Surprising results came from a study of lottery-winners and paralytics: though the former rated themselves as ecstatically happy upon their change in fortune, and the latter considered themselves devastated immediately after their misfortune, things changed in the months following. Six months after the incidents, there was no significant difference in happiness between the two groups. How is it that drastic events such as these can have such little impact on mental well-being in the long run? And where can happiness really be found, if it is not in material possessions?
Our brains aren’t designed to be constantly stimulated by any emotion, positive or negative. When it comes to a scale of well-being, we generally treat the level at which we are at as an average: that is our “normal” happiness. When a change occurs, such as winning the lottery, or even acquiring a new possession such as the latest iPhone, we adapt to that feeling of happiness and consider that the new average. The original surge in happiness from having more money or the latest gadget is short-lived; soon that feeling is no longer out of the ordinary, and we don’t feel especially happy anymore. Whether it’s the case of winning the lottery, becoming paralyzed, or any other change in well-being, eventually we adjust to the situation.
Despite this reality, when dealing with material things we almost always grossly overestimate the effect a certain event or outcome will have on our overall happiness. Consequently, in working to achieve happiness, we prioritize incorrectly. Because of this idea that greater wealth must lead to greater happiness, we prioritize money-making endeavors over all else, when in fact things such as taking a walk to enjoy nature, spending time with friends and family, and appreciating art by going to a concert or visiting a museum will lead to much more true happiness than superficial wealth.
So why is it that we think money will make us happy? This is a common misconception, and though increased wealth is associated with increased happiness to a certain point—people who can afford to have the shelter of a house are generally happier than people living on the streets—this changes once someone has reached the level of wealth in which they don’t have to worry where their next meal is going to come from. After a certain point of wealth has been established, income does not make a substantial difference in overall mental well-being.
The Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side of the Fence
Additionally, all too often we find ourselves working not on personal improvement, but instead measuring ourselves against those around us, and using the well-being of others to determine how well off we are. In sociology, this comparison of others and consequent judgement of self is known as “relative deprivation”, and it is severely detrimental to happiness. The effect of relative deprivation—comparing your own feelings and actions to the perceived feelings and actions of others—is that you believe you are much worse off than your neighbor and that you deserve more than you have.
Social media has streamlined this effect: we are able to constantly see the carefully selected highlights of others’ lives and compare them to our own lives, and we end up feeling as though we have it much worse than our average fellow man. But of course, social media is constantly showing us a fake and unattainable world, a false representation.
The effects of relative deprivation explain why average happiness has been stagnant over time despite overall rises in income. If, on average, everyone is benefiting from a greater income, why are happiness levels not rising at the same rate as the population’s wealth? Because we are comparing ourselves to everyone around us and seeing that we are no better off than they are. In a much more dangerous way, the effects of relative deprivation are seen in suicide rates: the happiest countries (Switzerland, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, Canada) have higher suicide rates than countries that are reportedly less happy (Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain). Why is this? Because unhappy people in a happy country are much more likely to feel miserable, as a result of comparing their state to that of those around them, than those unhappy people in a country surrounded by those on relatively the same level as they are. In happier countries, depression makes outcasts.
Theodore Roosevelt said that comparison is the thief of joy, and though it may be impossible to stop comparing entirely, we can make an effort to let our comparisons bring us gratitude and self-improvement instead of jealousy and despair. Comparisons of real life to the fake lives advertised on social media will always be false, but true comparisons can show you what you have to be grateful for, and what you personally lack that you can genuinely work on improving.
Finding True Happiness
In order to be happy, you must first discover the origin of your discontent or worry. If you never know what is causing your anxieties, your happiness will only ever be superficial. Once you have come to the root of your unhappiness, you can make a real change in your life, starting with a resolution to reorganize your priorities to ensure that real values such as family, not money, are at the top of the list. A good first step to achieving this is choosing to do something every day unrelated to your job, such as taking a walk or spending extra time with family, which brings you true joy.
It should be obvious that happiness can’t rest in material possessions; it must lie in something spiritual, something eternal. So where can we find happiness? As people all over the world and at every time in history have found, the only real way to find happiness is to know God and join him in heaven. Your occupation may be the job that makes money to support yourself, but your vocation is to find the way in which you can best serve God, which is what will truly make you happy. And so the ultimate change in your life should be a turning towards God, accepting his love, and following his way. God did not design us to be constantly chasing more and more money: he made us to chase after him.