Economy Soul

What makes you happy…?

Written by Sven Eberlein

What’s the meaning of happiness? Have we collectively overemphasized its material manifestations? Could we alter our poisoned politics, economy and ecology by the way we define happiness?

A lot of thought and discussion has been given to the exact reasons why we find ourselves in this current economic crisis. There has been ample and cogent analysis pointing out who did what and when to deregulate the banking system and financial markets, as well as a lot of valid ideas as to how to best go about reigning in the fat cats who’ve been feeding at the leaking trough. If there is a silver lining to be found in all of this madness, it’s that the alignment of economic, financial and environmental fiascoes is forcing us to think bigger and outside the box, because every time someone else comes up with another one-dimensional idea for a quick fix, it runs up against a brick wall of a million unanswered questions.

So rather than adding another opinion on whether the stimulus is too small, too large, or just enough, I feel like this is a great time to shift our attention to the Declaration of Independence and that pesky little business of The Pursuit of Happiness.

Einstein quotes seem to be en vogue these days, and there’s good reason for it. After being starved for eight years of any kind of public discourse that appeals to our capacity to look at problems and challenges from a deeper place within ourselves, I think we’re all ready for some extra therapy from the old sage. There couldn’t be a more poignant sentiment to shine a light on the current junction we find ourselves in than this:

No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.

It bears a similar message as the oft-used

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

but its essence is broader, more fundamental, digging deeper into the human psyche, prodding to not cut corners or lose sight of the bigger picture.

I went to high school in Germany, where I was taught in my American history class that the word “happiness” in that famous declaration meant money, or material wealth. This definition was presented to us very matter-of-factly and textbook-like, as if it was just completely normal that money was all that mattered to Americans and that there couldn’t possibly be a different interpretation for this all-important precept. Even as a teenager I was struck by the crassness of this assumption.

While there are a lot of other concepts in the Declaration and the Amendments that are subject to interpretation (What’s Liberty? What’s Freedom? What’s Speech?) and have rightfully been argued over since their initial writ, it’s the elusive concept of happiness, marked as one of the foundational pillars of a dawning nation, that has received only marginal attention.

The easy way out of the complex task of applying the word “happiness” to a lowest common denominator and functional meaning within the context of every citizen’s daily life is undoubtedly to understand it in material terms. We all look a lot happier with a roof over our head and food in our bellies. If you live in a pre-industrial society, add a couple of cows and a horse, and you might even have a smile on your face. If you’re a 21st Century denizen you’re probably thinking that that new car and high speed computer sure make life easier, and no one will hold it against you. There is something about creature comfort that’s undeniably “happy” and joyful.

But happiness is bigger and dwells deeper, and that’s where I believe we — not just in the U.S. but in other industrialized nations and increasingly so in developing countries — have taken our eyes off the real prize and become lazy and superficial in our understanding of the term.

I’d venture to say that most everyone in the west would cringe at the definition of happiness as purely materialistic, and in fact I’d dispute that how much property and how many possessions we have makes up more than a small percentage of our happiness. We all know there’s more to life, that in the end we can’t take any stuff with us, and that our most memorable, happy moments were probably when we were doing anything but taking care of our physical needs. And yet, in light of this truism, we have resorted over and over again to let our material motives supersede our more subtle, soulful — dare I say spiritual — needs. In this collective climate of negligence of a more holistic view on happiness it seems that we have allowed for the more intangible yet immeasurably more powerful part of our happiness to dry up and thus subconsciously enabled the minority of materialistic purists to create a system and environment in which the foibles of greed and mindless accumulation of stuff were allowed to not only be encouraged and fed, but made into concrete legislation and law.

Too ethereal and not reality-based? Better to keep matters of the soul out of the political discourse? Separation of Church and State even? I would respond that materialism the way it has been practiced and preached in this country is religion at its most subversive. If you’re looking for dogma and proselytizing, look no further than the high priests of capitalism marketing junk food, fashion and violence to little kids. In a world where corporations enjoy personhood status and you can hardly function without a credit card it is clear who is pushing the real opium. Not much we can do about that, you say? We’re better off focusing on how to redistribute wealth rather than question our longing for wealth in itself? People only think with their wallets and that’s not going to change, you say? Maybe, but it doesn’t have to be that way. And human beings have proven they can rethink if the system encourages them and allows them to:

In the small Himalayan country of Bhutan, its citizens live by a Gross National Happiness Index, or GNH:

While conventional development models stress economic growth as the ultimate objective, the concept of GNH claims to be based on the premise that true development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other. The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.

