We live in a world focused on happiness and perfection. While a focus on wellbeing has done wonders for promoting balance, self-monitoring and an understanding that we naturally experience a wide range of emotions, for many the pressure to be happy and “cheer up” can come both internally and from external sources.
So many social media influencers saturate our feeds with images of happy, perfect lives with no reflection of reality at all. Instead, by focusing on curated, created and selected moments, an unrealistic image is presented of their mood and lifestyle. Is it any wonder that the quest for happiness might actually be making us sadder?
In his book The Good Life, Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay utterly condemns a focus on happiness as any kind of measure of a life worth living. Although perhaps controversial, there is much wisdom we can take from his objection to our fascination for happiness and our expectation of receiving it.
While happiness exists Mackay suggests, it exists in small moments and for relatively short periods of time. We might be happy when surprised with a special birthday gift, or in the early stages of a new romantic relationship. We experience happiness when we receive a good grade or get a promotion at work. But this happiness does not last, and nor should it. It is unhealthy to expect it to. The shine on all new things eventually tarnishes a little, and each moment should not rely on something new and shiny. This leads to materialism – and the need to consistently use external things to create moments of happiness.
Instead, Mackay suggests we focus on two things. The first is contentment – perhaps a more worthy recipient of our attention than happiness. Contentment is a pleasant sense that we are satisfied with our choices and where our life has taken us. It is a less powerful emotion than happiness – but a more realistic one and one that may be long-lasting. Teaching this to children could be a gift that helps them navigate many of life’s challenges – and teach them to be grateful for all the wonderful moments they will have at times. They might even come to appreciate the lower or even the duller moments that help them recognize happiness when it arrives.
The other thing Mackay suggests is that we consider more if our lives are worthwhile. Have we made a difference? Contributed in some way? In this way he measures the legacy of a good life by what we leave behind, rather than what we experienced ourselves. In this, perhaps true happiness may lie, and the deepest sense of contentment of a life worth having lived.
Even the sad times have much to teach us, and so encouraging an attitude of gratitude for this may also be the key to a more content life. Benjamin Disraeli was known to say “there’s no education like adversity” and I truly believe many of us are finding this to be true on the current pandemic. Coronavirus and lockdowns are teaching us to focus on our core values and to never take for granted those small things that spark joy and positive emotions. Although they were challenging at the time, I am sure many of us have looked at a setback from the past, and ended up thankful for it.
This might be an interesting conversation to have with young people who struggle with consistently comparing themselves to the images and stories they see on social media. Do the celebrities and influencers they follow really make a difference in the world? How so? And do they really think all their moments are reflected online, and like all people, might they also have ups and downs?