I have been looking for a way to up my game on a daily basis, so I decided to look into some self-improvement classes. I really like the site Coursera for on-line courses. You can take classes from liberal arts, STEM, business, education and even generalized science. In fact, they have partnered with several universities to promote full fledged degree programs, and even Google is using their platform for their IT certificate program. (Note- I did try the Google program. All I did was get confused.) I have earned several certificates from them in both entrepreneurship (Wharton), and self-branding. The professors are generally tenured, and the courses full of useful information.
What I found was a class from Yale about the “science of well-being.” You might recall this course was talked about a lot on the news, and social media, because of it’s original use of statistical evidence to prove that oft cited life lesson, “money can’t buy happiness.” Now the professor is engaging, even charming. The idea of the class intriguing. I found one major flaw, however. It is geared to college students that do not live in a real world environment. It is not for grown-ups.
The class begins with you taking some tests that would tell you your personality strengths and weaknesses. It is all based on your own recollection of who you are. Truth be told, if you are a narcissist then your test will show you to be a strong person, engaging and well liked, or if you are an introvert, it will show you to be unfriendly. None of these findings may actually be based on hard evidence. Anecdotal reality doesn’t make it realistic. The issue isn’t that these researches aren’t trying to gauge personalities. The issue is that it relies on people’s own self perception, and that quite frankly can be delusional from one extreme to the other. But that in, and of itself, isn’t the issue I had with the course.
The problem arose in the introduction. We began the course by talking about how we feel when certain things happen in life. The idea that we will feel happy or sad when we get a particular job. Or what we feel when our income goes up. The overall perception of ourselves when we get good grades (this should have been my first indication that the course wasn’t geared toward my age group as grades have not been a factor in my life for decades).
The statistical findings were that once you rise above $75,000 a year, here in the US or in the first world (the professor made a point that this does not correlate to underdeveloped nations where people do not have their basic needs met) your level of happiness does not really rise that much. In fact, as you earn more you feel less happy. She also pointed to findings that people in the late 1940s, who had less material wealth were much happier than people in the present.
I do understand the idea that as you earn more you feel less happy, because you may be surrounded by people who actually could be earning more than you and can afford better items. It’s the material carousel game. Or what we used to call “keeping up with the Joneses.” We are unhappy because our neighbor can afford a Mercedes, while we can only afford a Honda. Here, I wouldn’t say that money is the route of the problem. I would say that screwed up priorities are the route of the problem.
How then do you help yourself? You first, and foremost, need to stop comparing yourself to others, and what they have. The professor did cite social media for an overall lack of self esteem in society today. But it’s not social media’s fault that people are jealous of one another. Quite frankly, it’s either poor upbringing, or human nature. But again it comes down to terrible priorities.
If we created a society that put proper emphasis on issues, and items, then we wouldn’t be depressed when we can’t afford that $10,000 vacation but someone else can. Now interestingly, this course is also given at a school that costs upwards of $70,000 a year to attend, and most of the students are going to walk away with extraordinary debt. So in conjunction with this course, maybe Yale needs to also get their priorities straight as well and add to the happiness of their students by making education, and not money, the college’s priority-just saying. (Something tells me that the students would be much happier if they had enough money to get an education, and not be saddled with life effecting debt….But I digress.)
I also found that the information about historical anomalies and happiness unscientific. Not because they didn’t have a sound reason for their outcome, and findings. But because they failed to take into account historical, and societal realities. Were people in the late 1940s happier than we are today? Yes. I have no doubt about the findings. It is simply that the researchers failed to address some basic truths:
- Most families had just survived the great depression, and they were thankful for jobs.
- Everyone just survived WW2, and the majority of adult males had fought in that war. Living through the horrors of war gives one a sense of real priorities, and a gladness that they are still alive.
- Moreover, the GI bill allowed these veterans to educate themselves in order to improve their family’s standard of living exponentially to what they had during the depression.
- US society was on the upswing economically. The idea of the “American dream” was born.
- There was a gratitude about life and the future. Not an entitlement to something someone else had, and that you did not work for.
Today we have not lived through horrors equivalent to world war. While, we in New York remember 9/11 and in fact, the husband works next to the memorial, our existence as a nation is not threatened daily. While we have been a nation at war for almost two decades, the majority of people in this country are not involved with these wars, and are not effected by it in any way, shape or form. Ironically, if you actually look at a nation that lives with the reality of extermination, say Israel, you will find that they are in the top nations of happiness. (Granted the Scandinavian countries top the list per se, but that has more to do with how their society prioritizes what is, and is not, important.)
Moreover, we also have reached peeked “American Dream.” No more will the upcoming generation live better material lives than their parents. (I am not certain why that is considered a bad thing.) Yes they will have access to better and more evolving tech, but that doesn’t mean that we see that as something to strive for as opposed to something that we are entitled to.
