2. Don’t put your faith in princes (or politicians).
If I complain that government is soulless or that a politician is making me unhappy—which I personally have done many times—I am saying that I think government should have a soul or that politicians can and should bring me happiness. This is naive at best.
Some of history’s greatest tyrants have promised that a government or political leader could bring joy to life. In 1949, the Soviet government promoted the slogan “Beloved Stalin is the people’s happiness.” Few leaders have delivered more misery and death than Stalin—but looking at this slogan makes me think twice about my own expectations of governments and politicians.
Read: The Danish don’t have the secret to happiness
Governments and politicians do affect our lives. But they cannot bring happiness. This point was forcefully driven home to me a couple of years ago by Mogens Lykketoft, the former speaker of the Danish Parliament and a leading social-democratic politician in Denmark. We were filming a documentary about the pursuit of happiness, and in response to a question about Denmark’s famously happy population, he said, “Government cannot bring happiness, but it can eliminate the sources of unhappiness.”
3. Don’t trade love for anything.
I have referenced in this column before a famous study that followed hundreds of men who graduated from Harvard from 1939 to 1944 throughout their lives, into their 90s. The researchers wanted to know who flourished, who didn’t, and the decisions they had made that contributed to that well-being. The lead scholar on the study for many years was the Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant, who summarized the results in his book Triumphs of Experience. Here is his summary, in its entirety: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
The current director of the study, the psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, filled in the details. He told me in a recent interview that the subjects who reported having the happiest lives were those with strong family ties, close friendships, and rich romantic lives. The subjects who were most depressed and lonely late in life—not to mention more likely to be suffering from dementia, alcoholism, or other health problems—were the ones who had neglected their close relationships.
What this means is that anything that substitutes for close human relationships in your life is a bad trade. The study I mentioned above about uses of money makes this point. But the point goes much deeper. You will sacrifice happiness if you crowd out relationships with work, drugs, politics, or social media.
The world encourages us to love things and use people. But that’s backwards. Put this on your fridge and try to live by it: Love people; use things.
I realize that one could easily read this column as a jeremiad against modern life. That isn’t my intention. (Indeed, I am a very public proponent of democratic capitalism with a modern welfare state.) Rather, I mean to appeal to all of us to remember that material prosperity has both benefits and costs. The costs come when we allow our hunger for the fruits of prosperity to blind us to the timeless sources of true human happiness: faith, family, friendship, and work in which we earn our success and serve others. Regardless of how the world might change, those have always been, and will always be, the things that deliver the satisfaction we crave.