Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pursuing Happiness

Hat tip to JRB at ladypoverty for his always insightful commentary and for directing my attention to this article from the WSJ.

At the risk of (re)stating the obvious it should be pointed out that ours is a society that overwhelmingly emphasizes instant gratification, pleasure, and relentless pursuit and adoration of the superficial. Whether or not that is intentional isn’t important. What is important is understanding the effects that this particular trait of the collective psyche has on our overall health and well-being.

The WSJ article talks about two kinds of happiness: eudaimonic – which refers to an overall sense of well-being, and hedonic – which refers to a more short term, fleeting kind of happiness.

When one thinks in terms of economics – which, sadly, seems to be the best lens for gleaning cause and effect relationships in the real world – it’s easy to understand why the hedonic is more highly valued than the eudaimonic. The key word is value. Value means dollars, profits. Pursuing immediate, short-lived happiness keeps us spending because repeating those temporary thrills somehow, almost always, translates into buying something; something that we will either consume, discard, or lose interest in shortly after purchasing it. This works out great for companies selling us junk we don’t need and employers that appreciate employees who remain in a perpetual state of financial insecurity because they promptly blow their entire paycheck in a hedonic frenzy. (Financially insecure individuals are amazingly amenable to employer demands requests!)

Probably as a result of the increasingly obvious perils of crass materialism starting to seep into the mass consciousness, more attention is being devoted to understanding how people might achieve authentic happiness. This could prove to be entertaining as any newly “exploding” field is destined to be latched onto by the marketing world as they seek to answer the question: how can this rising sentiment be exploited to sell our product?

Self-fulfillment, purpose, and meaning aren’t concepts that easily lend themselves to the consumerist model. That doesn’t mean there won’t be, and haven’t already been, cynical attempts to do just that (designer yoga mats, $1500 meditation retreats?).

I appreciate the WSJ article because the cited study provides empirical evidence strongly suggesting something that most of us have observed and intuitively felt: that our culture’s extreme emphasis on materialism is harmful to our psychological and physical health.

Just what the rising awareness of this will mean in practical terms remains to be seen. There will be no sudden shift in American values, that much is certain. Human nature being what it is and the all-pervasive, highly sophisticated marketing machine being what it is both ensure this. But I don’t think resistance is futile. And it’s encouraging to speculate on how society might gradually reshape itself if our collective ideas of success and ambition are redefined to include meaning, purpose, and authentic self-fulfillment.

No comments: