I received a powerful personal insight recently – an insight that connects my life as a happiness researcher with some of my experiences growing up.
In my professional life
In my role as a researcher I’ve spoken about how money and consumption have a limited role in bringing people happiness once basic needs are met. And yet, despite this limited role that money has for happiness, as individuals, as societies, vast amounts of energy are still being put into obtaining more money and ever higher levels of consumption.
Why is this happening? Although it’s not completely certain (there are a few interesting psychological explanations) one thing does seem fairly clear. In trying to obtain more money and ever higher consumption levels we are likely sacrificing the very things in life that are much more important for our happiness – relationships, mental and physical health, our individual personality. If more is wanted then more work will have to be done, and the near inevitable result of this is that there is less time for other important things.
In my personal life
It’s always been important for me to align my personal life with my professional research ideas on happiness. I’ve found that doing so has been integral to finding everyday meaning and purpose in what I do. Resultantly I have tried to build a life that relies on less income, less consumption, yet leaves plenty of time for other more happiness enhancing things – such as developing relationships with others, tending to my physical and emotional self with care, and obtaining a bit more understanding for my life. I’ve not always got it right but overall I have witnessed seismic shifts in my way of being over the years and on the whole I’m happier for it.
However, I’ve always attributed my tenacity to want to demonstrate a different way of being primarily to the insights I’ve gained in my role as a happiness researcher. Yet I’m beginning to think that my tenacity for this has a deeper root. Perhaps, I’m beginning to think, there was some inevitability in what I’m doing and the message I am trying to convey that emanates from my experience growing up.
Difficulties have been arising
This year I have experienced some very difficult moments (a major relationship breakdown, a highly unstable living situation, difficulties in my work) and I have felt deep anguish, and a great deal of pain and sadness. It all seems so uncannily familiar – patterns repeating – and the core disturbance never seems to get dealt with. And so at present I’m engaging in some deeper personal introspection to understand how and why I’ve come to be the way I am. I’ve been doing this with the help of various therapeutic means (e.g., intensive counselling, dance, meditation, yoga, and exploring authentic communication).
One particularly powerful insight shared
I’d like to believe my childhood was a happy one but in tracking back I remember being distressed in my early years. I didn’t know why, I couldn’t articulate what was going on inside of me, and there didn’t seem to be anyone around who was willing and able to help me understand what was going on either. I was lonely, often angry, and I also have vivid memories of feeling physically cold. There was something happening inside and now the time is ripe for me to attempt a connection with that small child’s experience. My distress, as far as I can track it, seemed to begin when we moved home. I was 5 years old then; I’d only just started school. It was an unsettling period. We’d moved from a small terraced house on a quiet road to a semi-detached house on a busy road. The new house had a garden; we had more space, a bedroom each even – the new house was bigger. And so, one might suppose, life would be better?
I wonder if my distress at the time was some innate knowing of my own needs – children are wonderfully perceptive – that this move was perhaps not wise. The new house was much bigger and without doubt more expensive. So I now ask my-self did I witness first-hand what it was like to be sacrificed for the sake of having bigger, and supposedly better? I can understand my parents wanting to create what they thought would be a better life for their family but perhaps it wasn’t such a good choice.
Always a financial struggle
Things were always financially tight growing up. I’m keenly aware that there was always what seemed like a financial struggle. My parents were always “skint” even with both working, my dad as a milkman, and my mum as a cleaner/shop assistant. They were doing all they could just to pay the bills and there was little leftover.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have been such a strain if we’d stayed in our much smaller old house. I was happy sharing the orange carpeted bedroom with my brother (early happy memories with that orange carpet). I was happy on the quiet tranquil street. I felt warm and protected.
I wonder whether my parents themselves sacrificed some important things in life. I wish my parents had had more time to tend to their selves, and to tend to and understand me as a child. Instead I remember my parents being harried and stressed and oftentimes I thought it was my fault. I was distressed growing up and I’m still not sure why, but no-one sought to try and find out. Perhaps my own distress at the time was an unpalatable reminder to my parents that the life choice they had just made came at too high a cost.
So perhaps my present desire to not sacrifice the true happiness providing things in life for the sake of more money and consumption is motivated by more than just my research findings. Is it something I perhaps feel on a deeper existential level? Maybe this is why it deeply saddens me when I observe this sacrificial pattern on such a wide scale. I find it sad that there is little encouragement to be any other way. It has been a simple yet effective message – buy this and you’ll be happy. But the happiness, if there is any, never lasts for long and comes at a cost.
Raising consciousness and the cycle of sacrifice
It seems somehow absurd to me that I’d never made this connection before. But then I’ve not dug around much in my experiences as a child and so how could I have made this connection. I now wonder if my lack of consciousness surrounding my own childhood trauma may have inhibited my ability to credibly demonstrate in my personal life this important message.
For quite a large period of time I used to live in my tent up in the hills near work. Each day I’d head up to the hills after work, choose a nice spot depending on my fancy, cook up some food, enjoy sleeping in the fresh air, and have one of the most joyful commutes to work the next morning. This was an inspiring and often exhilarating experience and I learnt a lot about my-self. I had much less things (I still smile about having all my possessions hidden in filing cabinets at work), I was physically fitter, and I’d temporarily solved the problem of having to pay rent.
I was happier with regard to the simplicity of my life but I’m aware now that something was missing. It was a very lonely time in my life. I was largely cut-off and isolated from people. It seems apparent to me now that in trying to demonstrate that it’s possible to live well with less I may have just sacrificed the same important things but in a slightly different way. Perhaps by not being fully conscious of my childhood trauma I was perhaps destined to repeat the sacrifice in a slightly different way.
Maybe, maybe not! The important thing is that I am taking time to become more conscious of some of my childhood experiences. That in itself is valuable to me. It’s not been easy and there is still much more for me to work on but I’m feeling hugely hopeful – and maybe even a little happier too.