Happiness is too important to leave to chance

The past few months have forced many of us into deeper introspection as we re-evaluate what’s important in our lives: what makes us happy; and what do we want for our futures when this pandemic and its associated economic crisis are over?

In many ways, things will never be the same again — and neither will we. McKinsey’s recent global report on financial life during the pandemic found that more than 70% of South Africans reported declines in both income and savings during June. (Alongside Indonesia, we fared worst of all the countries in the study.) 

South Africans are likely to come through this pandemic with a greater appreciation of the importance of savings and securing their financial futures.

The pandemic has also brought into sharper focus the things that really matter — health, security, personal connections, family, community, and a sense of meaning and purpose. For some, it’s changed the whole notion of how we work, and for others it’s clarified how much we actually need and like to work — and not just because of the money.

The building blocks of happiness

With all of this newfound clarity giving us a different view on what we really want from life, the question is, how do we go about creating a future where we can “have it all”? 

The idea of having it all has traditionally applied to women’s ambitions for a fulfilling family life and career, but it is an ideal more of us — including single men and women — are striving for. In essence, it’s the search for balance and our own personal version of happiness.

Indeed, happiness has become big business and a big focus of scientific study too. In 2017, the global wellness economy was valued at $4.2-trillion dollars and has been growing ever since. Happiness is now a subject taught at Harvard Business School (HBS) and the Journal of Happiness Studies is a serious academic publication. It seems we all want to be happier, and there’s no shortage of experts and businesses lining up to help us.

According to Arthur Brooks, who teaches the happiness class at HBS, the pursuit of happiness can seem never-ending because of our propensity as humans to get used to circumstances quickly. 

“This is the main reason money doesn’t buy happiness: we get used to what it buys very rapidly and then go back to our happiness set point. For those of us lucky enough to avoid illness, even the unhappiness from the Covid-19 crisis will be in the rear-view mirror before very long.”

For Brooks, the real building blocks of happiness include family, career, friendships and faith (not necessarily religious but also secular). He believes these “tools” can be used to “construct a life that is balanced and full of meaning, and that serves your values”. Having come through months of enforced lockdown, many of us would now wholeheartedly agree.

Don’t leave it to chance

With a growing body of scientific evidence suggesting we need to think about our lives in broader terms than material wealth, it’s increasingly clear that financial security is just one aspect of the “all” in having it all’. That’s where many of us begin and end, however, when planning our futures. Career strategy and financial planning get all the focus and energy, whereas the other building blocks of happiness are left to chance.

Applying a more holistic perspective on the notion of success — built around the three Ps of passion, purpose and pay —  can provide the basis for a more balanced set of life goals. Pulling those goals into a “life plan” might sound like an esoteric exercise but it can provide a solid foundation on which to build other plans focused on career or business, family life, wealth and retirement, in a way that is true to your personal values.

Like any strategy, a life plan needs to be flexible. Advances in medical technology mean we will be living much longer (average life expectancy is expected to reach 100 years by the end of this century). Longer lives means that the default template of study-work-family-retire needs to be thrown out. Instead, we’ll need to think about re-skilling, multiple career changes, taking sabbaticals, and more varied family arrangements. And if we want to live a long and happy life, we’ll need to factor purpose and meaning into all these decisions.

Covid-19 has been a reality check of the greatest magnitude. Many of us are still in survival mode and will be for some time. But when we emerge from this and start to look once more to the future, it’s crucial we remember what really mattered when times were tough. Life is too short, and too precious, to leave our own happiness to chance.

Kutlwano Sello is content and community engagement manager at LifeCheq, a fintech company.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Kutlwano Sello
Kutlwano Sello is Content and Community Engagement manager at LifeCheq, a fintech company that helps South African professionals navigate their most important life decisions.

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