The Search for Happiness
Tuesday dawn, July 7, 2009 –
Land in Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima, Peru. After eight hours in the air flying southwest, from New York to Lima, I finally disembark, marveling yet again at a new country I have never visited, with a culture and language of their own, yet people not unlike anywhere else, who shed the same tears and cast the same smiles as we do in New York and elsewhere in the world.
Something strange going on at this airport. Airport officials, vendors, attendants and just about everyone working in the terminals is wearing a surgical mask! It feels like being in a hospital. Are they allergic to Americans? Are they hypochondriacs, or are they protecting themselves from infections of the profane world?
I discover that none of the above is correct. It’s swine disease that they are protecting themselves against. So why the heck aren’t they distributing these masks to all of us? It seems weird that the traveling passengers walk around unprotected while all the “officials” are covered in masks, as if saying that “we need to protect ourselves for you alien carriers?” like in some surreal science fiction movie.
Oh well, it is after all 6:30 in the morning, and after a grueling all night flight, I may be dreaming…
A driver takes me to my hotel. Rumor has it that in Lima many people have drivers, and even the drivers have drivers… I’m wondering whether I got a driver or a driver of a driver. Is this my ego speaking or is it my Divine soul trying to understand why some of us are drivers and others are being driven?
Arrive at Libertador Hotel, in Lima’s quiet financial district – an elegant place with spacious suites, good showers and comfortable beds (just in case you were planning a trip here and need a recommendation).
On the lobby’s big screen I see the live broadcast of the Michael Jackson memorial, being beamed across the globe on CNN and other cable networks. They estimate that two billion people are watching this. Two billion.
Throughout the day this memorial was played and replayed again and again. And when that became too exhausting, the programmers began feeding the airwaves with a non-stop diet of interviews. Every doctor, chauffeur and plastic surgeon – every possible consultant and expert – was marched on the screen, in a steady farcical flow of one pundit more ridiculous than the previous one, speculating on everything from Jackson’s cause of death to his parenting, from his skin to his nose, medical advisors discussing various medications, analyzing rumors and speculations, with about as much wisdom that anyone watching could equally dispense.
I came to Lima to participate in a conference on Happiness. Is this – the addictive display of Michael Jackson’s life – making people happy? I understand that his music and dance – as a brilliant performer – lifted many hearts, helped people escape for a while from their troubles. I see the people crying over Jackson’s untimely death. But have we taken this “celebrity worship” too far? Are people playing out their own lives through celluloid heroes, replacing their own challenges, escaping from their own struggles, by watching the “movie” of other lives?
And what about sensitivity to those that passed? Is there a point when we can leave Michael Jackson rest in peace? His bizarre life, all under the spotlight, must have been difficult enough. “Leave him be, and go live your own life,” was one of my many thoughts in a Lima lobby.
It’s just staggering to think about the amount of hours the networks dedicated to this story. Even more staggering is the amount of hours people everywhere have spent – wasted – on watching these displays. Is there any practical benefit coming out of all this? Are relationships being mended, marriages strengthened, families built, psyches healed? Is anyone becoming more refined, more giving, more anything – besides for more informed about Michael’s intimate details?
Trust me, I’m not being judgmental and critical. I see the allure and can easily fall into the same addictive trap. That is the hypnotic power of the visual. What is even more hypnotic is when these images and stories are being watched by almost everyone and everywhere you go. Did I come to Lima to become educated about mass hysteria and mass hypnosis?
My thoughts turn to the words of my colleague, David Fischman, who shared the podium with me in this conference on the nature of happiness.
David is an acclaimed author, having penned five books, including The Secret of the Seven Seeds: A Parable of Leadership and Life (Jossey-Bass, 2006). A civil engineer by training, David is a well-known and highly respected personality in Peru. He is dedicated, as he shared with me, to use his skills to serve and better people’s lives.
This conference, which was held in a large, packed hall in Lima, was moderated by a famous Peruvian sports announcer, who asked us each two questions: “What is happiness?” and “How does one find happiness?” After each question we each had thirty minutes to respond.
