By Bob Ferris
happiness index this morning . The measures they used for happiness included non-mortgage debt to income ratios, unemployment, and foreclosure rates. Seems logical. Using these metrics they concluded that the Dakotas were great places to live if you were seeking happiness and that Florida and California were the least happy and more filled with misery. But before we all pack our bags and migrate to Pierre, Bismarck, or Fargo, maybe we ought to stop and take a breath. And maybe we ought to think for a little bit about happiness and how much of it is really linked to economic measures.
I am sure these folks worked hard to put this study together and are extremely confident that their results are defensible to the fullest extent of their analyses, but their assumptions and conclusions simply do not concur with my experience. Through the course of my life I have had an opportunity to travel and meet a huge spectrum of people in the fullest splendor of circumstances. I have hobnobbed with the supper-rich and hobbled with the poorest of the economically challenged. I have seen both unbridled joy and crushing depression on Indian reservations wracked with 80% unemployment and similar extremes in the maid-maintained halls of the mansions and retreats of our country’s fiscally anointed. All of this has led me to conclude that our search for happiness is not inextricably linked at the hip with our relative financial well-being.
So what should the measures of happiness be? The most honest answer I have is that I do not know. I suspect that we start with people and relationships. The number of close friends and the nature of your support network might be wonderful places to begin. Number of laughs per day and amount of time for contemplation and reflection might be other good measures. And studies have shown that satisfaction and happiness are also associated with doing meaningful work. In fact, Buddhist monks who are pretty low on the bling and income quotients have been shown to be really, really high in terms of overall happiness. My sense from all of this is that happiness is much more a product of quality of life than it is of standard of living.
As one of my favorite professors used to say at the end of a particularly long and deep discussion: So what? The “so what” here is that our current economic hiccup might be a great time to look at the calculus of our lives. How can we travel though and emerge on the other side of this economic trial with a smile and in a position to be happier in the future? My sense is that we do that by investing in relationships and community rather than in stuff and complicated or distant gambles in the stock market. We do this by looking for ways to share our lives and our wealth rather than expending efforts to isolate ourselves from our fellow travelers and protect that which does not really give us value or pleasure.
For many of us contemplating a life that is not built on a keeping up with the Joneses—whoever they might be—kind of schema is a little scary. Will our friends still like us if we have a smaller house and an older car? Will our children still love us if we do not have stressful and mind-numbing present orgies at the holidays or other celebrations? Many of us are betting that these relationships will not only remain but flourish when the commodity of trade is face-time and fun rather than over-orchestrated consumption rituals. And maybe, just maybe, you will find your own state of happiness within your own lives and communities by adopting this change. Seems a lot more feasible path to happiness than moving to a place because of the findings of an economically biased happiness poll.