another happiness contradiction:
- Fact: Hardship sucks.
- Bit More of a Fact: Without hardship there is no achievement.
- BOOM Fact: A sense of achievement makes us happy.
So, hardship makes us happy?
Some of my strongest memories are of tough times. Some of those tough times were just plain shite, and they remain shite.
But many others are tales of hardship that brought rewards that still make me happy. Like the time Maggie and I went climbing in the Caucasus Mountains for our honeymoon (yes, that happened and we’re still married).
It was one of the hardest physical tests we’ve put ourselves through. I remember my sight narrowing to the ice and rock in front of me, my pace shortening to five steps at a time. I can still feel my lungs gasping at the thinning air on the eight-hour grind on summit day.
The terrifying image of my new bride traversing a razor-edge ridge at 4,000m will never leave me.
Neither will the feeling of elation when we made it to the top.
I still smile at the thrill of summiting. But it’s not just a thrill. The difficulty of the challenge reaps more than pleasure, because it has meaning.
So it contributes to our character, our sense of worth and, along with other challenges of its type, our identity. All of which add tiny, but permanent, contributions to our resting level of happiness.
Can the Pursuit of Happiness Make You Sad?
And you’re still not happy.
Could it be we’re trying too hard?
We already know the secret to happiness: meaningful relationships.
Everything else helps by degrees, but the benefits can be eroded by obsessing over our level of happiness.
(If you want to get into this more – and can stomach the irony – see the oft-quoted study A Dark Side Of Happiness).
For me, the Pursuit of Happiness became a hobby. It combined a love of reading with a curiosity of science with a drive to self-improve. I chased ideas, jumping from one happiness shadow to the next, but not dwelling long enough to apply them.
In other words, my Pursuit of Happiness became pleasure seeking. Popping ideas like lollies, only to return to my baseline happiness.
Is Generation X Already Happy?
These days, I try to read less and focus more on a few simple thoughts:
- choose people over pursuits;
- choose the present over the future; and
- don’t forget I’m already happy.
What Does All This Mean for Generation X?
Perhaps it’s time to stop chasing.
Could be that we’re trying too hard, and that we’re already where we need to be…