“I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven;
it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.
I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” Ecclesiastes 1:12-14
When social scientists write about issues such as life expectancy, educational attainment, nutrition, and crime, they often encompass them under the heading “quality of life,” or Q.O.L. for short. When describing more subjective experiences of happiness, fulfillment, and life satisfaction, they use S.W.B. or “subjective well being.” For example, in the classic film “Citizen Kane,” the media tycoon played by Orson Welles enjoys high Q.O.L. and low S.W.B. He is healthy, wealthy, and unhappy.
What is fascinating to me is that in the United States, these two measures are diverging. While per-capita income has more than doubled since 1972, the S.W.B. of Americans has leveled out or even declined. By most objective measures, we are wealthier (relatively) and healthier. Yet we are not happier. What gives?
There are many possible reasons. Economist Jeffrey Sachs, in the 2018 World Happiness Report, credits this divergence to the public-health crisis related to depression, obesity, and drug abuse, as well as increased disillusionment with major institutions such as government and business. While I wouldn’t dispute any of this, I wonder if there might also be some more personal reasons.
First would be our constant comparing of ourselves with others. The Social media certainly distort our sense that others are having a “better time” and enjoying life more than we are. (FOMO is real my friends!) So do our choices regarding those with whom we compare ourselves. I’m sure you’ll agree that we almost always compare “up” to those we consider smarter, more beautiful, or more successful than we are. We’ll never benefit from such comparisons. A closely related second reason would be how often we take for granted the many good things we enjoy in our lives. How easy it is to assume our standard of living as a given but then feel deprived as we struggle to “keep up with the Joneses.”
I have a simple yet powerful suggestion if you find yourself living in the world of high Q.O.L. and low S.W.B. My suggestion is to practice gratitude. If you find yourself hyperventilating with FOMO, say a prayer of thanksgiving for everything for which you are grateful. If you find yourself wishing you had more, give away a few possessions to someone in need. If you find your thoughts clouded with regrets and what-ifs, engage the daily practice of making a list of five things for which you are grateful. I know that this solution will not fix everything that ails us in our high Q.O.L. and low S.W.B. world. But in my estimation, counting your blessings would be a great place to start.