The statistics seem contradictory, a total paradox. After all, these are the very best of times, right? We are living longer and modern medicine is discovering the cure for so many diseases; we surround ourselves with every imaginable toy in our supersized homes; we can Google any topic, Skype anyone anywhere for free or stream any video in the palm of our hand all 24/7. We have more distractions to preoccupy the insatiable appetite of our voracious minds than ever before. And yet there is a growing inverse correlation with happiness. Anxiety, stress levels, depression, feelings of discontentment and even suicide are all on the rise. If life is so easy, convenient and comfortable, why are we increasingly less happy?
Maybe it’s not our fault. We were taught a simple and valuable formula that at face value makes sense: be successful and then you will be happy. Presto magic! In other words, a sequential process, easy to follow formula: success —> happiness. Keep chasing, climbing, grinding, sweating and, one day, all that ambition will reward you to enjoy the fruits of your labor. This mantra is reinforced daily by the images on tv seducing us with messages by marketing whiz kids telling us we need to buy this and drive that as our egos chime in to validate we must look superior to our friends and colleagues.
And so it’s game on from day one and continues to escalate, always chasing that elusive next toy or social status prize. We buy, eat, consume, subscribe and lease nonstop – all providing immediate gratification and intoxicating for an hour, perhaps a day or two max, but then it subsides and the search continues. After a few adventures playing this game and continuously returning to ground zero, we learn an important lesson: short term happiness does not translate to long-term sustainable joy. The reward you were chasing (promotion, new shoes, bigger screen tv) rises and falls like a caffeine buzz as the ‘new car smell’ rapidly evaporates and you come crashing back down again. The mind quickly adapts to immediate pleasures, claiming that as the new status quo and then demands to chase the next high, a vicious cycle that spirals onward and upward but ultimately downward. But we remain tenacious like a shark in bloody waters as the effort required to keep boredom and other unpleasantness at bay must continue, moment to moment. The goalposts simply keep moving further down the endless horizon in our pursuit of happiness.
Ultimately, we come to realize that ceaseless change is an unreliable basis for lasting fulfillment. We then wonder whether a greater sense of well-being exists that goes beyond the mere repetition of pleasure and avoidance of pain. We can no longer buy our way out of suffering (although many of us stubbornly continue to try) and seek something richer, more fulfilling. This emanates from within – an aching, a yearning – a hunger! – for a deeper dimension of happiness that all the shoes in our closet or German cars in our garage cannot seem to satisfy. The game of filling that void with possessions ends, either because you have run out of room in your house or have the epiphany that you still feel empty inside despite being surrounded by toys (hopefully, the latter). A gentle renunciation occurs – not one of deprivation but rather a state of non-appetite/non-craving for the next possession. It is a transcendental moment: you are not depriving yourself but rather have less desire as you realize they don’t hold the intrinsic value for happiness you once thought. So, what should we value most?
We are social creatures – in fact, social connection can be as predictive of your longevity as high blood pressure, obesity and smoking. Intuitively, we know this but even the wisest among us prefer to seek solace through toys, vices, food and all our modern day distractions. There is even a new psychological term called emotional anorexia, which essentially means we are starving for connection, feeding on crumbs for our hungry souls.
Even technology can work against us. Just witness the explosion of Facebook and Twitter which validates our need for connection while, ironically, simultaneously allowing us to build boundaries with our “friends”. We artificially feel connected to our 500+ friends on social media all the while denying ourselves of real social contact. A student in Australia made headlines by proactively intending to meet all 1,088 friends he has on Facebook for coffee. Is this our new social norm and, if so, do we realize how absurd this would sound just a generation ago? But we erect those walls, build our barriers, only to discover this is harmful behavior that can ultimately destroy us.
Granted, it may be easier and often the path of least resistance to seek pleasure in possessions but the hunger games will continue to play on with this strategy, even in the best of circumstances, as happiness will be elusive. The desire, the urge, the hunger, for connection through community, family and friends is a higher calling that resonates and hopefully will ultimately prevail with each of us in our quest for sustainable happiness. We may choose to ignore or resist this but my sense is we all arrive toward this conclusion in our own unique way and time. This typically crystallizes in our latter stage of life but need not be as one can play at any age to win The Hunger Games.
P.S. – Social connection and our quest to join The Hunger Games is just a veiled manner to say we all need community and love.