What Brings Us Happiness Has Changed Dramatically In The Last 50 Years — And That’s A Good Thing

Yingchou Han

Something odd has happened within the last 50 years or so.

The standard of living in the Western world has dramatically increased.

You would think that would correlate with an increase in happiness, right?

Well.. no. Levels of happiness, and what makes people happy, have stayed relatively the same. What has increased is mental illness, such as depression, anxiety disorders, and narcissism.

If you think that sounds backwards, you’re not alone.

But it’s still the truth. The question is, why?

Here’s the thing, most of the Western world is a meritocracy, which is defined as a system where people, based on their ability, select government or the holding of power.

In other words, your social status isn’t fixed. You have a greater opportunity to become something or someone great, to achieve success.

That also means you have a greater opportunity to fail, too.

And with that, comes increased stress and anxiety.

It’s the price we pay for abundance and more social mobility. Does this make it bad? No, absolutely not. But everything, good and bad, has a trade-off that comes with it.
On top of all that, we now have the internet and social media. Which isn’t to say they’re bad; in fact, I believe they’re great. They’ve given us the opportunity to connect, share, explore, and learn with others now more than at any other point in human history.

If it wasn’t for the innovation of these digital landscapes, a lot of really cool, really creative stuff we enjoy all day every day just wouldn’t exist. And that would be a huge bummer.

But on the flip side, this global connectedness also shows us all of the people we perceive as leading better lives than us. All the people with nicer clothes, faster cars, doing cooler things in better places.

As wonderful as the internet and social media are, they’re also a constant reminder of the infinite ways we might not be good enough.

And we can’t help but feel that way. As humans, we’re constantly comparing ourselves to our peers and the people around us. And in a world where your peers and the people around you become the millions of people online, sharing their various life experiences every day, it’s hard not to feel lost and inadequate or like you might be missing out.

But you’re not, and here’s why.

We’re Adaptable

First of all, humans are surprisingly really good at finding happiness regardless of their circumstances. Happiness is something that you find through self-expression, doing things that bring meaning to your life. Happiness isn’t something you achieve, it’s something that you are. You inhibit it. A happy person doesn’t wonder if they’re happy, they just are. But, like most things, it has to start with you.

Pleasure is NOT Synonymous With Happiness

What a lot of people mean when they say “I want to be happy” is “I want to have pleasure” and that’s fine, but pleasure isn’t happiness. Someone who’s richer than you, has nicer things than you, or is more accomplished than you still have his/her own set of problems to deal with. That person still isn’t happy all the time — he still gets sad, frustrated, anxious, and all the other things we feel. That isn’t saying you shouldn’t strive for better, it’s just saying that you shouldn’t expect better to solve all of your problems and bring you perpetual bliss.

That’s just not how life works. And that’s a good thing.

Challenge Makes Us Thrive

A lot of our joys in life are derived from overcoming challenges. There’s a reason they say to focus on the journey and not the reward. Because the journey is where all the good stuff is. The journey is where you experience all of the emotion, all of the uncertainty, all of the life. If all you achieved was the goal without going through anything to get there, it wouldn’t mean nearly as much.

Being special, standing out, making money, these aren’t inherently bad things. And they’re good goals to have. If that’s what you want for yourself, you should pursue those things. Just don’t count on them solving all of your problems in life, because like it or not, you’re always going to have problems in life.
Sure, your life might change, and it might even get better, but there will still be times when you feel sad, there will still be times when you feel lonely and, yes, there will still be times when you feel inadequate and like you could have done more.

The key is in the simple things. If you can manage to find pleasure in hanging out with your friends, or seeing your family, or reading a book, or eating good food, or being smiled at by a stranger, you’ll do just fine, no matter what you do.

People who can find pleasure in those things, the every day things we usually don’t even think about, compared to someone who can’t, will find themselves much, much happier, regardless of their circumstances or what anybody else is doing. And it will just make any goals they might accomplish, any success they might achieve, or any recognition they might garnish that much better, but only because they knew how to be happy before those things. TC mark

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Image Credit: Yingchou Han

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