'It's not as if I was pursuing happiness or joy, I wasn't that conscious. I was just pursuing everything and anything, I was addicted to success.' This is a quote from a 59 year old male client of mine. We were discussing what had motivated him during his forty years as a businessman. 'In that sense, nothing motivated me, I was just acting like an automaton, I did what I was told.'
Recent events, a stroke and a subsequent period in hospital, have radically changed his lifestyle. He has quit his job, down-sized his house, and is spending time growing vegetables as well as volunteering in a local hospice. 'For the first time in my life I know what it is to be happy'.
He's spent all his working life accumulating money and material goods. But, remarkably, during the course of his career he'd never considered his happiness. Given time and space, lying in a hospital bed, he realised he wasn't and hadn't been happy for a long time. He finally realised, as psychologist Ed Diener says, 'materialism is toxic to happiness'. As a boy, my client had been taught from an early age to be competitive, to continually work his way up the ladder at whatever cost. Having now been almost literally knocked back down the ladder, he realised how selfish and shallow his life is and how unhappy he was. His is an ever-increasing typical male story.
According to a poll by GfK NOP for The Happiness Formula on BBC, Britain is a lot unhappier place than in the 1950s - despite being three times richer. The proportion of 'very happy' people has fallen from 52% in 1957 to just 36%. Men are mindlessly working, pursuing money, eventually, unsurprisingly, this makes them unhappy and miserable.
In my new novel The Alpha Wolf, I document the present journey of such men. I describe them as 'Alpha Boys'. Typically they start with an absent father. They accrue all the trappings of modern day success- the car, the house, the lifestyle - by pursuing high-powered jobs, but don't possess the emotional intelligence or humility to deal with them. Petulantly blaming others, and going into depression when confronted by failure and disappointment. This immaturity leaves us with a large number of 'miserable old gits' out there. My client gives us a valid alternative to such a depressing picture of modern day masculinity.
I believe disappointment, failure and vulnerability are essential to our development as whole human beings. By facing them we grow, and paradoxically, become happier. The measure of a man is not in his search for acclaim, success and power, it is in his reaction to disappointment, failure and vulnerability. How he deals with the bad times makes him someone more than just a job. By overcoming adversity he is liberated to perceive himself differently, and this is almost invariably tied to a change from self-satisfaction to community benefit. He shifts his perception from being selfish to selfless. People tend to be happier when they feel they are contributing in a positive way to other's lives and the wider community. People who focus on shared experiences and relationships are generally happier than those who spend their time and effort on possessions. 'We want to understand the meaning of life, and create meaning in our lives and money can't do that for us,' says Clinical psychologist, Amanda Gordon.
In the novel the hero is very reluctant to make any such changes, he perceives his descent as a failure, not a success. This for me highlights our need to carefully examine what we as a society call 'success'. Is it celebrity? The accumulation of material goods, money? The tangible rewards of our present materialistic life. Or is it friendships, family, sharing, happiness? The intangible benefits of an authentic lifestyle.
We may well bemoan the present immaturity and emotional unintelligence of our men-folk, but we are still perpetuating the myth that to mindlessly pursue 'success' is the be-all and end-all. It isn't, it is just the start, and there is so much more complexity to living a 'successful' life. As with my gardening client, increasing numbers of men are now developing emotional intelligence, compassion and vulnerability, and this will enable them to co-create a happier, more sustainable and fulfilling future. All of us, men and women, need to ensure that we build a new culture in which mature and collaborative behaviour is seen as essential. Where success and failure are equally important, and where men don't all inevitably become 'miserable gits' as they grow old.