We have the wrong map: how false directions impede our search for happiness

happiness map

A while ago I posted on happiness, and in the short essay I mentioned that one reason people might be unhappy is that they have false beliefs about how happiness might be attained.

I am walking along a London street. I am approached by a tourist. She speaks good English, but they are clearly lost. I’m happy to help and I ask her to pass me her map, so that I can point out where she is. [This would be a helpful start.] Then I can show her the best way to her destination. She hands me the map and I start to look at it. But there’s something wrong: some of the parts of the map are accurate, but others are clearly wrong. ‘This map is wrong,’ I point out gently. ‘In fact, it’s completely useless: it’s just going to keep getting you lost. You need to get a new map.’

She looks surprised. ‘It’s OK she says. ‘I’ve had this map a long time, and it’s dear to me. I don’t want to change it.’

‘But doesn’t it keep getting you lost?’

‘Yes, often. But it’s my map. So could you at least point out where I am on it, and I’ll try my best from there.’

I decide that there’s nothing I can really do to help, so I point out where she is, once again urging her to consider changing the map.

So it is with our ‘map’ to happiness. We each have our own map, which we use to guide us through life. Some of it is written by our experience, and some is passed on to us by our family background. Other bits – usually quite substantial – are written on it by the cultural values we pick up from the societies we live in and the social groups we belong to. Films, books, broadcast media and the advertising industry also write our maps. And, like the London tourist, we have maps that simply don’t work when it comes to making us happy. Yet we are loath to discard these faulty maps. We are familiar with them, and we cling to them, resisting any opportunities to reform them.

If we are to progress to happiness, we must discard these maps and allow fresh ones to be written. There are large obstacles in the way of this. First, we must admit that we can be wrong, and that we often are. Second, we must recognize where our current beliefs come from, and the degree to which they have been absorbed from the unreliable source of our culture. We need to cling less hard to our current beliefs and be open-minded and brave enough to assess them honestly.

One exercise I find healthy is to go somewhere busy, buy a drink, and sit and watch people going past. Then practice ‘sonder’ – this is the term used to describe the fact that the people around you all have lives that are as real and full and detailed and complicated as your own. All those people walking past. Imagine what is going on in their lives. How differently they might see the world that you and they are passing through. This is a helpful first step in putting our map down. To put our map down requires that we recognize that we are part of something bigger, and while we certainly matter, we are not at the centre of the world. We need to step aside from our ego that puts us in the middle of everything, and somehow look at ourselves from a distance.

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