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Happiness – what’s your delay?

Work hard today, live it up later. It’s called deferred happiness syndrome and it’s a modern phenomenon. But is future financial security worth years without relationships, family or joy?

Dom Cadden

We have been sipping Chicken Soup For The Soul for years. We have plastered ourselves with cute, self-scented maxims so we don’t sweat the small stuff. We’ve read How To Be Happy In Eight Minutes/10 Minutes/20 Minutes (depending on the author’s estimate of our attention span and, presumably, reading speed). Theories on happiness have been out there since Aristotle first tugged his beard, but it’s taking action to get happy that’s been the problem. Now there’s a new wave of straight-talking, well-researched commentators – the happiness experts – and they are encouraging Australians to see their self-worth outside of dollars, assets and their place in the hierarchy and make radical changes to seize their happiness.

It’s not easy gauging the nation’s happiness. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) does track wellbeing and while this “measures” such things as realisation of personal potential and job satisfaction, statistics never tell the full story. The Australia Institute tells us that 30 per cent of full-time workers in Victoria and 26 per cent in NSW say they are “putting off” their happiness until later (in a kind of “pay now, reap later” technique). Queenslanders, with 37 per cent, are the biggest delayers of happiness in the country.

The Australia Institute issued a report that gave a name to the phenomenon. “We have identified what may be dubbed the deferred happiness syndrome,” said report author and executive director of the think tank, Dr Clive Hamilton. “This is the widespread propensity for people to persist stoically in unhappy and stressful occupations while convincing themselves that they will be in a position to live happily at some time later.” In other words, in a world of creeping affluenza, we look for a life of riches instead of a rich life of personal fulfilment, loving relationships, good health and giving back to society.

We keep busy, telling ourselves that we’ll get around to this happiness business later, while solemnly noting that a rolling stone gathers no moss. But anyone who thinks that hasn’t taken a look at Keith Richards’s teeth.

The report noted that, based on a nationwide Newspoll survey of full-time workers, 30 per cent admitted that they were neglecting their families due to overwork (working more than 40 hours per week). “Deferrers set their sights on a grander lifestyle later on but build up ‘relationship debts’ to get there,” says Hamilton. “They risk ending up with healthy bank balances and bankrupt marriages.”

Deferrers are not primarily from any particular age group and men and women make up nearly equal numbers. What does unify them is a sense of insecurity about ending up on the outer. Deferrers can be the 25-year-olds living with parents so that they’re not the last of their friends to break into the real-estate market. They are the 35-year-olds putting off a holiday to get ahead in their career – but who don’t acknowledge that they probably won’t get to take a long break once they get there. Then there are the 45-year-olds enduring the dud relationship so there’s security for the kids.

How did we get to this? Decades ago, the common projection for the Western world was that by now we would be working fewer hours and have more leisure time and a better quality of life. Instead, Shari Lewis’s One-Minute Bedtime Stories is an international bestseller and working hours continue to rise. James Gleick, author of Faster: The Acceleration Of Just About Everything, writes that time has become the new negative status symbol: the less time, the more prestige. The more time you have on your hands, the less important you must be, both as a worker and a person. Workers who are seen to be burning the midnight oil are perceived to be of greater worth to the company, even though their productivity is not necessarily high.

In her urgency-laced book, How To Be Happy, Dammit: A Cynic’s Guide To Spiritual Happiness, Karen Salmansohn refers to prestige as one of the “pseudo Band-Aids” that temporarily bolster us but ultimately make us defer true happiness. Money and financial stability are others.

“You are afraid to remove these pseudo Band-Aids because you believe it will hurt a lot to remove them, which is true,” writes Salmansohn, who founded image-consulting firm Amazon Girl Inc. “But this pain won’t last for long. And ironically, it will be your true and only path to healing.”

Salmansohn’s argument is that when we strip off the pseudo Band-Aids – the need for more money, more toys, more status, more power – we free ourselves of the sticky gunk and pick up speed towards our true goals. “You are a human being, not a human was or a human will be,” she writes. “Being who you want to be and doing what you want to do is self-respect.”

But for whatever reason, many of us prefer to put off personal satisfaction in a bid to meet more tangible, material goals. Anna Pereira, for example, wants to pay her parents’ $50,000 debt, alongside her own almost $20,000 share of debt from a marriage that ended because she and her husband had little time for each other. She has a degree in hospitality management but earns more working up to 50 casual hours a week as an electronics process worker at a factory. On weekends, she works behind a bar. “I don’t go out much and, for financial reasons, I have moved in with my parents,” says Pereira, 30. “The work is dull and it’s not much of an existence but I plan to keep working seven days a week for at least another couple of years.”

Meanwhile, other Australians are choosing to put their wellbeing and fulfilment ahead of money as the phenomenon known as “downshifting” indicates. The Australia Institute report Downshifting In Australia found that cutting back work hours is the most popular way to downshift but giving up paid work, changing careers or moving to a lesser-paying job are also becoming more common. The leading reason for downshifting is to spend more time with family, followed by a desire for a healthier lifestyle, more personal fulfilment and a balanced life.

