Pursuit of Happiness vs. Stuff

happy-the-movieThe Constitution of the United States guarantees the right to pursue happiness.  But ole Ben Franklin wisely said afterwords,  “But you have to catch it yourself.”

It seems like in the past 100 years, though we’ve managed to invent airplanes, cars, and computers the size of Chiclets, we haven’t budged one inch in learning how to “catch” happiness.  According to studies, despite all the STUFF we now have, we haven’t gotten any happier at all.  In fact, if you look at the graph, that happiness line is sagging a bit.

Somewhere along the line, most of us shot ourselves in the foot, thinking,  If I can just get more money, or a new Porsche, or a house in the Hamptons…then I’ll be happy as hell.  That’ll do it for me!   Sadly, that’s not the case…at all, not even a little bit.  Truth is, once you rise above that basic level of having a place to sleep, having three squares a day, and being able to (more or less) pay your bills, piling on copious amounts of money just doesn’t make you happier.

hedonic treadmillThey even coined a term for it:  It’s called, The Hedonic Treadmill and here’s how it goes.  The moment you get that new Porsche, $3000 Armani suit, award for excellence, you get a nice, albeit brief jolt of happiness…emphasis on the brief.  Within weeks, that new car is simply the thing that’s in front of your house, the thing you turn on to go check mail or pick up the groceries with.   You begin to numb-out to the newness and it just becomes part of the background noise.  The difference of happiness between someone making $10,000 a year and $50,000 a year is pretty great, because most of the bases are taken care of.  The difference between making $50,000 a year and five million a year…not so much.  Before I go any farther along, I’d like to highly recommend a little documentary on this very subject.  It’s entitled simply,  Happy.  You can get it for free on Netflix and probably fifty other locations.

Pamela and I have been together since…1968…happily so and with every year that goes by, that feat becomes more amazing.  We work together, play together…we do everything together. And…we watch Happy every six months or so, much the way you might take your car in for a six-month tune-up.  In short, it’s that good, and since it’s a movie, it’s far better than my tipplings on this keyboard can ever be.

Having said that, Pam and I had a clarifying moment the other day and I’d like to share it with you.  We’re still not wise in the matters of life and happiness, but…we’re getting wiser.

trans amLike a whole lot of people, we went through our car phase, thinking we’d impress our friends or be better liked or more respected having a cooler car.  What we’ve learned (the hard way) is that this concept is just about as ass-backwards as it gets.  I can say with authority that no one on the planet is going to like you any more because you get an impressive car.  A whole shitload, however, will like you a tiny bit less…possibly a whole lot less.  It’s called human nature.   I’m talking cars now, but you can fill in the blank with a whole lot of alternatives.   STUFF just flat-out isn’t the thing that’s going to make you very happy…for very long.

Happiness is a differential emotion.  It is, unfortunately, a really dry sentence conveying a hugely important concept.  You can’t have cold without hot.  You can’t have light without darkness (something to compare it to).   Happiness is the same thing.  Johnny Carson once said that the first car he ever bought was…nothing to brag about.  But it gave him more pleasure than all the rest of his acquisitions combined.  When Jerry Seinfeld started making it big time, he bought an expensive Porsche to celebrate…and got a big psychic rush from that.  I don’t know how many Porsches he has now,  80? 100?  But I can guarantee you that that 100th Porsche wasn’t much more than a “Oh, yeah, what number is that again?” on his radar.

Give a relatively inexpensive operation, however, to a kid that’s had a harelip, and make him or her look…well…just normal, and you will see happiness that’ll blast all 100 of those Porsches into space.  It’s the differential.  The difference between having a harelip and not having one is simple, relatively inexpensive to do…and creates a huge permanent change in that person.

It all comes down to that one key word…  differential…and I think Pam and I are finally after decades of trial and error, beginning to learn what just might be the answer.  You can’t physically create a differential in yourself.  Right now, sitting in front of your computer, you think…  Well, I have a house, I have a car…and you’re telling me that getting a pricier car isn’t going to do it.  What’s the answer?  How do I get that differential you’re droning on about?  

big brotherThe answer is so plain and so simple.  You get it vicariously.  Instead of trying to impress (yourself) and/or your peers, quietly help somebody out.  Become a mentor.  Teach people what you’ve learned from life, or go over and volunteer at your local SPCA.  Go out on one of these groups that pitches in to clean up trash along a section of highway. Put up a bird feeder, donate blood, canned goods but do SOMETHING that’s not about you and guess what, you’ll get back 100 times more than the STUFF you were going to buy.

The intrinsic feeling of helping someone out, making yourself a better person, and maybe leaving the planet a tiny bit nicer, just totally slam-dunks the extrinsic quick high you get from buying something that you really don’t need.  Take a gamble.  Track down HAPPY and watch it clear through.  Then watch it again.  You’ll be a better and much happier person for it.  I guarantee you.   Henry

P.S.  Just of a bit of closure and symmetry,  I started with a quote of Ben Franklin’s and I’ll close with another one.   “Money has never made man happy, nor will it.  There is nothing in its nature to produce happiness.  The more of it one has, the more one wants.”


2 Responses to "Pursuit of Happiness vs. Stuff"

  1. Mimi Harvey says:

    I agree with Henry and Pamela Harvey… a snazzy new car, incredible monetary riches etc. does not assure happiness! Although, I do not scoff at having money or a nice car. There’s nothing wrong in owning beautiful things , I know my ultimate happiness does not lie in things but in my own consciousness , my “kingdom of heaven”

    There are so many worthwhile things one can do with money to help others, but even if one doesn’t have money, one can help others through volunteer work, encouraging and mentoring others and just offering to pray for them, or think good positive thoughts about them. I’ve discovered helping people gives me the most joy. Also I enjoy laughing at myself more than laughing at anything else.

    The best things in life , as the saying goes, are free! Music, nature, animals, Love, Truth, the Arts, are all free . One can get books from the library, use its computers..all free.

    Just being able to appreciate things is priceless and can’t be bought with money.

    Abraham Lincoln once said,
    “You are as happy as you decide to be”

    I went through a long , dark journey of the soul where nothing gave me joy, but even that was a blessing for now I cherish every day and am so incredibly happy and it taught me compassion for others who are experiencing what I went through.

    I believe everything is attitude! What is one man’s treasure is another man’s trash.

    I truly believe that if I lost all material possessions I could still be happy because I have faith that I would make it somehow.

    I do believe what the wonderful black comedian said , “What you sees is what you gets!” If you see your life as rich and blessed , it is , no matter what material possessions one has or how much money.

    Mimi Asheville, NC

  2. robert moravick says:

    Our happiness results from the full development of our powers of knowing and loving.

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