Memorial Day – Gratitude and Happiness

Memorial Day weekend is coming up and it’s a good time to remember what Memorial Day is about – remembering those who have fallen for us, and being grateful for their sacrifice. Teaching your children to be grateful will give them the great gift of empowering them to be happy whenever they want to be, and to enjoy the freedoms they’ve inherited from those who gave everything.

As parents we often focus on teaching our children the practical things; such as learning to read, to write, to add, to dealing with others. Today we will focus on something that may be more important: teaching perspective and gratitude, and ultimately how to be happy. Many of us forget to teach our kids to be grateful. Why do we forget? Because many of us are not very grateful ourselves. It’s hard to teach something you don’t believe in or practice yourself, or perhaps don’t realize how important it is.

The Key to a Happy Life

Happiness is hard to over-rate. The whole point of many economic measurements, such as GDP (or Gross Domestic Product), is to get some handle on how well we are doing as a society, and how happy we are or we should be. That is the point, after all, of generating GDP – buying nice homes, bringing up our children, buying good food and cars, going on holidays, and being able to pay the Doctor and the Dentist. Wealth should make us happy, right?

It’s not Fair?!

Many economic studies have found that wealth does not necessarily lead to happiness. After we get past basic subsistence, i.e. food and shelter, the relationship between wealth and happiness becomes increasingly murky. Why? It turns out that we aren’t that different as adults as we are as children – the reason the relationship between wealth and happiness deteriorates with greater wealth is that we are naturally obsessed with fairness. It isn’t fair that my neighbor/friend/brother has a Ferrari and I only have a brand new Ford! It isn’t fair that they have a 4 bedroom house and live in an elite suburb, and we only have 2 bedrooms and live in a less elite suburb! As adults we may not express these things out loud, but far too many of us think at least subconsciously along these lines. All it does is make us miserable, and in spite of the fact that we have a very, very great deal to be both grateful and happy about.

Don’t Forget your Economic History …

While studying my PhD in Economic History at the London School of Economics, I recall an excellent lecture by Tim Leunig who asked the class if they would prefer to go back to the past and live there. Did they think the past was happier and less stressful, more care free and nice? Many students raised their hands. He then gleefully spent the next 45 minutes or so obliterating that idea in fact after fact, graph after graph, showing just how horrible life used to be. You don’t work nearly as hard or as long as your ancestors did. As the Industrial revolution gained pace between 1750-1800 in the UK, the average worker (who already toiled 11 hours on an average working day) stopped taking almost any days off at all (i.e. they worked in manual labor for 77 hours a week, on average). There were almost no holidays and no hobbies, just work, and people died far too young for retirement. It was common for 9 year old children to do the same. School would have been great fun by comparison! Furthermore what you see as work – emails, communications, and the like – might have been seen by your ancestors as entertainment. Tim Leunig then went on to show how early and young people used to die, how little they had to eat, and how short they were in stature as a result. I put all fantasies of life in the past to rest at that point and thanked my stars that I was living in the modern age. There frankly hasn’t been a better time to live. The only time that life has been so good before was prior to agriculture when we were hunters and gatherers, but the price paid then was a very high mortality rate for children. Economic History teaches gratitude and appreciation like nothing else!

It’s all Relative – even if we’re all Spoiled

The relationship between wealth and happiness is mostly about relative wealth – i.e. how much wealthier or poorer are you than your neighbor? And by neighbor, I mean your next door neighbor, your friend, your siblings, and people in your social/networking circle. If you live in Beverly Hills, it’s unlikely that you’re trading comparisons with people living in South Central LA. Likewise, it’s unlikely that those in South Central LA are trading comparison with those living in Tijuana (2-3 hours drive away). Thus if you are a poor multi-millionaire whose neighbors are billionaires, you’re likely to see yourself as relatively unsuccessful and be unhappy. It also works in the opposite way – you can be relatively materially poor from a Western point of view (small house and no car), but be very happy if you are better off than your neighbors and/or well respected by them. We have a natural tendency to look for fairness and equity no matter how much we have. This is a mistake.

Fairness – A Childish Obsession

Want to be happy? Let go of fairness – the world is unfair by its very nature, and you are on the wrong side of the equation. About half of the world’s population lives on $2 a day! When was the last time that you did that? The <$2/day half should be unhappy with their position and decrying the unfairness of it all, not you or your children. Teach your children to let go of the idea of fairness, to accept that the world is inherently unfair (and strongly in their favor!), and to embrace a wider global perspective of Gratitude and Giving. Only when we are open to being grateful for all that we have, and for all that others have done for us, can we free ourselves to be happy. Going the next step and Giving to others makes us happier still. Memorial Day is a great time to remember those who gave up far more than money and leisure, who gave their lives, so that you and your children can be free and happy. Not being grateful, not being happy, is a stain on their memory. You owe it to those who have fallen to live the best life that you can, and to put all your advantages to use in helping others.

Happiness – A Lesson best learnt Young

This weekend I am taking my son, who sometimes thinks he’s poor, and often obsesses with fairness, down to Tecate, Mexico to help build some houses for families who don’t have any. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to join such a trip, and I sincerely hope that there are some people in our group who actually know how to do this! I’m not very handy past a hammer and a screwdriver. It might start to make up for all the times I was ungrateful and lacked the perspective needed to be happy when I was younger. I can’t go back and undo the past, but I definitely want my son to learn these lessons far younger than I did.

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