On Being Happy...

Still on my post-DNC high (thank you Michelle Obama) I spent Saturday morning canvassing in Virginia for the Obama Campaign. The campaign's 'Weekend of Action' was perfectly orchestrated to preserve the energy and emotions roused by the convention. I was grouped with a driver, a lady about my grandmother's age, and two other team members and sent off on our mission with printed driving instructions for where we would meet a Virginia community team leader for training and further instruction. We covered an entire neighborhood in three hours. Most people were extremely friendly, some even offered a glass of water. Conversations, if anyone answered the door, tended to last about two minutes. But the longest and most interesting conversation by far was with a federal employee, who rambled during a break from his lawn mowing, about how his vote would be based on who would cause the least damaging changes to him directly. His view of direct impact was narrowly focused on his job, which he assessed was secure regardless of who ran the country. Following the guidelines we had been given for such conversations, I tried to relate to his points by acknowledging that most votes are ultimately based on self-interest. But he insisted that his logic was different, admitting, 'It might sound bad, but I don't care about what's good for the country, I just care about what's good for me." We continued chatting politely, but his point had been heard.

Later that day my husband and I watched a documentary, aptly titled Happy, exploring the meaning and substance of happiness. When asked what one wants out of life, almost everyone claims 'to be happy' is the goal. But obviously we have very different visions of what this means and plans for how to achieve it. There were a few incredible stories of people and communities who survived extreme trauma or were materially poor and yet were undeniably happy.  The two key ingredients across the array of diverse examples was a realization that life is a gift and that the most precious part of that gift is our connection to other people. Whether they be lovers, friends, family or strangers, our relationship with others is a huge, if not the most significant, element in our own happiness or unhappiness. 

Photo by Pete Souza - White House
This made me think a little bit more than I had before about the link between empathy and happiness. If human connection is at the core of happiness, then empathy, which is simply a distillation of that connection, is its essence. I had mentioned empathy in my earlier conversation with the federal employee in an attempt to broaden his voting decision criteria; he had all but smirked at the word.

The documentary also provided some examples of communities and countries that proactively seek to create an environment that enables happiness. Sadly the U.S. was not on the list. Scandinavian countries like Denmark provide free quality education through college, universal healthcare, and co-housing opportunities to support inter-generational communal living. Bhutan, a small kingdom in South Eastern Asia, remains the only nation in the world to measure Gross National Happiness and value it more than Gross National Product. While Bhutan has not been as serene as it may seem (the government expelled ethnic Nepali Hindus in the 1990s), they do seem to be onto something. 

As Americans, we pride ourselves in the fact that we have an inalienable right to the 'pursuit of happiness' and yet we have far to go to actually exercise this right as a nation. Young people spend more time in front of screens than interacting with others in person (check out the iphone spoof poking fun of this state of 'connectivity'). We grow out of our passion, idealism, and creativity to work most of our lives in isolation from the people and pursuits we love. We grow old and are managed as burdens rather than treasured for the richness of our experiences and knowledge. Surely sprinkling material wealth on a faulty paradigm does not add up to happiness. 

How refreshing would it be to hear someone speak about our happiness index during a campaign? One of the qualities that makes President Obama so appealing is his empathetic ability. He seems to understand how we are all connected and appreciate the significance of that connection. But he can only change so much by himself. The federal employee I spoke with is the product of something much larger: a value system, a lifestyle, an upbringing that lacks empathy at its root. We need a sociocultural shift, one that prioritizes empathy in addition to hard work, ambition, integrity and all those other basic American middle class values. The American Dream should be more than owning a home and being financially comfortable; it should include having a wealth of empathy to support high quality relationships with friends and family, with enough left over to actually care about the well-being of everyone else.

Photo by Pete Souza - White House

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