In fact, I think the entitlement idea is also a major reason why people are less happy today than in the late 1940s. Our society has become used to the idea that we are entitled to certain “give-mes” from the government. Now, that isn’t an entirely bad thing. Healthcare does come to mind, as does a quality education, as part and parcel of the societal contract. But what happens when you start feeling entitled to something is to also resent when someone else has something you do not have. As I mentioned above the keeping up with the Joneses mentality of competition, and material success, has a decidedly negative effect on how you view the world around you.
When there is also more to have, the less you have, makes the average human feel less successful, and hence less happy with themselves, and less pleased with their lives. In all honesty, it again comes down to priorities. If a person redirected what they consider a sign of success, then they could be as happy as person were in the late 1940s, and maybe even happier.
I think it comes down to how we also view the world. In the late 1940s we viewed everything as getting better. We had hope. We had the notion that nothing was out of reach. But as many political scientists point out today, for some reason the average person has a negative view of the progress being made today. This sense is also far from the truth. This would then lead to the interesting question, why does society view the world as having gone backwards, when by every measure worldwide things have actually gotten better?
This is a disconcerting phenomena: as things get better, we think they’re actually getting worse. Why? My personal view, is that the information gathering organizations find the old saying “if it bleeds it leads” to be the way to make money. Clickbait garners advertising dollars. So what we mostly see, hear, read about is entirely negative. When we are inundated with negative information, then we only see the world in negative realities. If someone did an analysis of the media perceptions in the 1940s, I would hazard a guess that the news was much more positive than it is today. Hence, another reason for a less positive view of our world today, as opposed to the 1940s.
Now, as I also mentioned above the correlation between money and happiness, cited in this course, also flies in the face of personal reality. The professor mentioned that people generally are not happier when they start making over $75,000. I actually remember when the news made a very big deal about this study. She also poo-pooed anyone who questioned these findings. She actually said that the “but ifs.,” are self delusional.
The truth is, if you are a 23 year old college graduate, and you are making enough to pay for your necessities, eat well, pay your student loans, and still have money left over for some fun things, then you are happy. As your life improves it is merely that material reality of better items, rather than personal well-being, that become a priority. And yes, that isn’t necessarily going to buy you happiness. Priorities. Priorities.
She cited the extraordinary amount of money spent on playing the lottery as an indication of people’s misplaced view that money can buy happiness. Money will not solve your existential crisis, or give you that sense that everything is going to be really good now. Yes, we all have heard the horror stories of the lottery winners who have lost everything and ended up worse off than they were before they won. They’ve even made a TV show about it. (The success of this show, of course, says more about people’s own jealousy than it really does about the lottery winners’ foibles.)
But the majority of us are not children just out of school. We are adults with families, with bills, with stress that comes from raising these families. The idea of “money and happiness” comes not from the notion that there will be angels at our doors, and that we will have our own theme music following us wherever we go. The idea is that if we can just pay off those bills, and put some money aside, then there would be less worry in our world. It does not mean every problem will be solved. But the truth is that the majority of problems people have do stem from a lack of money.
In fact, and I do speak from personal feelings, as the parent of two special needs children, money is a big factor in the well-being of your family. With money you can give your child more therapies. With money you can give them a better education. With money you can pay off those extraordinary medical bills. If you didn’t have to constantly work to keep your head above water, this would enable you to spend more time with your child helping them to work on the life skills they need in order to become fully realized productive adults.
And quite frankly, and this is a big one- if you had money you could fully fund a special needs trust, where your child would not be at the mercy of some governmental bureaucracy for their food, shelter and care after you have died. Because you ARE going to die, and they are going to be on their own, or what passes for “on their own” in their special need world. With a fully funded trust, they would have an independent means of paying for what they need. They may need a guardian to look after them, but it won’t be some overworked, government social worker, but someone you appoint, who actually cares about their day-to-day lives and existence. Financial independence goes along way to not being at the mercy of a cynical political system.
Just look at the brouhaha over social security disability, and medicaid payments now. The politics is enraging. The changes proposed to medicaid for the disabled would actually effect whether people could have medical support or care, never mind transportation to work, the supermarket, or even the ability to see the doctors they need for survival. Living under the largesse of a political system that does not value your existence, nor understand what it takes to give you an independent life, marginalizes your very existence. Believe me when I tell you, this does not invoke happiness.
So what you are actually getting, as a special needs parent, if you had money is “peace of mind for the future.” And believe me when I tell you that peace of mind, goes along way in making a person happy. So the professor can say the “but ifs…” only prove that we are unable to evaluate our own sense of happiness realities. But then again, I wonder if she ever lost an untold number of nights of sleep thinking of ways to protect her autistic children’s future when she is no longer alive.
So yeah, I unenrolled in this course.
Meanwhile, I’m still looking for a relevant self-improvement program.