So first, let me ask, how busy are you on a scale of 1-10, where
- 1 = you feel calm and in control: you have plenty of time every day to put your feet up, twiddle your thumbs and contemplate your navel
- 10 = you feel tired and overstretched: your daily activities or appointments are starting to overlap, and you couldn’t get them all done if you didn’t multitask, grab lunch on the go and use your commuting time at both ends of the day to answer emails via your cell phone or Blackberry
I asked this of a group I was working with the other day; 90% of them said they were 8 or above every day, including weekends. I bet the vast majority of you are also on the wrong side of 5, that is, your lives are hectic combinations of work commitments, social activities, family gatherings, shopping trips, visits to the gym, running round organizing the kids …and maybe even study on top of that. “Running to stand still,” was how one described how he felt most of the time. “Feeling that everyone and everything is overtaking me,” said another. “Frightened that I’ll lose control if I stop,” said a third. Who doesn’t feel like this quite a lot of the time?
How full is your bucket-list?But how can it be that being so busy gets in the way of happiness?
It seems much more logical, doesn’t it, that in order to maximize our chances of finding happiness, we should try to do as much as we can, and experience as many things as possible. Got a half-hour to spare? Why not finish that report, make a few more appointments, or answer a couple of emails. Going on holiday? Let’s get a tourist guide to the city and see if we can visit every museum and gallery on the map, we don’t want to miss anything. So if we pack our lives full of activities, achieve everything on our bucket-list, we won’t waste a single, precious moment, and then we’re more likely to find happiness. Aren’t we?
Becky DeGreeff and colleagues argue that we’re so focused on doing stuff (at work, at home, with the kids, with friends and so on) that we have little time to focus on just being, or living honestly and courageously in the moment.
So you’ll have spotted the paradox here: we keep busy because it leads to more experiences, and we think that more experiences is equivalent to more chances of being happy. But being busy reduces our chances of being happy because we reduce the amount of time we have to reflect and learn, to savor, appreciate, and be in the moment. In other words, say these researchers, we’re living inauthentic lives which actually prevent us from being happy. As I was reading this paper, I was reminded of Gretchen Rubin’s inspirational video “The years are short” – if you haven’t seen it, view it now here.
The suggestion from this paper is that the majority of North Americans (and I’d add others in the Northern Hemisphere/Western World) are living inauthentic lives, because they’re too busy to stop and reflect on what ‘stuff’ really means. The researchers base this conclusion on their analysis of holiday letters exchanged with friends and family at around Christmas time or the New Year, describing what has been going on over the past 12 months. [In the UK, holiday letters, or what we call round robin letters, are less common. I don’t know why that is. Maybe we’re too busy to write them… 8)].
What do we say in our holiday letters?
The researchers analyzed these holiday letters for signs of authenticity, for instance reflection on important life events such as births, marriages and deaths. They came up with 3 different categories: authentic, inauthentic and in-between. So in authentic letters, the letter-writers might talk about what happened during the year, and then discuss the impact on their lives, how it changed them, or how they have grown by the experience. In an in-between letter, the letter-writers might acknowledge that events had meaning, but then fail to elaborate on what that meaning was. In the inauthentic letters, the letter-writers might still mention the different life events, but in a more cursory way, for example presenting them in bullet points, like a shopping list, without any detail or explanation.Becky DeGreeff and her colleagues found these results with the 598 holiday letters they analyzed:
The vast majority were so distracted by the hectic details of daily life that they failed to show any awareness of ‘being’, a sign of authentic happiness in the view of the authors. So it looks as if we’re fooling ourselves into believing we need to do and achieve as much as possible. As a result we get so busy that we can’t appreciate the really important things in life.
Are some types of happiness better than others?
This paper, with its juxtaposition of authenticity and inauthenticity, reminded me of the eudaimonic versus hedonic happiness arguments that we had in our MAPP class. It’s assumed that the former has more inherent value than the latter. Happiness, like most other things in life, is not values-free. This needs to be discussed more. Several of the current MAPP students at UEL were up in arms at the suggestion that hedonic happiness might be less ‘worthwhile’ or ‘meaningful’ than eudaimonic happiness. They were actually more than happy with the meaning that they got from earning $200,000 per year and wearing a pair of Jimmy Choos or a Hugo Boss suit (not necessarily at the same time). They didn’t like the implication that this type of happiness was somehow ‘less good’ or less authentic. Who are positive psychologists to tell others how to live their lives?
So at the end of the article I was left wondering about a number of things:
- Can we assume that people are living inauthentic lives based on what they write in a holiday letter or anywhere else? Just because they don’t openly express the meaning and purpose they derive from certain life experiences doesn’t mean that they don’t appreciate their true value, or aren’t changed by them in a meaningful way. Perhaps some people are incapable or unwilling to express their authentic selves in writing.
- Is there a trend in holiday letter-writing which some people find difficult to go against? For example, perhaps there is an expectation that holiday letters will be light-hearted, optimistic, and cheerful, not full of profound statements about finding the meaning in life. On the other hand, perhaps if more people did reflect on life-changing experiences in their holiday letters, others might also be encouraged to do the same.
- And do positive psychologists (or indeed anyone else) have the right to prescribe what others should and shouldn’t do in order to be happy?
I found this paper raised some very important questions about what authentic happiness is, how we achieve it, and how we act as role-models for those around us, be they friends, colleagues or our children. So when you sit down to write your holiday letter to your friends and family this Christmas, what are you going to write about?
DeGreeff, B.L., Burnett, A. & Cooley, D. (2009). Communicating and philosophizing about authenticity and inauthenticity in a fast-paced world. Journal of Happiness Studies.