Increasing Happiness: Materialism Versus Human Connection

How happy are you? What makes you happy, and how can you increase your happiness?

ABC’s 20/20 did an interesting episode entitled “What Makes People Happy?” They compared and contrasted nations in several continents, looking for themes. I saw only about half of it, but what I did see provoked some thoughts.

Among the examples, they cited Denmark as the happiest country in Europe, providing some interesting examples of behavioral differences. Levels of trust are much higher, and crime rates lower, as individuals often leave items such as bicycles and large strollers parked outside of shops and restaurants without locks.

“Materialistic pursuits” seem to play a smaller role, as evidenced by less leisure time devoted to shopping and very modest signs on many of the businesses. Individuals spend much more time socializing with family and friends.

Singapore was cited as the happiest country in Asia, despite the fact that the government there plays a very powerful role, and harsh punishments such as public beating with a bamboo stick are still enforced. It is an extremely wealthy country, and one could argue that this alone plays a large role.

One interviewee made it a little more specific, suggesting that because Singapore’s high-level leaders are already generously compensated, their government is less prone to bribes or corruption. This is merely speculation, and one that seems to make a sweeping generalization of all public officials; but he did make an interesting point in conjunction with this.

He noted that in order to be happy, people need to have a high level of trust in their leaders and their culture, a certain sense of security about what they can expect. If people feel too insecure about their own futures or basic needs, discontentment and problems will result.

They also provided an example of a woman who had amassed a great amount of materialistic wealth and possessions, and contrasted her own lack of happiness with the relatively high happiness observed among many individuals in several very poor countries. Her life, she confessed, seemed to be largely about comparing herself to others.

While these are but a few of the examples and the scientific validity of the methods could be questioned, I did take away a few messages from the show. Feelings of connectedness and basic level of security seemed to be factors contributing to happiness, whereas a culture of uncertainty and competition seemed to take people in the opposite direction.

While economic wealth can play a positive role, its necessity for happiness beyond meeting basic needs seems to vary greatly by setting. It can have an adverse effect when excessive pursuit of materialism replaces social connectedness, trust, and personal identity.

Where are you in this picture? Do you have a healthy balance of human connection versus materialistic wealth?

What changes do you wish to make in your life to increase your happiness?

You can obtain more information at 20/20 Friday: What Makes People Happy?

Photo by Flickr user Kinshuk Sunil. Size and resolution adjusted. License.

Dave welcomes phone-based life, career, and transition coaching clients from around the world.

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