By Rana Askoul
Recently I attended the Boldtalks Woman 2014 event in Dubai. This intimate gathering highlighted issues relevant to our society with the ultimate goal of inducing discussion, debate and solutions. One of the sessions spoke about positive psychology, the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. It was filled with interesting insights and practical advice, but one piece of information was particularly mind-blowing to me.
The expert speaker declared that the rates of depression within our societies are at an all-time high. What was mind-blowing was the fact that the level of wealth, beyond covering our basic needs, has no impact on improved emotional well-being.
In most cases it seems that the more we have, the less happy we are. Given the frenzy of consumerism that most advanced societies seem to be trapped in, something did not add up.
Two days after the event, I headed down with my family to a nearby bakery. My husband left the car to place and collect our order.
As I waited in the car, another vehicle pulled up alongside and honked, signalling for someone in the shop to venture outside and serve them.
The shop was packed with customers, but the car next to me honked again and again and again. I lost the count at around 15, at which point my husband came and we left.
I never got to know whether the person continued honking, or actually finally decided to go into the shop to place an order, but my mind wandered back to the positive psychology session, and how it spoke of savouring everyday experiences as a means to reclaim our happiness.
This particular incident is merely a small drop in the ocean of the “VIP culture” that seems to be brewing in our societies.
With our often hectic pursuit of money, status and material affirmation of our worth, simple daily pleasures evaporate into thin air.
More so, they seem to turn into unpleasant experiences where we complain about the lack of appropriate levels of service or perhaps a meal that is not cooked to perfection. And it does not stop there.
It grows to a level where we define ourselves by our job titles – the bigger the better. We value our status by our ability to fly business class and become disgruntled when the company offers to fly us economy. And a vicious cycle can easily ensue.
As satisfaction during these incidents and daily interactions decrease, we seek more. Perhaps a bigger job title would help? Or may be a credit card with a more generous credit limit?
During the same Boldtalks session, we learnt that lottery winners reported higher levels of happiness immediately following the event. The same research showed that winners’ happiness levels drops to normal baseline rates within months.
This pattern of emotional behavior is not only restricted to wealth but extends to include everything that money can buy, including things we tend to think less materialistically of, like education and the financial ability to have more children.
Studies within the field of positive psychology show that even when it comes to education, once the basic needs are covered, more does not lead to increased success or happiness. It refers to social skills and interpersonal virtues of kindness, gratitude and capacity for love as more reliable sources of increased happiness and success.
All of the above culminates simply into one major takeaway. Our understanding of the pursuit of happiness needs to change if we truly want to pursue happiness and emotional well-being.
And more importantly, this can’t be undertaken on an individual basis but rather a more systemic change is needed.
The costs associated with depression and anxiety have far reaching impacts on a society’s well-being.
I look back at my childhood and education years and remember the focus on academics and sports. Without undermining either of the former, there seems to be a big piece in this puzzle that’s missing.
Life skills instantly come to mind – skills that nurture well-being very early in life so we can grow into confident, principled and healthy adults.
A recent feature in The National covered news about Posetivity, a Dubai-based initiative that aims to teach yoga and life skills to school-aged children. It is exactly these kinds of initiatives that need to be institutionalised to allow for impact and change, and the pursuit of the right kind of happiness.
Rana Askoul is the founder of Changing Pink and a Dubai-based writer