Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

The Nature of Happiness February 4, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — backyardsafari @ 12:39 pm
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Hello lovely readers,

Today is a brief departure from my usual fair of finding the wonder and beauty in all of our backyards. The next post will be back to ‘normal,’ but I have been mulling over something and wanted to share it with you and hear your thoughts.

Yesterday I attended a “Teaching Sustainability in the Classroom” course hosted by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. It was an inspiring, despairing, hopeful, interesting, sad experience. The challenges we are facing are huge, and they are real, and I think for many people they become overwhelming. At the same time, the speaker pointed out that we need to start seeing our time as a unique opportunity, a chance we are lucky to have because we can decide to really change things for the better.

Often in presentations like this people bring up the idea of money/stuff vs. happiness. They show graphs that demonstrate how throughout time the money and material goods the average American has have increased drastically, but happiness has stayed the same.  This point is used to show that many of our technological advancements haven’t actually made us happier, and that maybe we don’t need all this stuff after all.

The thing that struck me most this time, however, was where the happiness level starts on the graph, before it ever has the chance to stay the same.  Readers, it is low!  In the graphs I saw yesterday only about 30% of people considered themselves happy at any time, and that number stayed consistent.  I haven’t been able to find the graphs they showed yesterday, unfortunately, and this is the closest I could get:



(I want to add that despite my using it as an example here there are many problems with this kind of data. How do you calculate happiness? Who are you polling? What is the sample size? Is it the same people through time or different people? Do those people have their basic needs covered, etc. etc.)


This graph is problematic because the average income is always pretty close to the US poverty line, so these individuals might still be struggling to have their needs met regardless of their income going up a bit. You will have to trust me, though, that it shows the same trend that happiness vs. stuff graphs always show. Happiness levels start low and stay low, while stuff increases.

These graphs always always lead in to discussions about how to lower the ‘stuff’ bar, since it hasn’t worked to make us happy.  What we also need to be figuring out, though, is how to raise the happiness bar!

I believe these graphs probably show two main things– a time when everyone was struggling to meet basic needs like food, shelter, good health for their families, etc. and as a result they are not happy, and a time when these needs are met for many (NOT ALL!) of the population in excess, and they are still not happy.

I believe people weren’t always happy in the past because they were struggling to meet their basic needs, and I believe some people still aren’t happy now because their needs are met but they feel alone, disconnected, and removed from their world.

I hope that our future has solutions to both of these problems. I hope we meet the basic needs of everybody, in the US and abroad, in a way that gives people racial and social justice, that gives them agency to design what is best for their own communities (i.e. the US doesn’t always know what’s best!). That allows us to pursue our creativity, our courage, and our strengths. In a way that brings people and nature together, and makes us realize we are all part of an interlocking system.

The speaker used an analogy yesterday of being on a train track that is heading for a cliff. We are all inside the train, and some of us are eating organic foods and recycling our water bottles, and maybe the trains slows down. The point, though, is that we need to get off the tracks, and that might take a way of thinking and living that we haven’t even discovered yet. I believe that the happiness bar has to be a part in this new way of thinking, and of designing a way of living different from what we have done in the past or present.

Readers, I want to see that happiness bar go up.



One Response to “The Nature of Happiness”

  1. Great post. People today are living fast, busy lives and have been brain washed into believing buying “stuff” will make them happy. People need to slow down, simplify their lives and spend time in nature, unplugging from the “NOISE”. We evolved in nature – if we become disconnected from the natural world we lose something magical, something so precious. We lose part of what it means to be human. I believe this is what’s making people unhappy-they just haven’t realized it yet.

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