(*I want something better!)
I took this photograph of my daughter this summer: we are in an alpine meadow about an hour outside Munich, hiking up to a hut where some friends would be married. These two girls were thrilled to be together, conquering the mountain and communing with cows, carrying all they needed for the weekend on their backs, and chattering about what 9-year-olds do, including how excited they were to be flower girls—special roles in this already special gathering. They were the very pictures of happiness.
But I don’t want my daughter to be happy.
If you read my post last week (Why Is the Pursuit of Happiness Making Us So Stressed?), this statement shouldn’t come as such a shock. Of course I want her to have fun and experience plenty of positive emotion. But there are so many problems with happiness as a life goal that I’d rather focus on something else.
So for all of you loving parents who say, “I just want my child to be happy” (or your partner or yourself), I have an alternative for you: wellbeing.
What Does Wellbeing Mean, Anyway?
Wellbeing is a more concrete and comprehensive goal state than happiness. It refers to the quality of a person’s physical/mental, social, material, and existential states — these terms essentially relate to health, relationships, stuff and money, and how we spend our time. It also factors in the interdependent states of our communities and environment — or public and planetary wellbeing — as these affect our own (and vice versa).
When all dimensions of wellbeing are strong, a psychologist like Martin Seligman might say we are flourishing. But I think there’s more to it than that. Development economist Amartya Sen reminds us that what we all really want—even those who struggle daily for survival—is the capability to create a life we value. That valued or “good life” will look different for individuals living in diverse contexts (from Californian environmentalists to Thai Buddhists). What matters is our ability to create it—an ability influenced by all six dimensions of wellbeing.
Let’s look at one dimension at a time to better understand how wellbeing affects our ability to create a life we value:
Our physical and mental wellbeing is the foundation for everything we do in life. Most of us have experienced a bad cold or flu bug, so we know that even small dips in our health affect our ability to do what we want (or just plain need) to do. But how about major hits to our health…like coronary heart disease? Year after year, coronary heart disease is the number one cause of death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. The good news is that lifestyle changes can help control many risk factors, like physical inactivity, high blood pressure, excess weight, diabetes, and stress. So a healthy diet and exercise will give us a huge boost in our physical/mental wellbeing.
Social relationships are so important to our wellbeing that Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, recently revamped the field’s foundational theory to include it in the five necessary elements for human flourishing (what Seligman calls the ultimate state of wellbeing). In fact, our early ancestors depended on strong social networks for their very survival. While we might not face the same dangers as our Bronze Age brethren, we face new ones: social isolation is a primary factor in the growing global depression epidemic, with mortality risk up by 26%. We need other people, period.
Material wellbeing starts with the ability to meet basic needs for food, water, shelter, and clothing, plus essential services like health and education. If you are reading this now, you probably have that covered. But over half the world’s population—over 3 billion people—struggles to survive on less than $2.50 a day. A whopping 80% lives on less than less than $10 a day. It’s safe to say that global inequality is growing more extreme. Still, some of us higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs feel like we don’t have enough—we’ve been socialized to believe that the more money we have, the happier we’ll be. But this drive to accumulate is unsustainable (including the waste it produces!) and it distracts us from creating a life of real value. Our challenge, then, is to resist the siren call of stuff.
Instead of more stuff, what we need is more time—time for engaging activities. This increases our life satisfaction, the term psychologists use for existential wellbeing. It’s important that we spend time doing what the International Labor Organization calls decent workand, beyond that, fulfilling work that develops our strengths. We should also get the most out of our free time. Instead of watching TV, which Gallup’s global survey identified as contributing least to life satisfaction, we might direct our energies toward improving aspects of our wellbeing. In fact, pursuing meaningful activities—connecting to something larger than ourselves—results in the greatest existential wellbeing of all.
The place where people live, the people within the borders, and the representatives who provide governance significantly influence an individual’s wellbeing. At baseline, we need safety and security. But according to the World Bank, our safety nets are inadequate. We also want to feel like our voice matters in our community, yet in OECD’s global Better Life index, a mere 38% of respondents had confidence in their government. The condition of our community certainly affects our capabilities, but the reality is that it won’t improve without our input. It’s up to us to help our community (including our government) to be the best it can be. And these efforts will return to us in spades.
There’s no doubt now that the scale, scope, and substance of human activity cannot be sustained. Our current consumption rate is rapidly depleting resources and generating vastly more waste, including carbon, than the planet can absorb. The result is that 75% of the earth’s land is degraded, threatening the lives of 3.2 billion people as well as vital biodiversity. On top of that, we are experiencing more extreme weather and natural disasters, with the poorest most vulnerable. The rest of us may not feel an imminent threat to our ability to create a good life, but our children certainly will unless we actively revitalize our natural environment and build its resilience.
Another important reason I don’t want my daughter to be happy is that happiness is typically a solitary pursuit. There’s even a mantra in self-help circles: “We’re all responsible for our own happiness.” Well, that sounds pretty lonely. I want my daughter to know deep in her bones that we are all connected, and if that means she has the burden of caring for others (including nature), it also means that someone will always have her back. This interconnectedness also means that that our ability to create a life we value is inextricably intertwined with that of others.
We can better understand this if we change our concept of the self. The Western understanding of the self as isolated or atomistic emerged during the Enlightenment Era, when neoclassical economists assumed that individuals made choices “in a vacuum” to maximize their own—and only their own—self-interests. These academic assumptions about the self spread into mainstream thinking and stuck.
Buddhists see the self differently based on the theory of conditionality, also known as Dependent Origination (paticca samuppada), which conceives of life as a 12-link chain of dependently arising conditions. There is no First Cause, as each depends on the existence of another to come into being, and at the same time, each conditions the arising and existence of yet another. On a few occasions, the Buddha also declared that all things in the world arise continuously in this same way: conditioned by another and subject to the natural law of cause and effect. Thus according to Buddhist teachings, no entity exists independently or permanently, not even the self. And with an interdependent self, one’s choices have far-reaching consequences that may result in a karmic boomerang, clearly expanding the notion of “self-interest.”
I admit that the Buddhist explanation is a bit hard to grasp, but ecosystem scientists have helped us to understand how interdependence functions in nature. Take the food web, for instance. Interrelationshipswithin a food web are such that a change in one element can result in extensive disruption. Polar bears rely on seals for food, but the seal population may decline if Arctic cod disappear. Cod eat zooplankton, which rely on ice algae. If climate change causes sea ice to melt, the ice algae population drops, creating a domino effect that reduces the polar bear population. If we factor humans into that equation, the rationale for expanding our self-interests would be irrefutable.
In light of this interdependence, it’s just not possible to “work on our own happiness” or create a life we value in isolation from others. Wellbeing (as I’ve presented it here) emphasizes our interconnectedness and the interdependence of personal, public, and planetary wellbeing in a way that popular approaches to happiness do not, paving the way for a Good Life for All.
So to my child and yours I say: Don’t be happy. Be well.