Why are Americans less happy today than in past generations? Haven't we achieved more of the so-called "American Dream" of 1) Marriage 2) kids 3) suburban living ? A fascinating article in this months Psychology Today by Lauren Sandler http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201103/the-american-nightmare addresses these issues directly.
The bottom line seems to be our misguided expectations of what makes us happy. And by "happy" I'm referring to a general sense of contentment as opposed to the low level hum of existential angst and worry many of us experience.
Researchers such as Martin Seligman have built an entire branch of psychology on studying this phenomena.
Interestingly enough the solution to the problem may have been offered by SIddhartha Gautama, the Buddha more than 2500 years ago.
He wrote about the universality of suffering and the ways by which suffering could be alleviated. He wrote about the folly of adopting materialism as the ultimate goal of life. He emphasized that it was our attachment to the physical world, our expectations which led us to suffer. He reminded us that life continuously changes, that death is not to be denied but to be acknowledged as universal. He would have laughed at our desire and struggle to control our lives and our fates. Happiness might just be what is left over when we let go of these expectations and attachments.
As in the Sandler article it seems as if suffering ensues when our expectations exceed our reality. Of course our choice of what we believe to be important sets up these expectations.
If we expect that a larger home, bigger car, smarter more beautiful children, more prestigious country club address, more desired vacations, larger stock portfolio will make us happier, then we will be disappointed.
When our goals are to be continuously stimulated, sexually turned-on, constantly admired, working 24/7…..then when we get there, more miserable than ever…..we are certainly not happy.
Americans are less happy than our European counterparts. The American dream has become a nightmare for many. We have forgotten what is really important and what is not.
We have sacrificed time with friends and loved-ones for work and scheduled "play". We have adopted continuously frenetic lifestyles which leave no time to be still–with nature and ourselves. We have filled the present moment with sounds and distractions rather than being alone with our minds. We have forgotten the simple pleasure of doing an act of kindness for a stranger or friend, of making time to show affection, to have a pleasant smile, to hold the elevator or door for another. We have forgotten how great it feels not to be constantly on edge, to let down our guard when we are in public, to not respond in anger or self-defensiveness when we feel challenged. We have forgotten how a slow deep breath in the presence of the sea can put our problems in perspective.
In essence we need to re-evaluate our own expectations about what is important in life. We need to give ourselves and our loved-ones a break when we or they don't quite live up to our fantasized dreams.
Read the article, read Buddha, sit back and relax. Don't expect life to be perfect. In fact don't even expect to be happy. That might just allow it to happen on its own.