“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society”
Who is responsible for you being happy? Is it down to you and you alone; simply a question of personal choice? It is perhaps empowering to believe that by making choices we can as individuals find more happiness. However, such a belief can also be distressing since, when someone is not happy, the conclusion that might be drawn is that they only have themselves to blame. Yet the circumstances we often find ourselves within, that are often not of our own choosing, are not necessarily conducive to high levels of happiness.
Whilst we can all make important changes to our lives and improve our levels of happiness, it is important to appreciate that our decisions are always made within a context (e.g. life circumstances and/or environment) that is unlikely to have been designed for the sake of happiness. This can make it difficult to stay focused on the things we know deep down will bring us more happiness.
A context that blocks the path to happiness
To deepen a little more on this, I have a few examples that most people should be able to relate to – work, health, and education.
The context of work
Work is an important source of well-being. Work provides a sense of meaning and purpose in a person’s life, and is also a source of daily social interactions.
Perhaps you are a person that works a lot, perhaps a little more than you would ideally like. Maybe you have a sense that working a little bit less would bring more happiness to your life because you would have a little more time to spend with your family or perhaps find more time practicing your favourite sport (both being very important factors for happiness).
On the other hand, you might be either unemployed or under-employed and know that working a little bit more would bring benefits to your well-being because as things stand you struggle to pay your bills, and more work might provide you with a greater sense of worth.
Yet, in many places throughout the world the norm for a working week is somewhere around 40 hours. There may also be expectations in some industries for people to work longer than this norm. It can often be extremely challenging to choose work hours outside of these fairly rigid norms (read about my personal experience of attempting to buck this norm). People who work a lot cannot easily reduce their hours (in some cases unless they choose unemployment), and those who would like more work cannot always easily increase their hours.
Some have suggested that a shorter working week, with more flexibility around what is expected and when, would bring individual and national benefits to happiness and well-being. I think it would.
The context of health decisions
Another example is the desire to improve one’s health. Both physical and mental health are important contributors to our happiness and well-being. Many people would perhaps like to be a bit fitter and healthier, and that might entail choosing to be more physically active, and/or adjusting our eating habits.
Does the context help us in making better health decisions?
What I see is a context which attempts to entice people to make decisions that are often detrimental to their health – there are cakes and sweets (often in shiny “exciting” wrappers), there are multi-buy special offers, there are plenty of adverts aimed at increasing consumption but very few suggesting to reduce it, much of the available pre-prepared food contains high levels of sugar and salt, there is often no beautiful park to walk in, time might be limited (perhaps because it has been a long day at work!), and so forth.
Whilst I generally do OK health wise, I do find it a daily challenge and I’d prefer it if it were less of a daily struggle. I’m sure others who do less well with their health would like a more supportive context too. If the context discourages people from being healthy, and indeed seemingly therefore their happiness too, it makes it makes it more difficult than it needs to be to be as healthy, and happy, as one would like.
The context of education
When children enter an education system there often might be some emphasis on fun and play. However, very quickly formal education systems emphasise developing basic intellectual skills, such as reading, writing, and basic mathematics, which will often support a child’s ability to navigate themselves within the world.
Beyond this, more complex intellectual skills, such as the sciences, geography, history, or maybe other languages, will enter the curriculum. These subjects can be useful too, and to some perhaps hugely exciting.
Yet one of the most important contributors to happiness and well-being are our social and emotional skills. How to understand one’s self (emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually), how to put nourishing food in our bodies, interpersonal skills, how to deal with challenge, are not unambiguously featured on the curriculum.
Most education systems place all the emphasis on skills that create productive, competitive, and high income earning workers. Yet such skills are often only weakly related to greater well-being and happiness, and in some ways might even be detrimental (e.g. through fostering expectations, entitlement, judgement, and blame)
As far as I can tell, people seem to be just left to figure out how to be happy, as well as deal with mental health challenges more or less completely by themselves. There might be support when people are really struggling but not nearly enough. If we are educated in a context that does not place importance on well-being and happiness, then how can we be expected to and make the necessary choices that are consistent with our well-being and happiness?
What drives the decision making context?
It is no accident that the decision making context is the way it is. The context has been created, and we all contribute in some way to its creation. With this in mind it is important to question what the motivations are behind context creation – personal, business, and national.
What seems to dominate our lives and many of our important decisions is the economy; and the importance of economic factors acts at all levels of society with considerable interaction between each of these levels, and this helps to create a context that is shaped largely by economic interests.
For example, the principle concern of many businesses is to make a profit – that is their gauge of success – and shareholder interest, which revolves around share prices, ensures this takes place. To be profitable a business will need to try to shape the context under which people make decisions so that they sell more. Their principle aim is not to help people be happier – despite often explicit, and if not implicit, clams made through advertisement.
When it comes to national indicators it is Gross Domestic Product (the monetary value of all products and services exchanged in an economy), and whether it is rising or falling, that many Governments pay the most attention to. As such national policy is often focused around ensuring higher growth rates, which may mean helping businesses to do whatever is necessary for them to be competitive and profitable, and also enacting only the policies in which the economic benefit exceeds the economic cost.
Many people might agree with this focus on the economy based on the erroneous belief that happiness and a thriving economy go hand in hand. Whilst it is without a doubt important for happiness and well-being to ensure that people’s basic needs are met, many economically rich countries comfortably meet the basic needs of most of their populations and have done so for decades. Beyond the level of basic needs, the amount of happiness obtained from financial riches has been shown to be negligible.
Yet in a context so dominated by economic interests it is difficult to break the personal and collective belief in the link between money and happiness. Perhaps this explains why we take jobs that pay more even though there is a longer commute. We move to more expensive houses and conspicuously consume, which may mean we then have to spend more time doing paid work.
In fact, the belief that an improved economic situation will always make for greater happiness and improved well-being is perhaps integral to the maintenance of the context in which we all find ourselves. A belief that is itself shaped by context – through the work that we do, the things we’re encouraged to buy, and what and how we are taught. If our context is not shaped around increasing levels of happiness and well-being, then our choices around happiness and well-being will not be easy.
Another world is possible. . .
Fortunately, it could be different. In Bhutan, for example, the governments stated objective is to increase the happiness and well-being of its citizens. In 1972 the then Bhutanese king created the term “Gross National Happiness” and this concept, along with mounting research in the area of happiness and well-being (including from economists), has inspired other countries to at least begin discussing the role of happiness and well-being in policy. For example, in the United Kingdom each year the Office for National Statistics asks questions about well-being in their Annual Population Survey with the data receiving wide media coverage, and in Canada they have developed a far-reaching and all-encompassing index that tracks the countries progress around well-being. In addition, the OECD have a team devoted to exploring well-being issues and reports have been written to outline how we might give more policy focus to happiness and well-being.
Whilst there has been some shift in attention our decision making context is still shaped primarily by economic interests. I dream of being part of a society where our choices around well-being and happiness are supported. I’ve made some difficult choices that have resulted in greater personal happiness but I have encountered people who simply do not have the freedoms, the resources, nor the support, that I seem to have that might enable them to make different choices that may bring greater happiness. Their context is different from mine and context does matter.
Some people – perhaps those who have experienced less of a struggle around obtaining happiness in their lives due to a more favourable context or have some vested interest in keeping the context as it is – might say that it is a case of certain people not having enough self-control (conflict between short and long term goals) and more willpower is needed. This argument puts focus on blaming an individual for any of their predicaments. Often this type of argument absolves responsibility from a policy level. There is only so much that can be done if we live in an area where there is a limiting work culture, a relatively high-density of fast food restaurants, and limited opportunities to develop social and emotional skills.