The unhappy ape

What if we aren’t unhappy because the world is a mess; what if the world’s a mess because we are unhappy?

Unhappy, stressed out, fearful, insecure people lash out, overreact, attack. They infect those around them with unhappiness, stress, fear, and insecurity. Soon, you reach a critical mass of unhappiness — a cascade of misery running out of control.

The irony is that a raft of recent research in positive psychology has basically rediscovered everything you already learned in kindergarten: money can’t buy happiness; it’s better to give than to receive; bullies are actually scared wounded souls. Science has confirmed what most traditions already teach about how to live a happy life.

And yet most of us live our lives by a very different set of assumptions — false assumptions we are only semi-aware of that cause us to value the wrong things and make bad choices that lead to predictably bad outcomes.

At the core, the king of false belief: that self-satisfaction leads to happiness. It’s what drives most of our everyday decisions. We are convinced that if only the world would conform to our needs and wants, we would finally be happy. And so we put a premium on control and convenience, on titillation and immediate gratification. We prioritize the hedonic over the eudaimonic; the momentary high over long-term contentment.

This delusion fuels all addiction. “Happiness” is dangled like a worm on a string and you jump. A new decor. The latest app. A little trip. A new therapy. And it works, kinda. The buzz. The excitement. Even the stress and fear makes you feel alive. But it fades so quickly and leaves such a big debt to pay. Disappointment. Regret. Shame.

The shadow looms and you are willing to pay any price to make it go away. But a new high requires a bigger dose; you can never have enough of something you don’t need in the first place. So the vicious cycle continues unbroken until suddenly someone like Trump — the poster child of unhappiness — literally rules the world.

Our profound unhappiness is destroying the world.

But what if we took happiness and well-being as our primary goal? What if we distilled all that science and the world’s wisdom traditions have to say? We would see that the essence is that things that reduce self-centeredness increase happiness and things that increase self-centeredness increase suffering — of both the self-centered person and everyone around them.

Happiness is simple: whatever you would wish for yourself, do this for others.

Such a simple thing and who could argue against it? The golden rule and the cornerstone of all the great religions. And yet how many of us actually live this way? From the mundane to the profound, we violate this rule every day. We violate it when we assume the worst of a colleague or politician; when we read the email unkindly; when we project our fears onto “those people.”

More importantly, though, we violate it when we take more than we need. If we divide up the Earth’s productive capacity, we each get 1.7 hectares (about 4 acres) — all 7 billion of us. That’s all you get to provide all the food and energy you need plus all the goods you consume. That’s all you get for your personal landfill, and the trees necessary to clean the pollution you create out of the air. It’s all the space you get to filter toxins out of water to make it safe to drink. And all the space to support the wildlife and wilderness you say you want to save.

If you live in North America, statistics say you use FIVE times that much. And unless your friends and neighbors think you’re an environmental extremist, you certainly use at least two or three times that.

We talk about sustainability like it’s a lifestyle choice but the reality is if you aren’t living within a sustainable footprint, you are stealing the productive capacity — the food, water, and shelter — from other people — either people living elsewhere right now or the next generations. Ultimately, all the problems we are seeing in the world right now are the direct result of the fact that so many of us are stealing from our neighbors or from our kids.

And here’s the saddest part: all that consumption doesn’t add anything to our happiness and well-being. Look around at the excesses and the misery, side-by-side. Look at Trump. This is what it looks like when you only care about yourself. A bunch of unhappy apes.

So here is the formula to solve all of the world’s problems: strive to maximize your total happiness and well-being while living within a sustainable 1.7 hectares.

There’s only two parts: 1) reduce your current footprint to achieve sustainability (using any approach that works for you) 2) maximize your happiness by focusing on the things scientifically and traditionally shown to work — gratitude, service, mindfulness, generosity, strong relationships, community connection and a sense of purpose.

Two years ago, my partner and I embarked on a new adventure to see how far we could push the formula. How quickly could we move towards true sustainability and how happy could we be in doing it? For us, the project centers on farming 235 acres — in theory enough to support 75 people. So far, the results are promising. It turns out that hard work truly is its own reward and that less is really much more.

But it’s also hard and sometimes lonely work. We would like more allies on this adventure — we would like you to join us on this adventure. It only takes commitment and discipline to doing small things consistently — things that you know you should be doing already.

It’s not hard. You can start right now — no matter where you are. You just have to be willing to admit that maybe, just maybe, so far you haven’t actually been acting as ethically as you imagined and be willing to make those little changes every day that show that what you would wish for yourself, you are willing to do for others.

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