Listening Well and the Cause of Happiness—What my God Children Taught me

My godchildren inspire me. They ask questions, alter my perspective and in exchange I get a youthful perspective. Some parents, surly know the feeling. The godchildren that inspired this writing are 14 and 15 years old. Their persistence forced me to think—to improve my grasp of “Listening Well” and “Causing Happiness.”

Listening Well

During the Thanksgiving holiday, amidst my godchildren’s question barrage, I was asked, “What would you do if you found one million dollars?”

My reply, “I’d try to give it back to who ever lost it.”

“No, I mean what if no one was around. You just found it,” replied my godson.

Confidently, I replied, “Well, no one loses a million dollars, and doesn’t look for the money. So, I’d help them find it.”

My goddaughter, better explaining her brother’s question, jumped in, “No! No, he means, noooooobody is looking for the money. You find a million dollars. What do you do with it?”

Confused but wanting to press the ethical point, I said, “What do I need a million dollars for.”

As the holiday weekend came to a close, the teenagers would see me and start laughing. It’s the best inside joke ever—The grown up, doesn’t get it.

Come January, the farther of these two and I are sharing stories, like best friends do, and he tells me, “Last night at dinner, the kids were cracking up. Couldn’t stop laughing. All they remembered was Uncle Aaron saying, ‘What do I need a million dollars for?’” I think, how can this still be funny after a whole month—kids.

It is now, spring break and the families visit again. My godson, not to be deterred, initiates a conversation, “Okay, Uncle Aaron, what would you do if you if you won five million dollars in the lottery.”

Many thoughts run through my mind. His question and the delivery reflects effort. I no longer find money, I win the lottery. And, the dollars have changed from one million to now, five million. Okay I can do this. I reply, “I’d put the money in my investment portfolio.”

Deja vu, I hear my goddaughter joining right in, “No! No, what would you buy with the money.”

I quickly reply, “I’d buy the stocks in my portfolio. They cost money,” with all the seriousness and rationality I could muster.

And with an equally rapid reply, my godson adds, “Not stocks or bonds or some investment portfolio. What would you buy, with the money.” Brief laughter erupts, me, mom, and both godchildren.

After a moment to catch my breadth, I say, “Oh, you mean what would I spend my next million dollars on. What I’d spend on after taking care of basics like food and eating” while adding emphasis to the words next and after.

“Yes,” my godchildren reply within what felt to me like the longest dual sigh I have ever experienced.

“Okay, I’d buy a house where I’d plan on living through retirement, then I’d put the rest in my investment portfolio for my heirs.” I said.

The ensuing moments were filled with laughter, filling glasses with orange juice, and the inevitable body language that this conversation was over. If they cursed in my presence, I’m sure one would have said, “Ah, sh**.” My mother would have.

That night’s dreams raced with possibilities, but one question stood out, “Why weren’t my godchildren satisfied with my answers?” By morning, my “ah ha moment” was clear. I asked each individually, and after reflecting a moment, both confirmed, “Yes, that’s it. I wanted to know, what would you spend money on that would make you happier than you are today. What’s missing from your life.” My godchildren’s paradigm about the route to happiness includes a prominent role for money, but in my paradigm, money is a bit role player in the early scenes of the movie. This is why my answers, while perfectly rational to me, were so nonsensical to the children. The answers did not fit any paradigm of happiness they possessed.

With this distinction revealed, I offered to explain what makes me happy. The children agreed. And, I gave them my narrative, summarized below, for what causes happiness. Their reaction is one I’ll always treasure:

  1. Silence & body language evidencing reflective thinking
  2. The youngest asking for my blog web address and noting it in his phone
  3. The oldest recalling an analogy from her school assignment, and making a contrast and comparison of the main points—good solid critical thinking on display.

Cause of Happiness

I find three causes for happiness‒‒the state of well-being and contentment with our lives. Each cause occurs differently person to person, yet exist as common principles. None is sufficient without the other, it is all or nothing. The principles are:

  1. pride in oneself
  2. positive relationship with people you love
  3. financial security

Pride in Oneself

Pride results when people come through intellectually challenging situations with a willingness to share the experience. Mentally stimulated work‒activity to remember, to associate, or to conjure up new ideas‒is a must. And, the experience must result in an accomplishment. Something achieved. The something could be test, stage or athletic performance. It could be a cause and effect discovery, or a confirmation of previous knowledge. Whatever the something, its crucial that we know we worked for it, met difficulties along the way, and overcame them.

Gifts, things that come easy, or things we do not earn, none of these develop pride. Cheating on a test may get you an ‘A’ grade, but pride will not adhere. Work and effort are required to generate pride. Of course, what’s work for one person is not for another, thus the work and effort requirement is relative.

