I recently received an e-mail from a friend in which she posed the question, “How would you measure happiness?” Figuring out just how to answer that question was her class assignment, the specific instructions being to write a series of questions you would ask someone in order to gauge how happy they are. She wrote the e-mail to a group of us, soliciting our take on the topic. One friend replied that she would ask, “What are you thinking about when you go to bed at night?” Another wrote, “When was the last time you sat still and felt peace?” A third said, “Happiness is a matter of perception. I would ask questions that gauge how well their present reality matches their desires.”
I thought a lot about these proposed questions and the answers I might expect to hear from people I know. I would wager that most people end their day thinking about tomorrow, that sitting still and feeling peace is a notion that would largely be laughed at, and that many are unsatisfied with their current situation – constantly worrying about the future, striving for perfection, and measuring achievements on an unrealistic expectation scale. This constant forethought might surely be indicative of our age, our 20s, but it is also symptomatic of the current way we live our lives. There are so many things to do, live up to, and plan for that we have collectively de-prioritized the one thing that matters most: happiness.
Our generation is not entirely to blame for this happiness dilemma. Globally, there are things that act as happiness hindrances – current economic stresses, America’s waning prowess, disenchanted everything. There is also the reality that we happened to reach adulthood in an age, and amid a culture, in which the popular things are not necessarily the things that fulfill someone in the long run: binge drinking, reality television, instant satisfaction. We subsist on guilty pleasures and as a generation have come to value ambition, success, and the flaunting of both, when perhaps we should be pursuing the simple feeling of contentment.
In December of 2011, the author Pico Iyer wrote an article for The New York Times entitled "The Joy of Quiet." He illuminates the pitfalls of the digital age and argues for the importance of finding the “stillness” in one’s life. He touches on the realities of life in a nonstop and instant world: the constant checking of screens and the bombardment of endless “breaking news.” He quotes the scholar Marshall McLuhan saying, “When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself.” Iyer defends that a separation from the screens we surround ourselves with – iPhones, lap tops, Kindles – is required in order to find a feeling of quietude that is both natural and necessary for happiness.
Iyer has a point and it is true that this relatively new screen-way-of-life has a handful of detrimental side effects, both physical and mental. The one that interests me most is the way in which we hold these screens up as mirrors of ourselves, using them to project the image we want the world to see. Through Facebook, we construct the best version of our lives – our most flattering pictures, our most exciting status updates. On Twitter or Tumblr, we project our most interesting thoughts, the smartest, the keenest. Yet no matter what we put into these virtual personas, there is a vast discrepancy between the digital you and the real flesh and blood version. It is impossible to be as consistently perfect as our polished avatars, and in this inevitable comparison, we come to value others' perception rather than our real emotion. We flaunt our outward happiness, but we never quite feel it.
Distancing ourselves from our avatars, taking time to live outside of the screens, might be what we millennials need to feel that simple peace. But, of course, even then we still are victim to tireless naval gazing and thinking ahead. As a generation we must learn that, contrary to what they preach on TV singing competitions, it is very unlikely to wake up one day with all your wishes coming true. There are many ways to seek happiness, but the real trick is figuring out how to find it along the journey and not just at the destination. We must foster real selves that we are even more proud of than the versions we give away to the rest of the world.
So it must be asked, not just how can we measure happiness, but how we can prioritize it. We must find the way to go to sleep every night not angsting about tomorrow, but celebrating the successes, however minor, of today.
Photo Credit: Walt Shoeburner