From the moment we wake up in the morning, until we hit the sheets at night, our days are filled with choices. What to wear. What to drink. What to eat. Which route to take. How we communicate. Who we communicate with. The list goes on and on. Most of these choices are fairly benign. But when summed up in totality, they paint a picture of how we choose to live our lives and pursue our individual versions of happiness. After all; when all else is stripped away, happiness is the goal. Most of the choices that we make are in pursuit of either (a)quick gratification or (b)sacrifice in the hopes of later gratification. That doughnut will satisfy my craving now, or I can forgo the sweets and maybe feel good about myself on the scale later. Either way, there is a trade-off. Our entire lives are spent navigating choices and weighing options, just trying to maintain a level of satisfaction that will ultimately lead to the feeling of a life well lived.
For thousands of years, happiness has been the tool used by evolution to keep us motivated, ensuring that our species thrives and passes along its genes. Food and meaningful relationships sit at the top of the list of what bring us pleasure, because these things are crucial to our survival and reproduction. Unfortunately, evolution found no utility for sustained happiness. If our ancestors were successful in a big hunt, then providing quality nutrition to their tribe would have given them much reason to celebrate. But if that single hunt kept them feeling content indefinitely, then there would be no reason to go out and hunt again.
I can still remember the excitement of being a kid on Christmas morning. I would feel an irresistible impulse to wake up before dawn, barely able to contain myself. The anticipation of finding what Santa had left under the tree was intoxicating. Compare that to how I felt later that afternoon after the presents had already been opened, and the joy had dissipated considerably. This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to childhood exuberance. When lottery winners are interviewed a year later, they often report that they are not much happier than they were before winning. The reality is, we all have a base line for happiness, and that is eventually where we will level back out at. Evolution has ensured that happiness favors anticipation over attainment.
In our modern world, opportunities for quick gratification are much more frequent and abundant. This brings me back to the multitude of choices that we are faced with on a daily basis. This age of consumerism has resulted in an unprecedented level of variety and choices, and we’re inundated with constant product placement as a result. The decisions we make about which phone to get, what car to buy, and even what to have for lunch are all opportunities for companies to make a profit. Advertisers know this, and they exploit it to the best of their abilities. Whether it’s television commercials, radio commercials, billboards, or online ads, our entire day is flooded with targeted advertisements. There’s hardly anywhere you can go where advertisers aren’t trying to convince you that their product is the answer to what will bring you happiness.
Now, with the rise of online juggernauts such as Facebook, Amazon, and Google, our attention has become even more marketable. Things like food preferences, clothing styles, hobbies, interests, and political affiliations are being freely collected as valuable data. These companies have found a way to turn over obscene profits through building and selling data models of your personal consumer habits.
As society progresses, it’s changing our value system drastically. The pursuit of healthy goals and relationships is being replaced by what many psychologists are now referring to as “junk values.” Values that were once a meaningful source of intrinsic happiness are now being replaced by more superficial means of enjoyment. For example: at one time, storytellers were coveted members of a community. Because they were the source from which knowledge was distributed and passed down through generations, they often attained high levels of status within groups. A good storyteller was able to gather people around a fire at the end of a day, and everyone listened attentively. If you look at modern practices, we essentially do the same thing, except now we spend our evenings gathered around the TV in the living room. Our propensity for communal connection has been replaced with an electronic device, available in different degrees of price, size, and quality. The successful progression of our society has unwittingly resulted in a much more diluted system of values.
This is not to say that I’m about to go throw my flat screen in the dumpster. We can enjoy the luxuries of modern living, but I think that awareness is the key to moderation. Modern advances in science and technology have improved our lives exponentially in many ways. But taking a step back would certainly be beneficial. Most of us aren’t cognizant of the junk values that are infiltrating our daily lives, and I truly believe we are paying the price for it. We’re losing touch with the importance of things like communal connection, time spent with loved ones, memorable experiences, living in the present, and accumulating knowledge. Maybe if we were a little more mindful of the emphasis that we put on superfluous material possessions, we could rediscover those values which made our lives so meaningful from the start.
Jason Duff is a local resident who writes columns for the Record-Herald.