Honored to have my latest piece published by The Stamford Advocate.
We have a member of our family who, while loved and adored by many people, is wrestling with some serious demons. Over the years we have seen the spark the once shined so bright in her eyes gradually dim to the point where lies were told and promises broken.
My guitar teacher, who has been in recovery for over two decades and understands these matters from multiple perspectives, said something to me that helped shed a little bit of light on the darkness which has crept into our family, “There are many people who are in pain and who simply don’t know how to deal with it.”
This observation, quite literally, struck a chord with me and, over the past few days, I have been reflecting on all the people I have had the good fortune to meet as a result of my occupation to examine whether or not I could find additional support for my teacher’s claim that pain runs rampant in our culture.
I put my undergraduate degree in psychology and my master’s degree in marketing to work in the field of qualitative marketing research. I am hired by some of the worlds’ biggest brands to research specific consumer segments and turn my observations into insights that lead to new or improved products, relevant advertising messages, and unique brand propositions. If you look around your home and into your pantry, refrigerator/freezer, medicine cabinet, bathroom, or garage, there is a good chance that you have at least one product that I had the good fortune to work on. Being successful in what I do means getting to know my clients’ consumers on a very personal level and therefore I spend a lot of time with people in their homes and in other settings trying to understand the influencers that drive their preferences and figure out the things that make them tick.
I have lost count of the number of people I have had the pleasure to meet and interview over the years. Furthermore, because what I do requires frequent travel, I have met countless others in airports, hotel bars, restaurants and on airplanes who, for some reason or another, begin opening up to me about anything and everything. As I started reflecting upon these encounters, I uncovered three observations related to happiness:
1. Happiness is not positively correlated with socioeconomic status. Many of the happiest people I have met are those who are classified as “low-income consumers.” Conversely, some of the unhappiest people I have met are the well-to-do social climbers who have, what outsiders might call, “fairy-tale” lives. Of course not all low-income people are happy and not all high-income people are miserable, the point I am trying to make is that income is not a reliable predictor of happiness.
2. Those active in a faith community tend to be happier than those who might consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” It seems as if there is something about coming together with a group of other people with shared beliefs and values that has an impact on one’s happiness. Again, this is not to say that all religious people are happy and all non-religious people are pessimistic, it is simply a trend that I have observed from my encounters with a wide variety of people over the years.
3. People who set goals for themselves, whether they are career goals, family goals, or other personal goals, and then engage a plan to personally work toward those goals are happier than those who are given whatever they ask for. As such, the mind-set of personally working toward something is related to happiness while the mind-set of entitlement is related to despondency.
After thinking about this for a while I wanted to find an explanation or some “glue” that might bind these three observations together. After a while it hit me and the key is optimism.
An optimistic outlook is what separates the happy low-income person from the unhappy high-income person. Optimism also seems to be closely tied with faith; those with a faith life often tell me that their faith is associated with hope in the future and hope often manifests itself in an optimistic outlook on life. Further, when you set goals and personally accomplish those goals, your sense of self worth increases and that often leads to an optimistic outlook on life. When you are given everything you ever wanted, without having to work for those things, there is no sense of accomplishment, no increase in self worth, and no impact on optimism.
I do believe that we live in a society where socioeconomic advancement is valued more than service to one’s family or community, where secularism is the rule and faith has become counter-cultural, and where entitlement reigns over personal responsibility. Perhaps this is precisely why pain is running rampant throughout our culture and self-destructive behavior is becoming more “normal.” The question then becomes, what can we do about it?
If you are an optimistic person, share your optimism with others. We are all presented with occasions to bring a little light into someone else’s darkness. This is not always easy because, frankly, it is not always pleasant to be around someone who is going through a hard time. I know that when people open themselves up to me about their struggles I sometimes feel like a deer in headlights not knowing how to respond. The tendency might even be to feel somewhat put off by someone’s confession as if to think “How dare you burden me with your issues!” However, genuine optimism can rub off on others and may serve as the encouragement another person needs to feel better.
Further, we can start turning away from the false prophets of individualism, greed, and secularism that many of us have turned to. Belief in something greater than us leads to hope and hope leads to optimism. In addition, being an active part of a faith community leads to new relationships, a shared sense of well-being, and a renewed sense of purpose and when groups of optimistic people join together, optimism can spread like wildfire. There are plenty of faith communities of all types and personalities in our area, why not explore a few of them?
Finally, we can start to embrace personal responsibility and shed the belief that any of us are owed anything by anyone. To want is natural and to personally earn what we want will lead to a greater degree of happiness. The child who is always given what he or she wants is due for a rude awakening later on in life when criticized in a performance review. The adult who expects to be taken care of regardless of effort has little motivation to work hard to change his or her situation. Here again the optimistic among us have the opportunity to lead by example and show others that one path to happiness can be paved by personal responsibility and effort and their byproduct, success.
In short, we need a healthy dose of optimism in our culture and optimism can be contagious. Let’s start an epidemic.
Michael Carlon is a longtime Stamford resident and contributing author to the Contagious Optimism book series published by Viva Editions, an imprint of Cleis Press. To contact Carlon, visit his website at www.uncorkingastory.com or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org