Happiness is…living life so your heart’s content

Happiness is…living life so your heart’s content

Bronwyn McNulty discovers happiness isn't about how much money you earn but about being happy with what you have.

Manoj Singh is a rickshaw driver in Kolkata, India. He lives in a house made of bamboo sticks and plastic bags in a slum on the outskirts of town and he works between 12 hours and 14 hours a day to make barely enough money to care for himself and his family.

Yet in a new documentary, Happy, Manoj describes how happy he is.

''I feel that I am not poor but I am the richest person,'' he says in the film.

''Sometimes we eat only rice with salt but still we are happy. My neighbours are good, we stay together and that makes us happy. We are all friends.''

Roko Belic, the director of Happy, says Manoj has everything a person needs to be satisfied with life.

''From one perspective, he has nothing at all but from another, he has everything we all need: love, security, a sense of community, a sense of place – his life has purpose,'' Belic says.

''He has the ingredients in his life that would make most human beings happy, which is ironic because most of us would not want to switch places with him.''

So why do so many of us, who have so much, continue to feel dissatisfied?

In his book Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough (Allen & Unwin, 2005), Australian author and intellectual Clive Hamilton says average earnings in Australia exceed $50,000 a year, yet most people believe they qualify as battlers.

''Most people cling to the belief that more money means more happiness,'' Hamilton writes. ''Yet when they reach the financial goals they have set, they find they do not feel happier – except perhaps fleetingly.''

In science-of-happiness circles, this is known as the hedonic treadmill – the theory that whatever level of wealth or material goods a person has, they will adapt to it and always want more.


Dr Tim Sharp, of The Happiness Institute in Sydney, says being happy with what you have is a skill that can be learnt.

''Some people are naturally grateful and appreciative but other people, for a variety of reasons, find it challenging,'' he says.

''But happiness is a skill and the more we practise it, the better we get.''

One of the reasons many of us have trouble appreciating what we have is that we often go through life not thinking about things properly, Sharp says.

''There are so many things that can distract us and we are constantly told by marketing and advertising that there's always something better out there – something bigger, better, faster or, in some cases, smaller. This creates 'deferred happiness', which means we are not thinking about what's happening now.

''We have to find a balance between that and enjoying the moment. It's fine to aspire and set goals and want to have stuff, within reason, as long as it's balanced with an appreciation of the here and now. When we are feeling depressed and miserable, we tend to see more bad things. When we feel happy, we see more good things and it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.''

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