Conversation Topics: Finding Happiness
Transcript of after dinner remarks delivered to the September, 2001, CliqueFriends Meeting

It's a rule of thumb in my line of work -- Industrial Engineering -- to use automation for high volume, highly repetitive tasks (like manufacturing an automobile) and people for low volume, creative or unique tasks. You see, the job of an Industrial Engineer is to help companies produce their products or services in the most efficient way possible, and when the circumstances call for flexibility, no machine can match the flexibility of a human.

We are, by nature, flexible creatures. Now I don't mean that we bend like a Gumby doll -- although the ability to contort our shape does enable us to do tasks that even the best robots cannot match. Rather, I mean that we are adaptable; faced with a challenge, we overcome it -- or else we learn to live with it.

Let me give you a hypothetical example. Suppose that it were possible to measure happiness -- put it on a one to ten scale with, say, ten being the happiest and one being the saddest. I can see some quizzical looks on your faces -- I told you I was an engineer, and you show know that engineers like to quantify things, so don't be surprised. Also, let's not worry about all the particulars; let's just imagine that it would be possible to measure happiness.

If you allow me that, let me try to go a step further. Let's imagine now that we can measure everybody's happiness. I'll meet you half way on this one, if you like, by accepting sampling information instead of having to have everybody step onto the happiness scale to take a reading.. Let's say that we find that we can sample the population --- just like they do for predicting the winners in elections (although with real accuracy). You take a few people from China, a few from India, a few from Europe, a few from Africa, and so on until you get a representative sample of all the people in the world from all backgrounds, living in all conditions, and can come up with a worldwide, average happiness score.

The last step is really fanciful. In addition to gathering the happiness value for today, let's imagine that you can go back in time and conduct the measurements 100 years and 10,000 years ago.

Now the question: who, on average, has the highest level of happiness? Is it our primitive, pre-industrial revolution, cave-dwelling, disease-stricken, ancestors of 10,000 years ago? Is it the turn of the last century, simple old times dwellers of the early 1900's? Or is it we?

My speculation is that the score would be a three-way tie. Here's why I say that: despite all the good that knowledge and technology has brought us in creature comforts and understanding of ourselves and our world, despite all the advances in medicine, despite how healthy and disease-free we are, despite the standard of living that we enjoy that is unmatched by any time in recorded history -- despite all these, I don't think we are really any happier.

Have you ever said, if I only had a million dollars, I would be happy. Well, pick up any tabloid next time you are in the supermarket. The first thing that should strike you is that money, possessions, and all the privileges that fame and fortune offer do little good (if not some harm) for those that possess them. Happiness does not come from having those possessions -- because we adapt to having them, and before you know it, new things become old. We get happiness from the process of getting them, which itself is something we adjust to, and so over time we require an ever increasing rate of new and diverse possessions in order to be happy.

Instead of deriving happiness from possessions things, people have, through all time, been happy because they adapted to their circumstances and then treasured the "little things" that improved it. Imagine our ancestors, huddled around a fire in an otherwise dark and dank cave on a very miserable winter night. They were not suffering -- had it been a truly miserable life, it's unlikely that the human race would have survived. Instead, they were no less happy than you and I are right now in this temperature-controlled, brightly-lit room.

To illustrate this, think back to the last time you got sick. The worst part was when you started getting sick. Being sick wasn't fun, but it wasn't like getting sick. And why not? Because after a while, we begin to adapt to our situation; instinctively, we survive because what we can't (or don't) change, we learn over time to accept. It becomes the "normal" way of life upon which we build.

I picture those cavemen adapted to their lives, becoming all but oblivious to the horrible climatic conditions. Instead, they share the warmth and compassion of each other, they tell stories and jokes -- as you and I are doing now -- and they laugh and smile about little things -- perhaps how tonight isn't quite as cold as last night.

Our society is one that believes that living below the current average standard of living is bad. It tries to raise up the poorest by giving them financial help. But what does that do for their happiness? If you agree with what I've said tonight, if you believe that our higher standard of living hasn't raised our level of happiness -- perhaps only changed the problems that we worry about, then as you go home, think of the ramifications of what it means for how we individually and collectively live our lives. Think in terms of how government programs could be providing happiness, not material things. For isn't it better that all citizens live a happy life rather than a rich life?

Because true happiness comes not from what you have, you need to think about how you are living your life, about the goals that you are striving toward. So, let me leave you with this thought:

True happiness comes from the dreams of what you would like to have. Don't give up striving to achieve, but never attain too much that you leave yourself without a dream.

Updated October 1, 2003 - go to our home or life advice page