Bob Dempsey breaks down the line between having too much and having too little and explains what we must have to be happy.
One — Unmet Expectations and Living in Beyond Survival Mode
There are certain core needs that must be met before we can focus on things that will make us happy. Being in survival mode doesn’t allow us to pursue happiness. Imagine yourself being thrown into the woods to live only with the clothes on your back. You’d spend all your time looking for food, water, and trying to build a shelter. You’d probably ask yourself “how fulfilled do I feel?” much less than if you were in your air conditioned home with a refrigerator full of food.
As Abraham Maslow explains, “People must fill their physiological and security needs for safety, sustenance, and warmth, before they can take care of their social and esteem needs. So as you learn to avoid starving and freezing in the woods, you may then start thinking about your life expectations.”
We simply can’t be happy if we’re chronically hungry, in danger, or isolated. Even if things were once normal or if our neighbors are worse off. We have to meet our bio-physiological needs to be happy. When those needs are met, we’re in a better position to evaluate our lives.
But upon reaching certain thresholds in development, further economic growth brings minimal returns in both life expectancy and subjective well-being. When societies develop to a point where people can focus on more than merely surviving, money starts to matter less and less. People start to worry about how well and how long they’ll live. These personal shifts come from a change in value. When we stop placing physical security and economic interests first, we start to value things like self-expression and activities that emphasize participation, freedom of expression, and quality of life.
Once we make this shift from economic to personal growth, we would yield even higher returns in quality of life by valuing more leisure time, comfortable living spaces, and fulfilling jobs, instead of continuing to pursue economic growth. This is easier said than done. Once we’ve seen our neighbor’s new car or an in-laws new home, we tend to revert back to seeking these things out.
Two — Having the Freedom to Choose, but Not Being Paralyzed by It
Do you think you’d be happy without the ability to choose? Most of us would say no, but research on choice has found some interesting and contradictory data. Studies show that economic development, democracy, and rising social tolerance influence people’s perceptions of their ability to choose freely, leading to higher levels of happiness around the world.
People who believe they are more in control of their choices than they are subject to fate often appreciate the freedom to choose more than those who think fate and destiny are the main determinates of life outcome. These people approach events in their lives differently as well. Those depending on their ability to choose are more proactive in seeking their desired results. Those depending on luck are more ready to pass the ball or sit back and see what happens.
We’re happier feeling like we have the freedom to choose. It’s not only having more choices that makes us happier, but the ability to feel in control of choice as well. Even the declaration of independence seems to acknowledge these rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Freedom to choose and control over our lives is closely related to happiness.
Choice isn’t all positive. When we make choices we have a goal of either satisfying a need or maximizing every possible angle to find the best possible choice. Satisfying a need is hard enough, but maximizing each and every angle can be paralyzing. When someone is facing many options they can become stuck with the idea they’ll decide wrong.
Think about all the variety one encounters when purchasing a car. If you walk onto a car lot selling every make and model, you’ll never feel like you have all the information needed. If you were able to get more information, your standards would increase, and then if you did happen to choose the wrong car you’d feel like it’s your fault. This pressure can make the experience overwhelming. Have you gone shopping for a big purchase recently and felt it somewhat draining? Picture if you only had to choose between two or three cars. That would make the decision much easier!
That’s not to say maximizers don’t get better results. They may find the car with all the options and at a better price, but they’ll still wonder if they made the best decision and feel exhausted from their search.
Researchers say “From breakfast cereals to automobiles to colleges to careers, it makes sense for people to expect more when the options are more plentiful than when they are scarce.”
We can also experience anxiety from the unfamiliar. Picture someone released from jail that commits another crime specifically to be re-incarcerated. That isn’t as unusual as you might think, they’re returning to the familiar.
Cultural Subtleties Related to Choice
The importance of choice is not universal throughout the world. Westerners tend to value the freedom to choose as being essential to raising children that grow up able to make their own choices. Individual choice is thought of as the gold standard in the western world, and is accredited with increasing motivation, happiness, and longevity. In contrast, Asians tend to make decisions based on group values, harmony, and trends.
If we live in a world in which choice is abundant, we tend to think everyone else is in the same boat. We can fall into the trap of thinking people are personally responsible for their circumstances. We should be cautious here as this lessens the sense of connection and empathy for people that don’t have the same opportunities for choice as we do.
Would you like to help us shatter stereotypes about men?
Receive stories from The Good Men Project, delivered to your inbox daily or weekly.
Photo: Getty Images