Mick Jagger once stated: “Too much is never enough”. At first this might sound like an exaggeration but in fact it does summarize the outlook of what many Americans define as happiness, a life where all of our wants and needs are satisfied and where we never experience discomfort or material challenges.
But the reality of what constitutes happiness is quite different. One need only look at the case studies of lottery winners, people who have come into vast wealth and no longer have or will have any significant material needs. Research shows that lottery winners are no happier about the important issues in their lives than they were before they won the lottery.
This may seem counterintuitive, but it is only because financial pressures may be the most immediate problem that most Americans face but the evidence is clear that solving this problem is not the key to happiness.
What makes us really happy was not studied scientifically until after World War II. Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, began his research into happiness thirty years ago. Up until that time psychology had focused on psychological pathologies, illnesses like schizophrenia and depression. What Seligman noticed in his clinical practice was that when he successfully treated patients with these conditions, they were cured but still not necessarily happy. It was from these experiences that he decided to investigate scientifically what the factors were that created true happiness. Some of these factors may seem surprising but the depth and consistency of the research is convincing.
The first factor is a sense of identity, knowing who we are, what we love to do and what we feel we’re good at. These characteristics give us a sense of living authentic lives, being who we really are and not just living the life others expect of us with all the dissatisfaction that produces.
The second factor is the development of community or in-depth relationships. This is made up of two groups. The first is family which Seligman defines as those people who have to take you in if you’re in trouble, no matter what. The second is made up of real friends, people who want the best for you and that you can rely on.
The third component of happiness is meaningful work, knowing that the work that you do matters. This is made up of two parts: first, doing the kind of work that is authentic to you, that uses your talents and what you enjoy doing; and second, the type of work that makes other people’s lives better and not worse. It needn’t make you rich.
The final component of happiness caused some surprise both inside and outside of the scientific community and that is the necessary issue of faith. Seligman defined faith as having a connection to the Transcendent, knowing that there is a larger and more profound context that we live our lives in, over and above life’s daily struggles and experiences. It also includes the idea that this Transcendent Power is both intelligent and benevolent.
Though less popular in a largely secular culture than it has been traditionally, seeking the Transcendent is one of the most basic instincts of the human condition. It has been part of every culture in human history, and one should keep in mind that the first recorded markings of human culture were religious cave paintings.
Given what we now know of what creates real happiness one can understand why such virtues as courage and even the endurance of suffering can create meaningful lives which is a form of happiness. Clearly, the endurance of pain is the opposite of material ease and pleasure. But one need only look at the work of Viktor Frankel in Man’s Search For Meaning to see how even under the most adverse circumstances human beings can build meaningful lives that give them a degree of satisfaction. In the Nazi deathcamps those prisoners that clung to life in order to bring their persecutors to justice were the ones most likely to survive and found courage and meaning in their suffering. So successful were many of them that they not only survived but went on to build the nation of Israel, the first homeland for the Jewish people in over two thousand years.
In light of what we now know, “Too much is never enough” takes on new meaning. It should no longer suggest to us that more is better. Rather, it should keep us aware that it is those intangibles, identity, community, meaningful work, and a connection to the Transcendent that make life meaningful and produce satisfaction. It is here that we should focus our attention.
Too much IS never enough.