Do Americans even know what they want any longer? Most of the knee jerk answers people offer when asked what they really want seem to offer up something that, realistically, they aren’t ever going to have. Some say they want to be wealthy, but that’s a profoundly subjective goal. Others want to be happy, but are hard pressed to identify what conditions would have to exist for them to be happy. The same is true for contentment and a host of other extremely subjective goals. One of the most telling aspect of these questions are that it is easy to find someone who has achieved the same goal but is miserable. How are we to evaluate what we want to see if we really want it.
I’m sure we have all heard of professional athletes who make an obscene amount of money each year and still don’t feel they are paid what they are worth. Is the problem with their paycheck or with their assessment of their own worth? What does their belief about how much they should be paid say about the source of their self esteem? If I am only the second highest paid wide receiver in professional football, does that really mean I am a failure? If someone else who works in my same field at another company gets a raise and now makes one hundred dollars a year more than I do, would I even think of demanding a raise on that basis?
As long as we believe that the key to happiness lies somewhere outside of our very selves, we will be unhappy. There is nothing that exists outside of us that we can own or bring inside ourselves on any but a temporary basis. There is no physical thing that isn’t going to wear out, break down, and end up in a landfill. Despite that, our capitalist culture seeks to convince us that if we just buy one more thing we will finally be happy. If that doesn’t work, there is always something else to buy.
The truth is that only we can define what will make us happy. It follows that if we do a poor job making those choices, we won’t be happy. The good news is we can refine those choices if we find ourselves off target. I have found that, for me at least, the nature of my relationship with others – and myself – contributes most to my happiness. If I discover that I am not happy, the place I need to look is inward. If I feel like there are things in my life that don’t give it meaning, I am the only one who can identify what those things are and how they need to change. It’s an ongoing process, but that is good news because it means that ultimately I am in charge of my own happiness!