Among the many fascinating studies and statistics that Mr. Fischman presented, one struck me in particular: by age 10 the average child in the Western world has seen one million advertisements. Denmark, Fischman pointed out, was rated in a recent study as the country with the happiest people, and is also the country with the least amount of public advertising. Fischman suggested that perhaps happiness is directly linked to the amount of options we are offered. Those with higher exposure to advertisements hawking all types of wares, covet more and are therefore become more miserable not be able to fulfill all their desires. In Denmark, where they are not that exposed to advertisements and all the options they offer, people are more content with what they have. Confirming the idiom: Happiness results from being at peace with wanting what you have, instead of having what you want.
So where does that leave Americans, who are inundated more than most with an insatiable diet of products and services? With 24/7 cable and internet platforms streaming images of Michael Jackson experts or whatever. How happy are people in the most prosperous country that ever existed (the United States)? How content are those most exposed – addicted, is more like it – to the sophisticated marketing machines, pumping a unquenchable diet of pictures and stories assaulting our psyches, violating our souls, convincing us that we need this and that, opening us to options we could never have fantasized on our own? You can imagine that the US doesn’t come out on top of the happiness scale. (But don’t feel so bad: Pakistan and Iraq rated lower).
So we are addicted consumers, who feel freer than ever in our endless choices, and our ability to buy anything we want. But are we actually free, or are we buying into a very manipulative marketing force – a modern-day, sophisticated version of “snake oil salesmen?”
And how does this bode for our relationships? Since we have before us an infinite menu of options, with the delusion that they are all available to us, how committed can we ever be to one person?
Interesting isn’t it? Is it possible that our success and comforts are also our undoing? Can it be that our unprecedented high standard of living, our technologies and ease of access to anything we can possible desire – and even to things that we would never have dreamed of desiring – can also be the cause of our misery?
And if so, is the only option frugality? The simple life?
But before this makes anyone too, ahem… unhappy or depressed, please bear in mind that happiness is not a result of how much we possess or don’t possess. True, there are those who have very little but are very happy, and those that own much and are miserable. But there are also people with little who are very unhappy and prosperous people who are very happy.
What I shared at the conference is that happiness is not a verb, but a noun. It is not driven by actions, acquisitions – going out and buying something. Objects can make us happy for a while, but happiness is a state of being. And each of us is inherently a happy person. We were born happy. Just witness children. And then due to sad attitudes of those around us we learn to become unhappy, and the inherent happiness in our souls gets buried beneath layers of despondency driven by many forces – insecurities, fears, and yes, also all those options that marketers are selling us, promising… happiness.
The key to happiness is thus accessing your inner self and realizing that whatever you acquire in life is a blessing and an opportunity. A blessing: a humble recognition that despite your efforts, your gifts are blessings that should never be taken for granted and never seen as a sole result of “my own strength and personal power” (Deuteronomy 8:17). An opportunity to use your gifts and resources to serve – to help others and improve your corner of the world.
Instead of being a victim, standing on the receiving end of all the “news,” “ads” and “messages” being streamed into your brain and heart, recognize that your happiness springs from within, and that all the options that come your way are meant to be used to fulfill your higher calling.
So prosperity is a blessing. Our high standard of living a gift. Our technologies and comforts an opportunity – a spiritual opportunity to sublimate the universe in which we live.
How much exposure, then, do we allow ourselves and our children to the “merchants” and “peddlers” of the world? The less the better. Especially in our earlier, formative years, we need to first build up our inner sense of purpose – our internal compass – before we can navigate well. At that stage it is critical not to be overwhelmed by the barrage of external “noise” of money and the marketplace, which drowns out and interferes with the “subtle” sounds of our own souls. We must first discover the end before learning about the means, lest we confuse the two. Before we expose ourselves to the “voices” out there – and G-d knows, there are many such voices clamoring for our attention – we must first discover our “inner” voice.
In the world in which we live we inevitably are exposed to far too much “information” –coming at us from every direction: Our streets, screens, stadiums, telephones, mobile devices, books, newspapers, tee shirts, billboards. The list goes on and on. We therefore ought to bear in mind both indispensable messages:
The more you minimize your exposure the happier you will be. The sages tell us: Be satisfied with the minimum (mistapek b’muet), and: Who is wealthy? the one satisfied with his lot.
On the other hand, whatever does come your way – and whatever you do acquire in your life pursuits – always remember: These are gifts and opportunities bestowed upon you not merely for your personal gain; but to transform your world into a sublime environment.
Best regards from Lima, Peru.