Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Pursuit of Happiness vs. Rick Steves

The other day Rick Steves (travel guru and pothead) was interviewing the author of “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World”. It was all done in a kind of smug “Europe is so superior to the US” kind of way. Pretty typical. But I actually gleaned a bit of insight out of the interview, although probably not the one intended by the author or the interviewer.

We’ve all heard the statistics, that the US is not the happiest country on Earth, despite our being the richest country on Earth. Clearly, it has been argued, this means our pursuit of materialism is a bad thing. But a deeper look revealed something very different to me. Apparently the folks in cold, socialist places like Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, are all happier than the folks US. But they aren’t the only happier people. It turns out that the poor people in India are happier than the poor people in the US. That’s right; your family lives on a particular stretch of sidewalk, and you have greater bliss than somebody in the US in an apartment that has a car, a microwave, cable TV, and a cell phone. Huh.

OK, so how did this author come to these conclusions? He asked people. Rate your happiness on a scale of 1 to 10. While that seemed like a kind of sloppy way to figure this out, he swore this was a good way to do it. So let’s take him at his word for a second. Still there has to be something else going on.

My revelation came when callers started asking questions. It turns out that men and women are approximately equally happy in each country. So there wasn’t a country with a bunch of happy women and sad men. Kinda surprising actually. I would have guessed that the one would have led to the other, but don’t tell the Hairy Mrs. that I said that. Then came the bit that made it all clear for me: Kids are happier than folks in middle age, and oldsters are happier than folks in middle age. That’s when it hit me. Achieving things doesn’t necessarily equal happiness.

Old people are done changing their lives. They can sit back and find happiness. They relax, they watch TV, they socialize with their friends, and the only work they have to do is pick up after themselves. Many don’t even have to do that. Kids - same thing. They get to play, really play, most of the time. Sure they may have to study and go to school, but even that is less stressful for most than actually having to produce the way adults do.

That’s why America’s adults aren’t necessarily the happiest adults. We are actually going out there and doing stuff. We are making our lives and our world better. We are being productive, not just happy. We have hope that we can improve our station. That’s why the beggar in Bombay is happier than the welfare queen in Harlem. The beggar in Bombay (excuse me, Mumbai, but it wasn’t alliterative) knows that he is of a caste and a station in life that he can never change who he is or what he will become. All he has left is to find what happiness he can in what he has.

Here in the US, we know that we can always do better. This IS the land of opportunity, and we have only ourselves to blame if we don’t take advantage of it. We ALWAYS know that we can make our lives better, and that by applying ourselves we will achieve greater rewards. If you are sitting back in public housing, living of the dole, you know that you actually could be, and should be, out there looking for a job. So we push more, work harder, and achieve greater things than any other people on the globe. But that isn’t bliss. It is satisfaction. They are different.

Sure somebody in Denmark is going to be happier. They are trapped like rats in little apartments and a lower standard of living than we have in the US. They have less freedom to succeed. Prices are higher, taxes are higher, government is most of the economy, and employers have no flexibility in hiring, firing, creating jobs, changing jobs, or setting wages. In those countries, once you are a worker with a job, you are going to be stuck there for the rest of your life. No chance to create greatness. No real chance to break away, create a small business, and build an empire. Anybody with a little gumption is going to abandon a socialist country and come somewhere like HERE to really make something of themselves.

Naturally the oh-so superior Rick Steves and his guest didn’t come to that realization. They looked down on the lesser citizens of the United States. But what would you expect from someone who would rather stay in a youth hostel than a 4 star hotel.

But that’s what I love about America, and why I am not as happy here as I might have been somewhere else. A few years back I quit my government job, started a small business, built it up, am struggling through these tough financial times, and have just made a bunch of changes that are going to make 2009 my best year ever. I love that. I’m not as happy as I would have been working for the state from 9 – 5 and playing video games all evening. But I am getting the raw satisfaction out of building something grand. I will take accomplishment and achievement over simple happiness any day of the week. And here in the US it is available to just about everyone. Like they say, happiness isn’t everything. Sometimes the pursuit is greater than the having.


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