Simplicity is the examined life: making conscious choices about our behaviors in terms of the well-being of people and the planet. If we don’t examine our lives, we’ll be at the mercy of others’ expectations.
There are powerful forces working to shape our behavior — advertising, politicians and religions are the obvious ones. Our behavior is also shaped by the expectations of our schools, our parents and our friends. And all of these share the same goal: They pressure us to focus on making lots of money.
But wealth is not the central ingredient of happiness, and happiness has been on the decline. What does bring real happiness? What truly benefits people and the planet?
‘Hierarchy of needs’
Even though there’s much new research on happiness, it’s interesting to look at the work of Abraham Maslow, who, in 1943, explored what he called our “hierarchy of needs.”
First is the need for survival: We need air, water, food and shelter.
Next comes safety needs: We need to feel safe and protected.
Next are the social needs. We need family, friends, community and the public good.
Then come esteem needs: We need others’ respect, as well as our own self-respect. We need to use our own unique abilities for goals and a sense of challenge.
Finally, self-actualization — becoming the self you truly are. This involves a commitment to a higher purpose, finding a way of making the world a better place.
Maslow called these needs because if they are not fulfilled, there are negative consequences. Obviously, if a baby doesn’t get food, it will die; but if it doesn’t get love, it will grow into a violent, cruel person. If we don’t have respect, we will lack faith in ourselves and treat others with disdain. If we don’t find a purpose, our lives are diminished, and we become selfish and greedy, not caring about the common good.
But Maslow’s pyramid is a little deceptive. Each of those levels have something in common: social ties. Without other people we can’t survive, feel safe, feel respected or even feel actualized. It all involves people. But as I’ve said many times in this column, social cohesion has been severely undermined. Trust has declined dramatically; incivility haunts us.
There are many reasons — in particular, we work too many hours, and we don’t have time to come together. But probably the most important reason we’re so isolated is that we don’t understand the great need for social connections. We have always been a culture that admired self-reliance and individuality.
And because we do not realize that true security lies in other people, we have turned to wealth and possessions for a false security.
A vicious circle
But we’re caught in a vicious circle: The more we’re concerned with money, the less time we have for others (making and managing money takes time). When we’re mainly concerned with money, others are our adversaries — we’re all competing for limited resources.
Research has found that the more we think about money, the worse our social skills are. We become narcissistic and selfish, causing our social skills to decline further. The myth of individualism is so deep that we don’t understand how much we need each other.
At a fundamental level, we believe that being rich will make us happy, and since spending time with others brings no financial benefit, we neglect our friends and community.
We’ve got lots of problems in this country, and most of them come from a failure of a commitment to the common good. It’s a failure to understand that we’re all connected, that we need each other, that we’re all in this together.
Simplicity is a philosophy that asks us to make conscious choices, to think through the consequences of our actions. In our frantic, frenetic lives we need to take time to reflect; we need to take time to talk with other people.
Opportunities for happiness
There are several opportunities in June to explore the topic of happiness further:
- Gross National Happiness: Green Festival panel, on Sunday, June 6, at 5 p.m.
- Gross National Happiness: Karma Tshiteem, Secretary of the Bhutan Gross National Happiness Commission, on Monday, June 7, 7:30 p.m. at St. John United Lutheran Church, North 55th Street and Phinney Avenue North (by donation)
- Happiness Series, on Mondays, June 21 through July 5, 7:30 p.m. at St. John United Lutheran Church, North 55th Street and Phinney Avenue North (free).
CECILE ANDREWS is the author of “Less is More,” “Slow is Beautiful” and “Circle of Simplicity.”