Mindful Monkey.

What is Happiness? And do we Have a Say in How Happy we Can be?

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In his book “Affluenza” Psychologist and author, Oliver James argues that there are certain factors in our society which increase the chance of creating unhappiness and emotional distress. Included in the types of emotional distress are the obvious issues of anxiety, depression and substance misuse and addiction. However, more than that, he also explores the concept of “ennui” and that sense of lack. It is curious how at a time of unprecedented wealth and economic growth, more and more people are unhappy, worried and stressed.

The author points to the English speaking countries, in particular, where he argues the people have come to place too high a value on money, possessions, celebrity and the desperate need to look good in front of others. By asking a series of questions early on in the book he outlines the symptoms which he describes as if it were a virus, the “affluenza virus”. It is the affluenza virus then which, increases the chances of a person experiencing a variety of modern ills and distress. Constantly comparing ourselves with others (usually in an unfavourable way) and feeling cut off from others promotes a sense of alienation. He identifies nations where things are different, notably Denmark and New Zealand and gives explanations as to why. He laments the rise of narrow materialistic ideas, particularly in the US and Britain.

What is particularly interesting about the book is that most of the material is aimed at what can be done to put things right (‘vaccines’ against the ‘Affluenza’ virus) . The author offers solutions which are different from the usual ones present in much of the current “self help” literature. Rather than the usual stuff about positive thinking he offers ideas about becoming more tuned in to our genuine needs and taking a long hard look at our priorities. One idea would be to reorder the education system, which he argues is based on passing exams and becoming good consumers, rather than about learning and growing. This is where the book is at its best, offering practical and creative ideas which can be cultivated by anyone interested in improving their emotional well being.

A book review in the New Scientist (27.1.07 “Rich in misery”) argues that “Affluenza is closer to a sermon than it is to science” because it lacks research in parts. Although they still recommend it as an interesting read, and broadly agree with its direction. For me, the journalistic and angry style is what makes it more readable and powerful. Also it is not recommending we all drop out of society, but rather work toward what we need in a different way, hence the complete title includes the lines “secret of being successful and staying sane”

In a consumer age of advertising, people often end up feeling insecure and worried. In the west there is the general view that happiness comes from events and things outside, while the eastern traditions, such as Zen Buddhism, focus on happiness from within. It may be that we need a combination of the two.

For instance, consider the view that happyness brings success more often than success bringing happiness. The research done by Professor Diener and Lyubonirsky (universities of California and Illinois) questions the assumption that things like material wealth and possessions create happiness. They found that it may be the other way around, so that prosperity is in fact caused by happiness. Cheerful people are more likely to try new things and challenge themselves.

This then ends up reinforcing positive emotion, better results at work, fulfilling relationships and better health. There is compelling evidence that happiness leads to more sociable, generous, productive people with stronger immune systems.

So if you are going through life saying things like “I can’t be happy until… I get a particular car, clothes, house or job…” It may be time to stop and change tack. Radical economists have shown how as incomes rise to $15000 happiness rises but then further increases do not automatically lead to more happiness. A study by the New Economics Foundation and Green Peace created a “happy planet index” which looked at: life expectancy, human well-being and damage done via a country’s environmental foot print. It found the tiny island nation of Vanuatu came top as the happiest country in the world. Zimbabwe was at the bottom, UK 108th, USA 150th (out of 178), Guatemala and El Salvador were in the top 10! A spokesman for Vanuatu stated life here is about community, family and good will to others, it is NOT a consumer driven society and people generally do not worry too much (apart from the hurricanes).

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