Monday, 20 August 2012
Happiness as the Ultimate Currency
Have you ever had one of those lovely little moments when something wonderful falls into your hands from seemingly nowhere? One a stroll through my old haunts in North Wales, I wandered into a charity shop and chanced upon a book called "Happier".
A simple, pleasing read, I spent a while contemplating after every insightful chapter, where the author makes complicated ideas sound so manageable. The thing that affected me most - the main vein running through the book - was a new way of looking at things. The idea that happiness, not money, is the Ultimate Currency.
As the author puts it - a business is evaluated on its financial profits and losses. A human being makes profits and losses, too, but whether we believe it or not, our ultimate currency is happiness. Thinking of happiness as the ultimate currency is not an entirely new spin on life - we already do trade in happiness, even if we don't realise it.
"Money and fame are subordinate to happiness and have no intrinsic value. The only reason money and fame may be desirable is that having them or the thought of having them could lead to positive emotions or meaning.... there would be no reason to seek fame and fortune if they did not contribute, in some way, toward happiness." Tal Ben-Shaher, Happier
As I talked about in Does Money Buy Happiness?, there are people who are rich when it comes to cash but poor when it comes to happiness. And, of course, there are people who have very little in the way of money but are rich in joy, love and peace of mind. The relationship between money and happiness stops when you can clothe, feed and wash yourself and sleep somewhere warm - after that, all the flat screen TVs, fast cars and luxury dinners in the world will do nothing more than provide a temporary thrill, before letting you sink down to your base level of happiness.
Companies that make money from you will try to convince you otherwise - that you do need their product in order to be happier, more popular, more beautiful etc. - but do you really find that you are happier after switching shampoo or upgrading your wardrobe? A lot of people become addicted to these short happiness "fixes" rather than looking for something more deeply meaningful, which is why you might become addicted to shopping, digging deeper into your bank account with every spree and leaving you convinced that you need more and more money to make you happy. When you are convinced that you don't have enough money, you might start to compare yourself to others and feel even worse. Perhaps you'll take on extra hours at working, giving you less free time to spend with your friends or work on projects that are really meaningful to you, chipping away at your happiness even more.
Imagine, for a moment, that we didn't trade in coins, cash or digital numbers, but in feelings of happiness. What might the most expensive things be? A conversation with a friend, the feeling of sand between your toes, a delicious meal with your family? What if positive experiences were income, and negative ones outcome? Try to complete these sentences on a piece of paper or out loud:
If money were the ultimate currency, I would be...
To increase my profits, I would...
To decrease my losses, I would....
Would you be rich, or would you be poor? Can you make ends meet now? If so, then what's stopping you from taking what you listed under "I would..." and actually doing them? If not, might there be certain financial outgoings that you mistakenly think are making you happy?
Tal Ben-Shahar points out that most of us are far too focused on the future, an imaginary place where we will finally be happy because we have scrimped and saved enough money. But, in reality, can we really be happy when we've spent our lives chasing that dangling carrot - or will it never be enough? We are taught to postpone happiness so that we can do well at school and pass exams, do well at university and pass exams to get a good job, to work hard so that we might save up enough money to bring children up (with the same values) and to, eventually, earn our hard-earned reward in retirement or perhaps an afterlife. We burn ourselves out, delaying happiness, and we face emotional bankruptcy. You only need to turn on a TV or read a newspaper to sense the increasing dissatisfaction and unhappiness consuming our society - and worse, we are lead to believe that the reasons are purely financial. Worse, those who already have power and money are looking down and telling us that we don't work hard enough.
You might be telling yourself that you will be happy when A, B and C happen, when X and Y are completed. How could you plan for the future while still being happy now? What day-to-day things would make you feel a little happier every day? What good is all that overtime, when you never have time to spend with the people who bring meaning and joy into your life? What good is that money that you stash away for a rainy day, when you never let yourself enjoy a sunny one?
Try to spend today imagining that we live in a world where smiles and laughter, love and joy are currency. How does it change the way you see yourself and other people? How could you bring more wealth into your life?