Proportionally, there are more downshifters leaving low incomes (less than $30,000) than high incomes (more than $60,000). Another Australia Institute report, Getting A Life, pointed out that downshifters are required to reject social pressures, such as planning for children and retirement, being seen to work hard and “keep up with the Joneses”. These pressures are felt more acutely by people in higher income brackets and positions of authority. Some downshifters, the report stated, have difficulty freeing themselves from the compulsion to work relentlessly and they sometimes feel guilty for relaxing and enjoying simple pleasures.

Too many people settle for something unfulfilling that doesn’t allow them the time or situation to be happy because they are working towards security. Or they are too worried about what other people think and are too guarded about the image they project.

Mike Element

“No one on their deathbed wishes that they had worked longer hours,” says Philomena Tan, a psychologist and soul-centred psychotherapist from Melbourne who specialises in helping people with their sea change. Tan is another author who has recognised our tendency to procrastinate about our own happiness. Her book, Leaving The Rat Race To Get A Life: A Map For Charting Your Sea Change, reinforces the old adage that even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.

“There’s this concept of entrainment – it’s like we’re on this fast train to somewhere and we think we can’t get off. The pace of life has just got faster and faster, partly due to technology, partly due to our values and this idea that more is better and faster is better. Quite a few people don’t have the time or the inclination to think, ‘Yes, but what is really important for me and my life and the people who are significant to me?’’’

So what stops us from taking the plunge? “For some individuals, working very hard is absolutely the right thing to do because this is what fulfils them most,” says Tan. For the rest of us, according to Getting A Life, the main forces working against downshifting are fear and anxiety, particularly fear about financial security.

The reality is that in Australia, very few would face dereliction or see their children starve if they changed the way they worked and allowed more time to create a better quality of life, a better connection with people or to make a worthwhile contribution to society. More to the point, images in the media and the constant feting of money and material possessions give us the perception that we need more to be happy. So we keep busy, telling ourselves that we’ll get around to this happiness business later, while solemnly noting that a rolling stone gathers no moss. But anyone who thinks that hasn’t taken a look at Keith Richards’s teeth.

What we really fear is nonconformity. Salmansohn writes that fear can “stop us from going where we need to go. All too often we have to be at the end of our rope to be tempted to move through our fear and go for the unfamiliar, the unknown, to change.”

The rejection of fear and these societal pressures make up the philosophy behind Sydney-based sales trainer Mike Element’s life-system seminars, titled What The F*** .

“We will keep delaying our happiness until we learn to care less about the useless and negative pressures we find creeping into our lives and running us into the ground,” says Element. “Millions of years of evolution have left us hardwired with the over-protective little voice that says, ‘Don’t do that; something bad might happen.’ We are predisposed to think the worst and when the worst doesn’t happen, we are the architects of our own dismay. That mentality is fine if you just want to exist, but wouldn’t it be better to really live?”

A strong sense of self-worth, argues Element, is what will help people seize their happiness. “Not being treated like garbage is more important than unemployment,” he says. “Too many people settle for something unfulfilling that doesn’t allow them the time or situation to be happy because they are working towards security. Or they are too worried about what other people think and are too guarded about the image they project.”

In our anxiety to conform to the measures of society and the expectations of our peers, Element explains, we forget that people are drawn to individuals who can march to the beat of their own drum and have the courage to be who they really are.

“We should remember this when we tackle things that take us out of our comfort zone and into the murky pond of doubt,” says Element. “The conviction to pursue what makes you happy is real self-worth. But if you still want to put that in terms of other people, remember this: everyone secretly envies a person who is fulfilled.”

Happiness without delay: the seven secrets

1 Don’t compare yourself or your financial position to your peers.

2 It’s not “They who die with the most toys win”; it’s “They who have the most fun playing with them win.”

3 Take time to look inside yourself. “Meditation works like one of those shake-up snow-dome thingies,” writes Karen Salmansohn. “It helps the flaky stuff in your mind settle down so you can see more clearly what you truly need and want.”

4 So you want to change? Philomena Tan says to identify your “push factors” and your “pull factors”. The push factors are those things that make you dissatisfied and the pull factors are those things that you want more of. But, she warns, “the greater the change, the longer it will take.”

5 Realise that people are like plants – some need lots of things, some need less to live on and some crave to be left alone. Similarly, some jobs are meant to only last for a certain time.

6 Be prepared to change the way you work, either by minimising work intrusions into your life, changing your work structure to allow more time flexibility, working fewer hours or opting for work that is similar but has less responsibility.

7 Acknowledge that enforcing a delay may see some things reach the point of no return. These include your health, relationships and watching children grow up. “When asked, [kids] say they prefer time with parents rather than toys or holidays,” says the Australia Institute’s Clive Hamilton.

This article first appeared in the Sunday Life magazine of the Sunday Telegraph, and was later reproduced in full by the Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre for a play program.


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