The Other Climate Crisis

People often conflate the conditions of happiness with material wellbeing.  There’s lots of evidence that there’s no connection at all. 

I have fallen into using the phrase, “the other climate crisis.”  And I think it has a resonance.  What I mean by it is that we had become used to the fact now, I least I hope we have, that there is a crisis in the world’s natural resources.  But I also think that there is a crisis in our human resources and how we use them.  

We tend to think that we, because we live in cities like New York or L.A. or wherever, that we’re somehow independent of nature.  And of course, we’re not.  We’re organic creatures.  We live and we die and we’re subject to the seasons of our own lives.  And just like the earth, it seems to me, human resources are often buried deep beneath the surface.  You can spend your whole life completely oblivious to some talent you may have because the opportunity never showed up for you to discover your resolve to develop it.  

And the evidence of disaffection and disengagement is pretty widespread.  There’s a lot of work being done now on positive psychology, which is interesting in that, for most of the history of the discipline of psychology there’s been a preoccupation with psychological disorders, emotional disturbance and so on.  Most of the literature about the emotions is about emotional problems, about anxiety and depression and all the associated dysfunctions in behavior.  It’s only relatively recently that psychologists started to think of emotions as positive things.  And to talk about positive emotions like love and affection and compassion and the need to connect with other people, the aesthetic emotions and so on.  

What it doesn’t illustrate as this research has gone on is though that there’s a very wide base of people who are suffering.  And I was looking recently at some figures that are suggesting that depression – The World Health Organization has talked about how depression by 2020 will be one of the most significant causes of mortality among human populations.  You only have to look at the most extreme analysis, at suicide rates.  But apart from that, people who are kind of getting themselves through the week with prescription drugs, alcohol, abuse of food, whatever, the evidence is that human happiness, the total sum of human happiness isn’t promoted just by material wellbeing, we know that.  We always did know it, and we shouldn’t have lost track of the fact that earning a lot of money doesn’t make you happy.  And if you ask most people what they want from their lives, sooner or later in the conversation, earlier often rather than later, they’ll say happiness.  

So it’s a universal value that people are pursuing.  They want it for themselves; they want it for their children.  But often they conflate the conditions of happiness with material wellbeing.  There’s lots of evidence that there’s no connection at all.  And that happiness is not a material state, it’s a spiritual state.  It’s a state of internal fulfillment.  

You’d expect that the more wealthy people become, the happier they get. If we all win the lottery, it’ll all be terrific.  But actually the evidence is from lottery winners, they are as miserable as they were before after a while and not more miserable because they’ve got all these problems they didn’t have.  There’s no evidence that people that are worth billions are happier than people who are earning far less than that, even at the minimum wage.  

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not arguing for poverty.  You know, I’m not saying if we could all be impoverished, it would be terrific.  I’m not saying that at all.  We all need a threshold of earnings so that our lives aren’t tortured by financial anxiety.  But beyond a certain level there’s no direct giving.  And the argument I’m making in Finding Your Element is that it’s important as part of the process of achieving something that we all want, which is sense of fulfillment, engagement and happiness.  If we want to find that, we have to look in the right place for it.  

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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