When I was a young boy, I sometimes heard people say: “You only have one life, so you might as well enjoy it!” To my young ears and mind, I thought this must mean that I was quite justified in having fun, fun, fun all day long. But even at the time, I realized that this was not possible. Life has rules that you do not always enjoy obeying. Life involves obligations and responsibilities that are not always fun to carry out. This seemed like a contradiction to my young mind. But, I began to realize as the years went by, that the more serious things in life can be good too, and that a person needs not only to have fun and enjoy oneself but also to engage in more serious activities that are based on personal values and goals and that bring satisfaction and fulfillment to your life.
A first rule in engaging in meaningful serious activities is to make efforts to arrange your life in such a way that your basic needs are met. A woman in a war-torn country asked me how she could have better quality of life. “First,” I said, “you have to find a safe place for you and your children to stay – even if temporarily – and to ensure that they have enough food to eat and water to drink. After that, you can start to think about what you might do to have more satisfying life conditions.” Another woman who lived in a rather impoverished country asked me how to have better quality of life for children with disabilities. “In my country,” she told through an interpreter, “children with disabilities are chained to their beds.” You can guess my response: “The first thing to do is unchain the children. Give them a good meal, and fresh water to drink. Then take them outside into the sunshine and play in the grass.” You have to begin with the basics.
A second rule is to pursue activities that make your life more pleasant, satisfying, and fulfilling. Here is where personal goals come into play. You see, what is pleasant and satisfying to one person is not necessarily pleasant and satisfying to the next person. I love living in a big city, whereas my older sister likes to live in a house surrounded by trees in a very rural area. I like to have plenty of friends and to go to places with them, whereas my long-time best friend only likes a very few friends and only likes to see us once in a while. I enjoy spirituality derived from nature and the outdoors, whereas my next door neighbour gets a great deal of fulfillment from going to church two times every Sunday. What is important to quality of life is that each of us pursues the types of activities we like and value, and that each of us sets up our own lives in such a way that the things we personally value and many of the things we wish to do in life can be fulfilled.
And what about money? We have all heard that money does not buy happiness, and when we read about the lives of rich people this certainly does seem to be true in many cases. But those of us who have lived through tough economic times know that lacking money can result in a great deal of stress and keep you from thinking of other positive aspects of life. So, the answer to “Do I need money to be happy?” is that you do not need an abundance of money to be happy, but to have good quality of life you can benefit from enough to give you freedom to be able to choose among life’s various paths and to take the trip down the paths that you choose and value. The same thing can be said about health or education. Neither in itself will bring you happiness or life quality, but the lack of health or the lack of education in today’s complex world may be barriers to you achieving your life goals that mean quality for you.
But there is a funny thing about people. We have an amazing capacity to find happiness -- even in adverse situations. My Australian friend and colleague, Bob Cummins, has carried out a great deal of research on life satisfaction and has concluded that most people have what he calls “set points of happiness” which are fairly stable ranges within which most of us are able to find happiness in spite of our varying circumstances. This speaks to the adaptability of human beings, and is an encouraging sign for people thinking about how to improve their quality of life. There are many paths you might follow and many sets of circumstances that might come into your life, invited or uninvited. But even if you are not living according to your first choice or your second choice or even your third choice, you have the capacity to still find life satisfaction in a different way.
And this is one of the miracles of quality of life for people – such as us.
Ivan Brown, PhD, is a professor of disability studies in the Department of Applied Disability Studies at Brock University in Canada. He also is visiting professor for DSiN.