There are many encouraging signs in the way President Obama has approached this current situation to transcend the conversation from purely a crisis of banks and resources to a crisis of spirit. His appeals to our sense of service and community, his example of publically showing his love and affection not only for his family, but for random strangers at his townhalls, and his insistence to not get hung up in the petty and small-minded bickering in our discourse but to keep our hearts and souls tuned in to the broader, eternally more gratifying prospects of our common causes, has already elevated the collective consciousness to new levels no one could have dreamed of just a couple of years ago. Again, “no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it,” and we’re fortunate to have elected a President who has tapped into this wisdom.

I do think it’s important to hold those who imparted the most grievous offenses on the “common wealth” accountable, including the bankers, execs, and all the con men who’ve exploited our collective acquiesence in the race for riches, and I think the worst ones will be exposed once the cover of our poisoned understanding of happiness is removed. However, it is all of our responsibilities to evaluate our own relationship to the pursuit of happiness and balance our own emotional and spiritual budgets. The less acceptable a culture of consumption becomes among the people of this country and the world, the less likely it will be for our leaders to thrive in a culture of corruption. Or as Einstein would say:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.

About the author

Sven Eberlein

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  • Hello Sven,
    To your Article I say, “AMEN”!!!

    I am among all those who find it exciting to have a conscious President and First Lady leading this nation. I know it frightens those who don’t have the capacity to see the bigger picture or to understand life from a spiritual vantage point. ( I know many of these folks personally).
    We must remind ourselves often that this has been the repeated story of the masses for thousands of years. It’s the natural instinct of the majority. Cowbell consciousness has reigned supreme and thrived in all societies since time began. Not all beings have Uranus, Neptune and Pluto working in concert in their natal charts!! 🙂
    What makes this moment so rare, is that a door seems to have opened in the wake of extreme stupidity (ie… Bush) and we collectively had the impetus to elect a man of intelligence, integrity and vision to begin to lead us toward the light! It makes me smile everyday!
    Whether we eventually find ourselves standing fully in the Sun under this man’s leadership, remains to be seen, but like a break in the clouds after a long winter storm, this feels ever so good!!
    Thanks for all your wonderful insights my friend!
    Love, Michelle

    • You’re welcome Michelle, and thanks so much for your feedback. Indeed, I feel like there really is an opening now to build on and shift consciousness in a way that moves the parameters of the conversations we’re having. I’m wondering if our shift toward accepting more of a shared economic responsibility also signifies the beginning of a more collective consciousness that understands we’re all part of the same energy, not just physically, but psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, and universally. I intend on pushing the boundaries on this one, and I know you will too.

  • Thank you for a lovely essay.

    Just yesterday, I was thinking about how happiness and love are the two hallmark emotions of being human. Much as I love critters of all kinds, and much as I don’t know where I get off assuming that other sentient creatures don’t experience emotion as we human beans do, intuition tells me that these two emotions are the God-given gifts that make real human life what it is at its best.

    What is love? What is happiness? I can’t say, but I know it when I feel it. Psychologists will tell you though that there are people so emotionally damaged that they are not really capable of experiencing love from or to other people. And there are definitely people whose internal happy-makers have been broken, hence the overflow of psychoactive drugs. What did we do before there was a little pill to take the blues away? I guess, in the best of situations, we turned to each other for help. And that brings me to me next point in this ramble…

    I am human because of you. And you. And you. Real happiness and real love are impossible without healthy connections with other human beings. (Remember Tom Hanks and his coconut head buddy in Cast Away?) Without healthy vibrating creative links with other people, humanity is impossible. That is why we punish people by putting them in jail, not just to remove them from society, but also to take away their their humanity. (Perhaps we should rethink this method and devise another that AUGMENTS rather than DETRACTS humanity from ill-doers? Sorry, feeling a bit Utopian today…)

    Happiness and love come from other living people. Not things. Said so simply, it sounds like a bromide. But I am here to testify that a few years ago when I decided to correct years of head-in-the-sand workaholic isolationism and started gathering old friends to me again, my life started taking a turn for the better in the happy department that just keeps growing. My garden is green.

    Now, I am in love. Randall and I are moving into a beautiful old stone house that actually costs much less to rent than the big modern condo he used to live in. We are diminishing our possessions. We are imaging life in a different way on every level, in large part because of our own evolutions but also spurred by the negative news in the economy. We are battening the hatches, and feeling more free, more happy and, yes, more loving, every day.

    Keep the essays coming! I love the way you think.

  • Dorothy, thank you for such a heartfelt and beautiful comment, that makes me HAPPY! I am looking forward to continuing this dialog with wonderful people such as yourself. Life is so much easier when we don’t chase after things but appreciate the magic and connections already there. I’m picturing you and Randall in your cozy country house, and it brings a smile to my face.