It seems like every other day we hear another tragic story about someone who seemingly had everything, yet ended their own life. They came from the “right” family, went to a top college, had the perfect wedding, the perfect home, and plenty of money to boot. Yet, they still were not happy. It leaves many of us bewildered and shocked when someone who did everything “right” is still profoundly dissatisfied in life. Many of us are left wondering, “If someone like that can’t be happy, then how does anyone find happiness in this life? How can this be prevented?”
There are many factors that contribute to dissatisfaction in life, but one of the biggest problems, especially in American culture, is the hedonic treadmill. So many of us are focused on “keeping up with the Jones'” and searching for satisfaction in external and material factors that we’re not grasping where happiness actually comes from. This explains why people in third world countries that lead simple lives with far less material wealth actually report higher life satisfaction than developed nations. There are many factors to happiness including good health and a sense of community/family, but the number 1 contributor is autonomy. The feeling that you’ve made your own decisions and that your life is of your own creation -not according to someone else’s plan.
A 2011 study done by The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that autonomy, “the feeling that your life – its activities and habits — are self-chosen and self-endorsed,” is the number 1 contributor to happiness. “Having a strong sense of controlling one’s life is a more dependable predictor of positive feelings of well-being than any of the objective conditions of life we have considered,” explained researcher Angus Campbell.
The study, which spanned over 40 years and gathered data from over 420,000 people in 63 different countries was led by psychologists Dr. Ronald Fischer and Dr. Diana Boer and accounted for three different psychological tests. One test was a General Health Questionnaire, that included four symptoms of distress (somatic symptoms, anxiety and insomnia, social dysfunction and clinical depression). The second test was the Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, which measures how one feels in a particular moment, and the third test was the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which measures emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and lack of personal accomplishment.
“Our findings provide new insights into well-being at the societal level. Providing individuals with more autonomy appears to be important for reducing negative psychological symptoms, relatively independent of wealth,” the study reported. “Across all three studies and four data sets, we observed a very consistent and robust finding that societal values of individualism were the best predictors of well-being,” the authors wrote. “Furthermore, if wealth was a significant predictor alone, this effect disappeared when individualism was entered.” Concluding, “Money leads to autonomy but it does not add to well-being or happiness.” Hence the old adage, “Money can’t buy happiness.”
However, there is such a thing as too much individualism and the study found that going overboard can detract from happiness and cause stress and anxiety. Like anything else, autonomy is good in moderation, but not to the point where you start isolating yourself. “These increases in well-being with higher individualism, however, leveled off toward the extreme ends of individualism, indicating that too much autonomy may not be beneficial … but the very strong overall pattern was that individualism is associated with better well-being overall,” they reported.
The moral of the story? Design your own life. Don’t make decisions according to someone else’s plan for you.
The moral of the story? Design your own life. Don’t make decisions according to someone else’s plan for you. This applies to everyone in your life -especially in regards to your parents and romantic partner. Neither of these relationships should be stifling or overbearing. We’ve all heard of helicopter parents who are controlling and meddling, and while the overbearing parent may seem like a funny punchline, helicopter parents can inflict lifelong damage on their children. Studies show that helicopter parenting is psychologically damaging to children and can have lifelong negative effects on self-esteem and well-being. Healthy parenting balances guidance with freedom and gives children room to be themselves and make their own decisions as they become adults.
It also goes without saying that your choice of partner will have a huge impact on your long-term happiness. If you want to maximize your happiness, it’s important to choose a partner who encourages your independence, not stifles it. If we want to be our happiest and we want our partners and our children to be their happiest, we need to give one another space to make independent decisions. Unselfish, healthy love is free, not controlling. Giving each other room to make our own choices is the ultimate sign of trust and respect.
Most importantly, step off the hedonic treadmill. Autonomy is not just about making your own choices. Autonomy is also about releasing yourself from attachment to material items, opinions of others, and external factors. Autonomy is the ultimate step off the hedonic treadmill and the first step to living a truly happy, fulfilled life.
“What Is More Important for National Well-Being: Money or Autonomy? A Meta-Analysis of Well-Being, Burnout and Anxiety Across 63 Societies,” Ronald Fischer, PhD, and Diana Boer, PhD, Victoria University of Wellington; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 101, Issue 1.
Brigham Young University. “Extra love and support doesn’t make up for being a helicopter parent” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 June 2015.