Thoughts on Life as a Spiritual Journey
Everything is Amazing and Nobody is Happy
Yesterday I dragged myself out of bed to join a few other friends for an early morning swim practice at the Eden Prairie Community Center. I made it through the practice okay, and on my way back home I noticed a sign hanging on a light pole in the parking lot. It proudly touted Eden Prairie as the #1 place to live in America in 2010 according to Money Magazine.
As I drove home, this sign got me thinking. I live in the wealthiest country in the world, and Eden Prairie is supposedly the best place to live in this country. That implies that Eden Prairie is the best place to live in the world. Which means I live in the suburb next to the best place to live on the entire planet! Now, obviously not everyone would think that Eden Prairie is the nicest place to live in the world, or even the nicest place in this country (different people would surely rank different places according to different standards), but those details are irrelevant to me. What really matters is that Eden Prairie and other western Minneapolis suburbs are really, really nice places to live.
And yet while living in these really, really nice places, at some level I’m still unhappy, and I’m also aware of the unhappiness that plagues many of my peers. How can we live in one of the nicest areas in the world, and still be so unhappy?
Louis C.K., one of the funnier but raunchier comedians out there, has a bit he’s done on Conan called Everything is Amazing, Nobody is Happy. His point is that life has gotten much, much better, but as it has so also has our sense of entitlement increased. Even though amazing things are happening and the most difficult things (like traveling across the country) have become easy, we are still deeply unhappy and find reasons to complain about everything.
As I pondered my own feelings of unhappiness and that of my peers (in spite of everything being amazing), I wondered, “what is it about humans that makes us nearly incapable of being happy?” No matter the improvements in health, technology, ease of travel and generally just the quality of life, we remain unhappy. This reality is particularly poignant for Americans, who’s lives have improved dramatically over the last 50 years, but who have also seen a correlative increase in the incidence of depression and anxiety. “People born after 1945 were ten times more likely to suffer from depression than people born 50 years earlier.” (Seligman, M. E. P. In J. Buie (1988) ‘Me’ decades generate depression: individualism erodes commitment to others. APA Monitor, 19, 18)
The post-WWII boom that created the suburbs and all the things that make Eden Prairie the “best place to live” are also the the things that make people profoundly unhappy. Clearly, nice houses, new cars, safe societies, fancy airplanes, new appliances, and even good health can’t make a person happy. The things that are supposed to make our lives so much better cannot bring the results we want from them.
“It is the nature of desire not to be satisfied, and most human beings live only for the gratification of it.” ~Aristotle
It’s not the satisfaction of our desires that makes us happy. It’s not getting what we want that makes us happy. I would suggest — without a whole lot of reflection, mind you — that the things that make us happy are simple: love and purpose. Happiness comes as we receive love and then put our energies towards loving others. If we are loved and if we are striving to love others, we are generally happy, or at least content. Whenever we think we don’t need love from others, we become isolated from others and eventually unhappy. Or when we stop focusing on loving others, and turn our resources and efforts inward and self-serving, we likewise become unhappy. Without love and without purpose, we are unhappy.
Which is why the western suburbs of Minneapolis are ironically really good places for people to become unhappy. For the exact same reasons that Money Magazine named Eden Prairie the nicest places in the country to live, I suggest make it one of the best places to become unhappy. It offers unparalleled opportunity to pursue the satisfaction of our desires outside of love or purpose. It boasts affordable homes, cheap big box stores, good schools, and lots of other outdoor and entertainment amenities. People live in beautiful homes and enjoy stimulating entertainment, which is to say they become isolated and self-centered. Eden Prairie, and other suburbs around it, offer a host of ways a person could satisfy his or her desires. And it is precisely in the pursuit of these things that we become the most unhappy.