Are you sure money can’t buy happiness?

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There are many things that don’t bring happiness: acing your matriculation exam, having bright blue eyes or a golden tan, eating a ripe avocado, owning a house in the mountains, bathing in beautiful sunshine or sailing on a yacht. Nothing brings happiness by itself. The reason for happiness in one situation can be a source of misery in another. Nothing is happiness in itself and nothing decides whether we will be happy or not. But for some reason people became convinced that money is the decisive factor in achieving happiness.
I love to hear the drunken conversations of people in big corporations saying that ‘it’s all meaningless’ and that ‘the best thing would be to throw it all way and become a fisherman on a small island in the Philippines where they were recently diving.’ “People don’t need a lot to be happy there.” Or after a trip to India or even just looking at photos from India, Cambodia or Indonesia, someone says: “People there are poor but happy. Money doesn’t bring happiness.”
Money can bring happiness or it cannot. The same with lack of money – it may bring happiness or it may not. It’s easier to simplify everything to a matter of money, despite the fact that we know well from our own experience that when we didn’t have money we were unhappy and then when we had money, we were still unhappy. And the reason why the rich are sad and the poor are happy lies in something that is less apparent – and therefore it draws much less attention than money.

Obviously, if someone wants to keep marveling at the happiness of poor people in India (while turning a blind eye to the profoundly unhappy millions of people living there), they still can. But psychologists proved a long time ago what contributes most to the feeling of happiness:
• A PRO-happiness attitude
• The feeling of gratefulness
• Living in harmony with yourself
Being a psychologist and a researcher, I always find people interesting. When I listen to their stories, what interests me more than what happened is how they reacted to a given situation and interpreted it. Contrary to what people think about themselves and what psychology promotes (the idea that everyone is different) – we are quite similar to one another at the level of patterns. Yes, the combinations of our attitudes and histories make us unique beings, but our reactions to misery, failure, a bad day or winning in a lottery – we share this with thousands of other people. This is what the healing effect of therapy is based on – the suspicion that there is something wrong with us, that our level of abnormality exceeds the acceptable limits, that our despair reaches the level where no man or a therapist’s ear has gone before – in the end all of these suspicions become dispelled because the therapist has already heard it before. It doesn’t lessen their empathy or your pain, but it gives you the feeling, if not the experience, that everything is ok, that you’re not going to land in an asylum, that you haven’t been put here by Martians and, generally, that there is hope.

Every psychologist’s office is filled with this hope of happiness. Every bookstore has a shelf named “happiness of unhappy people”, “being afraid of happiness” or “happiness in a day/week/weekend” (depending on the urgency of your need you’ll always find something for yourself). But here I wanted to talk about what I observed in those “poor” cultures, something that is responsible for their happiness and has NOTHING to do with money.

1. Happiness is important

Most of the happy people that I met consider happiness to be one of the most important values that they have in life. From the psychological point of view this is extremely important, because we care for what is REALLY most important to us. And although studies show that most people – also in Poland – consider happiness an important aspect of their life, the observation of actual behaviours shows that in the end there are values that play a much more important role in reality.
In Western culture, happiness often results from an appropriate life. And the appropriateness, neatness and consistency of that life often dominates over our happiness. This means we get STUCK in various circumstances/situations that SHOULD give happiness but don’t, because we’re AFRAID that there’s no guarantee that things can get better. Which means that:
• We stay in loveless relationships – where only children, mortgages and memories remain.
• We have friends who clip our wings – but we’ve known them since childhood and can’t just cross them out.
• We have a job – a stable one that everybody dreams of, although we hate it.
• We do things that we don’t like – we eat Sunday dinners at our mother-in-law’s house and we go to team building trips with team building games – because that’s what should be done and what everybody does.
Happiness as a dominant value means the COURAGE to eliminate things that don’t make us happy. And the COURAGE to make changes:
• being unhappy together IS a valid reason for breaking up
• having children, wealth, loans, romantic history and a debt for a wedding – is NOT a valid reason to stay together.
• work is supposed to bring money or pleasure. Most often people think like this: if it brings money, it’s pleasant. However, if you really don’t like your job, it IS a valid reason to change it.
• work MUST NOT be an obstacle on the road to happiness – if it distorts the natural rhythm and personal preferences it means that it has to be changed, the sooner the better.
• if someone’s presence is not pleasant, doesn’t bring joy and provides no reason to smile – you shouldn’t remain in the presence of such people.
Work is the biggest complaint for people who have a Western mentality and work in Latin America. In Rapa Nui, a friend of mine, a Chilean woman (Chileans are considered Latinos by non-Latinos) said she never employs the locals, because… for them good waves for surfing are an perfectly rational excuse for not coming to work, and to make it worse – without prior notice: “The work won’t go away, but the waves will.” Well, perhaps there aren’t too many Nobel prize winners among the Latinos, but there are surely many happy people among them.

