I’ll spare you the time it’ll take you to read all the details of the 75 year-long longitudinal study by Harvard researchers on what it takes to make a happy life. Hint: it isn’t money, it isn’t IQ, it isn’t good looks — it all comes down to making and maintaining what those researchers call WR’s, or warm relationships. Warm relationships are those in which each partner feels trusted, feels loyalty and feels most of all, that their partner will have their back no matter what.
So, if just before you started reading this piece you were doing something other than fostering your WR, know for certain that there’s no appreciable increase in happiness between making say, fifty thousand or fifty million dollars, between having an IQ of 110 or 150, and no evidence whatsoever that fame does anything other than make famous people less happy.
So my question is really, why? Why is almost everyone striving, on a daily basis, for the very things that don’t make them happy? Why do we live our lives in search of something that hasn’t been shown — whether from the viewpoint of an academic study — or our own experiences, to give us anything more than bragging rights, (something also shown to do nothing to increase our happiness?)
If I had to hazard a guess I’d say it has something to do with fear. There’s something very primal, very visceral, about the human need to squirrel away resources for an uncertain future. And Lord knows, our futures are uncertain. But no matter how much “stuff” we acquire, there’s always a nagging sense that we don’t have enough. I might feel that if I had $100,000 in my bank account I’d feel secure, but the minute I do, that previously large sum will feel small, and then I won’t feel secure until I have two or three or four hundred thousand socked away. The number will keep spiraling upwards forever.
That is the nature of living a quantitative life, as opposed to a qualitative one. The former is about ‘high numbers’, the latter looks for ‘deep values’. The problem is that in order to achieve a qualitative life we need to do the difficult work of using our intellect to overcome the thousands of knee-jerk responses that are elicited daily from the most primitive part of our brains, the amygdala.
Instead of looking for more, we need to look for deeper. Instead of following our initial impulse to take, we need to foster an impulse to give. Instead of looking for instant gratification, we need to live our lives in such a way as to create and follow plans that unfold more slowly. This all begins the same way as learning a language or playing the piano; one small step at a time. In order to learn to play, a very important first step is to listen to the piano being played by someone very skilled. It is from the listening, from the knowing, that we start developing a desire to play. It is the desire itself, that provides us with the impetus to begin the process of sitting down and learning. When the desire is well-formed, that is, when the desire is hot within us, we will be able to endure the challenges that naturally come with step-by-step learning.
To live a more qualitative life, the place to begin is to look to your own experiences and those of others, to learn to detect first of all, what the actions and activities in our lives that are truly the most fulfilling. As you consider this, be careful not to start thinking about things that are simply, “fun.” While I have no beef whatsoever with fun, I believe strongly that things we consider fun like: going to the movies, skiing, listening to music, reading, playing sports and video games; do not, after careful consideration, qualify as the things in our lives that are most fulfilling. Even the fun of winning the lottery won’t qualify as fulfillment.
I don’t need the results of Harvard’s 75-year longitudinal study to back me up on this, but since it does I’ll quote it again: The only things in our lives that have been scientifically proven to be truly fulfilling, are our warm relationships with other people. When we think about our WR’s (or if we don’t have them, when we think about achieving them) we will first build a desire for them; to strengthen them and to achieve more of them. And only when they are foremost in our minds will we have the intellectual strength to place them where they need to be in the hierarchy of life goals — at the top, before making more money, achieving more fame, or working on our suntans.
Like anything we value, living a qualitative life takes hard work. The work we need to do is simple however, it is to constantly focus on the truth of what makes us happy — and to steer our actions toward that truth.
- Buying a new Mercedes might be fun, but it will not make your life better.
- Becoming closer with your daughter might not make you rich, but it will make you happier.
Now go and reprioritize. Put quality before quantity. You’ll be happier for it.
Originally published in Forbes