Care to Buy a Smile?

Humans are happiest when they are doing something. Preferably with their hands, including a challenge, and followed by the satisfaction that the task was completed successfully. A recent article in Scientific American laid out the theory that our increasingly automated world is responsible for the plummeting levels of happiness nationwide. This of course made me wonder whether happiness and modernity are mutually exclusive. Here’s my thought process.

When born, we absorb millions of bits of information, but very little is expected of us. We are expected to learn to walk, to talk, to feed ourselves, to place our excrement in the proper receptacle, and so on. As we get older, we are taught what we are and aren’t allowed to do. We must wake up in time for school, not be mean to others, and do out homework. Whether or not we consider the consequences of our actions to be significant is another matter, mostly because our brains don’t fully develop until the age of 25. That is when our frontal lobe, the master center for long-term thinking, is done maturing. Each year of our life, dependent on our individual situations, brings new expectations. Our relationships grow more complicated, we are taught that there is something called a productive member of society, and the media shoves images of success, comfort and capitalist ideals at us 24 hours a day.

By the time most of us are 18, we realize, at least somewhat, that things are expected of us. The next few years, ideally, are a time when each young adult spends time growing into those expectations. All of a sudden, the world falls on top of you. Or at least it feels that way. Your parents don’t do your laundry anymore (if they ever did), and you are expected to figure things out. Of course, there are sheltered children, whether at home or at college, whose responsibilities entail making sure that their parents keep their checking account full and their credit cards paid off, among figuring which party to attend, how much homework actually has to be done, and where to meet friends for dinner.

Sheltered or thrown to the wolves, each one of us has to eventually face adulthood. The rent, the bills, a job, a social life, taxes, insurance, maintenance, hobbies, health, and lot of other things occupy our time. When you start to think about it, the average adult has a tremendous amount of expectations placed on him/her from all angles. The government, your girlfriend, your family and your boss all want something from you. And then there are those who have children, which take everything you have and then some.

Not to get all hippy, but its a wonder people have the fortitude to be happy at all. The world, our capitalist world primarily, demands that we produce – whether it be work, or babies – and consume, as much as possible, as often as we can. I’m fairly certain most people eventually realize that buying stuff doesn’t make them happy. At least not in the long run. We have been so completely convinced that our time is worth much more than whatever we can spend on the things we want to have, that opportunity cost decisions we make our instinctual. It’s only when we realize our money is running low when most of us go, well, maybe I should wash my own car. Or make my own bread.

You can ask a retiree, and they will say either that they are bored out of their minds, or they are loving it. The retirees that love retirement are the ones that do a lot of things. They garden, they cook, they travel, they are learning and exploring and having adventures that fulfilling their expectations as members of society wouldn’t allow before. The ones that are bored, and maybe depressed, feel useless and discarded. In fact, I would gather that there are a lot of people that feel that way. Perhaps they are unemployed, or they stay home with children, or they have a job they don’t enjoy.

And here’s my point: We are hard-wired to be productive, but we also take our cues from society. So even though being a stay at home parent is vital and important, it wears on people. While others are climbing ladders and making boatloads of cash, you are watching your children climb the ladder to the slide, and rip apart Monopoly money. Society tells you that this is important, while also telling you that you are spoiled, or lazy, and certainly worth a lot less to the marketplace once you return from diaper-duty.

We are so obsessed with work that anyone who doesn’t spend their whole day toiling away at something is considered lazy, or dysfunctional, or a privileged snob. I have fought with this ideal for a long time. The capitalist ideal. The one that commands people to buy a house (so that they have to work for 30 years and invest in their community) and have children, and buy buy buy till they drop dead. Our society would not function without it. Not that it doesn’t have its glaring flaws, clearly, but most of us swallow it whole. From cool clothes and the newest toys, to diamond engagement rings, to houses, to dogs, to children and cars – we pour our identities into mostly what we can purchase, and some of what we create. But we link our ability to create wealth to purchase these things to be central to our identity. I live in this kind of house, with this kind of car, and I wear these kinds of clothes. This is who I am.

It’s a short lived burst, unfortunately. Because society moves at such a clip that the awesome car you just bought is now outmatched by a new model. Or your house is all of a sudden out of date. Or that dress is so last season. Whatever it is, we must keep spending to keep up, and stay happy.

If you haven’t noticed yet, I think all of this is b*llsh*t.

I have met many people who have said to me, I’m really this, but I have to dress a certain way in my business to portray this other identity. I’m pretty certain that all of us do this, we put on a different face in different situation. We change the way we speak, we put on different clothes, and we act differently than at home with our closest friends, or even alone.

I think if we were all honest with ourselves, we’d worry less about stuff and more about our actions. We look at how we spend our time and what that means to us. And not necessarily within the capitalist mindset, but viscerally. I’m not advocating that we should all quit our jobs and go become farmers, or make existentialist art, but that we should try to make things – besides children and money – that make us happy. Grow a plant from seed. Bake a loaf of bread. Brew some beer. Restore something. Whatever it is, it should be challenging but not impossible, and even if it isn’t perfect, it will be yours. It will be your song, or your delicious pie, or you tomato plant. Your brain will be happy, your hands will be happy, even if it isn’t perfect. Because you can always try again, do some research, make it better.

We are meant to create and invest our time in our survival. Yet most of us are unable to see any tangible result of our hard work besides what we can purchase and the mounting debt on our credit cards. There is always more expected of us, but the satisfaction, the one we believe is just around the corner with the next big goal, never comes. It doesn’t because we need our hands, our minds, and our hearts invested in something before it truly matters to us. Before our brain clicks into satisfaction mode.

This type of thinking will probably not make me rich and successful, but I don’t really care. Sometimes it’s good to indulge yourself in the impractical if only for the sake of happiness.

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