Happiness also requires that we have a willingness to tell others, which means, we perceive a value to others for our accomplishment. Specialization is inherent within democratic societies, thus, happiness comes from what we produce the feedback we receive. A broad set of social notions take into account specialization, work for pay, friendships, and family relations are among the most recognizable. As with mental stimulation, our perceived value is not a test of absolute‒mine is higher than yours. But, happiness requires that we believe others in society have a positive value for the application of our skills and talents.

Positive Relationship

Happiness is driven by relationships with people we love and have a positive perspective. Positive relationships are those in which we help others. This is unidirectional, not reciprocal. Helping others drives happiness. And the type of help matters. We help others when we provide advice or counsel, use our talents, knowledge, or skills to another’s benefit.

It is instructive to understand what helpful actions do not provide happiness, despite the positive acceptance by the broader society:

  • giving a gift
  • giving someone anything that they did not have before
  • providing encouragement, or generally making someone feel better

Each is absent our skill, talent and work in the conveyance of positive feelings, thus they are not prideful actions, even if performed with people we love.

Helpful acts directed toward people we love generate happiness. Altruism, benevolence toward the general society, despite the arguments of many theories of happiness, do not cause happiness. Helpful acts with people we love create the magic in our lives. So, who do we love? It is a very important question for those who seek happiness. I think, a straight forward test exists: Are we willing to risk our emotional well-being with the person. Yes, you love them. No, it is some other relationship, but not love. We make ourselves vulnerable when we expose our emotional well-being, and this risk taking allows us to segment people across the variety of relationships and interactions that we experience‒work organization members, casual friends, family relation or neighborhood acquaintance. As we help with our strengths, the people we trust with our emotions, we know the true sense of happiness.

Financial Security

First and foremost, financial security is not wealth. For if it were, then more and more money would lead to happiness. To the contrary, financial security is having confidence that we can meet our basic living needs. The basic needs are shelter, food, safety, and health care access. The last 70 years of study into human motivation substantiate the first three needs. I add expectations of health care access, because developed societies, especially those with urban living, have generally abdicated the knowledge of health care to specialist. Thus, access to the specialist becomes a core need, without which happiness cannot exist.

Confidence relates to the lack of worry about delivering our needs. People cannot get to happiness while uncertain in their ability to address the basic living needs. And in today’s time of specialization toward personal services, finances and money are needed to access these living needs. Paying rent, buying food, providing for basic clothing and physical safety are all requirements for peace of mind. Thus, a minimum amount of money is needed for happiness. Basic needs satisfied, the mind is ready to entertain the idea that happiness can be found.

Gaps with Generally Accepted Notions of Happiness

My life experiences have exposed several generally accepted notions of happiness My experiences include considerable international travel and strong friendships that exist across the worlds oceans, thus I believe the notions are applicable in my home country and abroad. A few points of contrast should be made.

    • Generally accepted: More money makes happiness easier to obtain.

Extra money does not buy the causes of happiness. Certainly, base supply of money and earning power are needed to secure financial security. And if security is uncertain, individuals find it difficult to estimate how much money they need. However, beyond a secure level, extra money has no relation to happiness.

    • Generally accepted: Buying material goods and experiencing what you have not before lead to happiness.

Marketing from those who explain “enjoyment” are often confused with the route to happiness. Trips, cars, jewelry, gifts, none of these things in and of themselves are components of happiness. We are capable of enjoying experiences, without an effect on our happiness. Enjoyment and happiness are two different concepts.Humans, as they establish relationships, search for points of commonality and they often seek experiences they might share with each other. Having experiences avoids the embarrassment of appearing less than another, but this is nothing to do with happiness.

    • Generally accepted: Happiness is the primary motivation for human behavior.

Human behavior is more complex than a single motivation. The notions above are not sufficient for human existence. For example, acceptance within a group, avoiding embarrassment, seeking pleasure are all powerful motivators for behavior, as is maintaining reciprocity with other group members. Nothing in these thoughts are meant to replace or diminish these motivations.

    • Generally accepted: I’m happier when I have what others have.

For seeking happiness, I have no comparisons to others. The notion of “keeping up with the Joneses” has been an aspect of living for at least 100 years. It’s a powerful notion suggesting that judging your own status can only be in the context of comparison to another person. I simply reject this notion.

I thank my godchildren, for in my efforts to help those I love, I’ve experienced personal growth. What a joy.

One single comment

  1. Jaime Sarachit says:

    Thank you Aaron for making me smile and remembering what’s important! Beverly’s one lucky gal… Have a beautiful day.

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