Most of us were brought up to “think big.” We were encouraged to strive for the best grades, the best position on the basketball team, an acceptance letter from the biggest and best university, the most prestigious job with a big company, big paychecks and bigger raises, and “trading up” from starter home to McMansion. As adults, we compare ourselves to our neighbors and friends to see who has the larger diamond engagement ring, the nicer SUV, the most professional landscaping, and the better clothing labels. We feel cheated and depressed when someone has more than we do. We are brainwashed to want more, no matter how much we already have, and we are never really satisfied.
We are told this is the American Way.
Has “thinking big” worked for us? Sure. We’ve made huge strides in medicine and science. We’ve enjoyed a high standard of living. We’ve reveled in great personal freedom. Has all this made us happy? Sort of.
Science Daily reported a story on the relatively new “Map of Happiness” created by Adrian White, a social psychologist at the University of Leicester. White used data from UNESCO, the CIA, and other sources to rank countries according to self-reported happiness and satisfaction with life. The results showed that happiness seems to be related to three primary factors: health, wealth, and access to education. The United States ranked 23rd. Denmark ranked 1st. Canada ranked 10th. Great Britain came in at 41.
I guess we aren’t doing too bad.
When it comes right down to it, money does make you happier . . . up to a point. David R. Francis reports on the following conclusions from a study by David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald for the National Bureau for Economic Research (http://www.nber.org/digest/jan06/w11416.html):
1. For a person, money does buy a reasonable amount of happiness. But it is useful to keep this in perspective. Very loosely, for the typical individual, a doubling of salary makes a lot less difference than life events like marriage.
2. Nations as a whole, at least in the West, do not seem to get happier as they get richer.
3. Happiness is U-shaped in age – that is, it falls off for a while, then stabilizes, and rises later in life. Women report higher well-being than men. Two of the biggest negatives in life are unemployment and divorce. More educated people report higher levels of happiness, even after taking account of income.
4. At least in industrial countries such as France, Britain, and Australia, the structure of a happiness equation looks the same.
5. There is adaptation. Good and bad life events wear off – at least partially – as people get used to them.
6. Comparisons matter a great deal. Reported well being depends on a person’s wage relative to an average or “comparison” wage. Wage inequality depresses reported happiness in a region or nation. But the effect is not large.
According to these analyses, some wealth is necessary for happiness. The countries with the greater wealth tended to be higher on the happiness scale, though not in direct proportion. Money provides for basic necessities like shelter, food, and clothing. Money buys us greater autonomy in lifestyle choices. It is important to remember that health and access to education were also important factors. So, a country with less money than the U.S. can raise the happiness level of its citizens by providing health care and education, even if it doesn’t raise the overall GDP of the country. These factors probably launched Denmark to spot #1. Here in America, we’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed a great abundance of wealth. It’s made us pretty happy.
So what happens when the money runs out? Are we doomed to unhappiness?
The economy is still staggering from the housing market bubble of 2008. Looking ahead, we see that energy costs are bound to go up. Workers have been laid off, people are losing their houses and their health insurance. It seems entirely possible that for the first time in our history, the younger generations will have less than the ones which came before. The question is, can we still be happy, even with less? If happiness is somewhat dependent on comparisons, could we learn to compare factors other than wealth?
By thinking small, could we actually live big?
It isn’t as if this is a new concept. Henry David Thoreau experimented with voluntary simplicity. In Walden, he wrote:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”–Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
At Walden Pond, Thoreau chose to live in a small cabin and to write about his experiences. Today, some enterprising architects are also thinking small when it comes to housing.
One of my favorite websites to visit is the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. I first heard about it from my friend, Jenny, and I’ve been intrigued ever since. These houses are truly tiny–65 to 837 square feet. Take a look at them here. The smallest of them can be built on wheels and parked like an RV. They are engineered down to fractions of inches so that the spaces are marvelously functional. The architect/builder Jay Shafer, lives in an 89 square foot house with built-in shelves, a sleeping loft, a bathroom that IS the shower, and even a small, propane fireplace!
Jay says, “The simple, slower lifestyle my homes have afforded is a luxury for which I am continually grateful.”
The tiny Tumbleweed Houses are cheaper to build or buy, are cheaper to heat, and they are mobile–all of which means greater autonomy and security for the owner.
Speaking of mobility, do we really need large automobiles to make us feel successful and happy? Legroom is a concern for many of us Americans. We are big people and seem to be getting bigger all the time. According to a study found in the American Center for Disease Control, men and women have gained 24 pounds on average since 1960 and have grown an extra inch in height. For those of us who are on the smaller side, however, a small car might be just as satisfying as a big, awkward SUV. Take the SmartCar, for example. It can fit into tight parking spaces, gets 46.3 miles per gallon in the city and 68.9 miles per gallon on the highway, and it’s cute!
Of course, if you live in the city, you could probably save yourself many headaches by not owning a car at all. Fewer headaches equals greater happiness in my book.
Unfortunately, I live out in the country. One of my goals for the summer is to try riding my bicycle to the grocery store in town rather than driving the red behemoth Ford F-150 I’ve been driving ever since my 1992 Escort became scrap metal this winter. If you happen to be driving toward the market, I’ll be the geek with the day-glo orange flag on the back of my bike. Please observe the speed limit, and for God’s sake, stay off your cell phone while you drive!
Perhaps the key to happiness is being more aware of what makes us truly happy. If our basic needs–shelter, food, clothing, education, and healthcare–are met, what’s to stop us from being happy with less stuff, smaller houses, and more fuel-efficient cars? Perhaps if we stopped comparing ourselves to our neighbors, we’d be happier with what we already have instead of feeling somehow “lesser.” Take a moment to think about what truly makes you happy . . . not just for the short term but over time. I bet it isn’t your house or your car.
I feel fortunate to live here in the United States where my basic needs are met and then some. As the economy slows and energy costs rise, we will need to continue to be thankful for those basics and perhaps learn to do with fewer of the extras that in the end, are really nothing more than notches on a measuring stick. Like Thoreau, we can perhaps try to live more deliberately. Like Jay Shafer, we can learn to enjoy the luxury of a simpler, slower lifestyle. In the future, thinking small may be the key to living large.