2. What’s important is everything that’s important

The Rapanui have privileged conditions given by the Chilean government and can buy tickets at very low prices. They also don’t pay taxes. Most of them earn extra money from tourism (by dancing, singing or organizing trips) after they call it a day at their attractive jobs. So they’re not poor. And despite that, often when asked whether they would like to travel, they say: no. More than that, something that was initially shocking to me – they aren’t even interested in how we (the tourists who visit them) live. I have seen this attitude many times – in Tobago, Colombia, Panama and on some of the Indonesian islands. This attitude can be summed up with what a friend of mine from the Easter Island said:
“Why would I want to travel when it’s so beautiful here? If I live at the end of the world and people from all over the world come here even for several days, then it means that it’s better here than anywhere else. Stressed people come to us to rest. Those full of anxiety come here to find peace. And freaks come here to seek magical power. If so many people come here to seek so many things, it means that they lost all of it and they don’t have it at home. So why would I go there?”
What I love about happy people is their awareness that they have exactly what they need to be happy. And that even if there are other options, the one that they have is sufficient. Because it gives them what they need the most – happiness.

3. Living in harmony with yourself.

This results to a large extent from the attitude bases on the assumption, that if happiness matters, then I matter too. My values matter. I rarely encounter in these so-called poor-but-happy cultures people who have long internal monologues on whether a given thing is something that they really want, whether it is worth it and whether they deserve it. They often act instinctively and spontaneously. If they want something, they ask for it. If they don’t want something, they refuse it. If you ask one of the Rapanui what kind of gift they would like to get, they will answer your question with the same question: “What do you want?”
“An iPad, leather trousers and a Playstation.”
At first I was totally outraged with such insolence, but later I understood that their philosophy is that they are where they are, they say what they want and they give you space to do exactly the same.
For them it’s totally non-offensive if you say:
“I can’t bring you an iPod, but I can bring some chocolates instead.”
“Alright! Or maybe vodka. You make a really good one.”
When they don’t love anymore, they split. When they desire, they cheat. When they want to have fun, they drink. If this kind of being yourself is not controlled, it can cause a lot of problems and chaos. But one of the good things about such an attitude is that if you let yourself be you, you exhibit more acceptance towards others.
When I asked a Rapanui woman what makes the local women so very strong, she said: “It’s an adaptive reaction. We have very attractive men who cheat. They are very strong and confident, so they just take what they want. I think they deserve it. In order to cope with living with such a man you need to be strong. Obviously I’m not happy that he cheats, and yes, I tell him that. But I know I’m unable to change anything, so what else can I do? I can be strong and cheat as well. At least then I’m not feeling sorry for myself.”

No, not everyone is like that. Not every country and not every happy person. But with these selected observations I wanted to illustrate how Latinos apply in practice what psychologists suggest.
That’s why I think that despite the fact that we have money and jobs that are often less tiring and oppressive than people in small and beautiful but poor countries, our subjective feeling of happiness is not as strong. And I think we can learn three things:
1. We should stop being ashamed of being happy and consider happiness the most important criterion or evaluation of various aspects of our life. We should stop glorifying normalness and mediocrity. If something doesn’t give us happiness: a job, a relationship, a place of living – we should strive to make ourselves happy with regard to that aspect.
2. We should slow down and stop. The more we run, the less we feel what’s important to us and the faster we lose the moments of happiness. Drinking coffee on the run. A kiss on the doorstep. Working on your knees. Shopping at an opportunity, and so on. We should become aware that we’re doing something because we chose so and that we can do something else if we want to. This is very important in order to feel gratefulness and happiness.
We should trust that what we want is important. We shouldn’t argue with it, we shouldn’t call it stupid, petty or postpone it “until an opportunity comes”. If you know what you want and what makes you happy – reach for it NOW, not later. Living in harmony with yourself has a much greater value than living according to prevailing standards or social expectations. But the only person who knows that is someone who one day had the courage to live in harmony with themselves… You’ll recognize them by the fact that they never came back to any other state. Because once you try it, you’ll never want it to be any other way.

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4 Responses

    1. Thank you so much. It means a lot to me when I get information that what I do is useful! I hope we keep in touch – soon I will have more post about practical psychology.

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