Linda Metcalf refers to the above scenario as “The Miracle Question.” Practitioners of Solution-Focused Therapy use it to help clients visualize and move toward their goals for treatment. While the Miracle Question does not explicitly ask about happiness, it can be reasonable to assume that the question elucidates that which people believe impedes their happiness. Furthermore, the answer to The Miracle Question paints a vision of the future in which the respondent is happy or at least on the road to happiness.
To understand the problems people often identify as obstacles to happiness and then the visions of their happy lives, I conducted a survey using a variation of The Miracle Question. A supervisor from years ago used it with her clients and with me. The variation goes as follows:
Fill in the blanks:
If wasn’t such a problem for me, then I would .
In my survey, this Miracle Question variation appeared amongst many other open-ended questions pertaining to happiness or the lack thereof. Results of the overall survey will be discussed over the upcoming months. The survey was conducted over the internet and advertised over various social media including Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Furthermore, people were invited to participate via email and links posted to my website.
Seventy-six individuals completed the Miracle Question variation. Ages ranged from 18 years old to over 75, with 65% falling between 25 and 34 years of age. Eighty percent of respondents were women. Income ranged from less than $25,000 a year to over $200,000 a year, with 44% of respondents making between $50,000 and $99,999 a year.
Obstacles to Happiness
What did you enter into the first part of that sentence? What do people identify as the major obstacle to their happiness? The most common response I received was MONEY. Twenty-two of the 76 respondents (29%) indicated that money issues act as the main obstacle to making the vision of a happy future a reality. Most people simply wrote “money,” while others identified “economic/financial security,” “paying bills,” and “student loans” as hindrances to happiness. The table below highlights problems identified by the respondents; if only a miracle were to happen, these problems would disappear and the respondents’ lives would improve.
Organizational behaviors and self-control fell next in line with 8% of respondents identifying their most significant obstacles as issues like procrastination, lack of discipline, difficulties scheduling, impulsivity, and general “organization.” Seven percent indicated that “if time wasn’t such a problem,” their lives would be better in some way. One could argue that time relates to organization behaviors as lack of time often reflects poor time management or difficulties making time for important activities. Disagree? Break your day down into half-hour increments and write down your typical daily routine. Might there be time spent participating in activities that could be eliminated or decreased in order to make room for something you consider more important (i.e., watching television, organizing something that could be broken up into smaller parts and spread across several days, doing something for someone that they could otherwise do themselves, etc.)?
Ego/Self-related issues were also identified by 7% of respondents, such as lack of self-confidence, not “being myself,” “being hard on myself,” “knowing how to be true to myself,” and how one is perceived by others. Eating habits, energy/motivation, sleep, physical limitations/pain, and other people posed problems for 4% of respondents each. The other people who interfered with happiness included various family members and “dealing with stupid people all of the time.” The remaining individuals (9%) offered idiosyncratic obstacles to happiness such as “trust,” “household duties,” “love,” and “responsibility.” In what category does your primary problem fall?
Since the “money” discussion is a bit long, I thought it would be most appropriate to give it its own section. The high percentage of individuals who identified money as the most problematic obstacle to happiness warrants some attention. Money and happiness have a complicated relationship. Gretchen Rubin offers a great discussion of research that addresses the complex relationship between money and happiness in her book The Happiness Project. To highlight some points, she addresses the common statement “money can’t buy happiness” and then explores data in which wealthier Americans actually do report more happiness than their poorer counterparts. She then discusses how people in wealthier countries do not report any more happiness than those in nations with less resources.
She also emphasizes the role of comparison; people are usually happier if they are not the poorest and/or the least earning amongst their peers. She also discussed that income relates to happiness in terms of the type of lifestyle we want to maintain. Some people want fashionable clothes, international travel, or private-school educations, while others want to hike, spend quiet nights with friends, or create works of art. It would seem that it matters less how much we make than how much we make in relation to other people and/or in relation to the type of lifestyle we want to maintain. To see more on this discussion, please reference her book.
You may be wondering the incomes of these respondents, as some might assume that the 22% who identified money as their biggest problem likely fall in lower income brackets. If you simply eyeball the pie charts below (figures 1 and 2), you may notice that the household income breakdowns are quite similar between the overall sample and those who endorsed money as their biggest problem (“Money Problem” respondents). In fact, 9% of the “Money Problem” respondents made less than $25,000 while 12% of the overall sample fell in that low-earning bracket. Thirty percent of the “Money Problem” respondents and 22% of the total sample made between $50,000 and $99,999 a year. Interestingly, 12% of the total sample and 23% of those identifying “money” as the major obstacle to happiness made over $100,000 a year. In this sample, you could agree with Notorious B.I.G. that “mo’ money, mo’ problems”….but then come to realize that “no money, mo’ problems”….and then “some money, mo’ problems.” That’s right, everyone has problems, and many people think their biggest problem is money, regardless of their income.
Figure 1. Income of Total Sample
What would you do in the absence of your main problem? How might your life be different in the absence of this obstacle to happiness?
The most popular answers were identified by 14% of respondents each: (a) a vague sense of “betterness,” (b) pursuit of goals, (c) increased productivity (or “doing more”), and (d) travel. For example, individuals said that if their problems weren’t so problematic they would “function more effectively in the world,” “be happier,” “enjoy life more,” and “be more emotionally and financially stable.” The popularity of “vague betterness” amongst these respondents suggests difficulty in developing a clear visualization of a “happy” life; these people know they want to be happy, but they do not know exactly what that looks like aside from the fact that they would be without problems. When conducting therapy, I face the “vague betterness” dilemma often. People are very good at identifying the problems that impede growth; we are often much better at noticing what we don’t want than indicating what we do want.
Again, fourteen percent indicated that they would work toward goals in the absence of their problems. Some goals related to physical exercise and athleticism, such as “be a pro,” “exercise more,” and hike; yet other goals were occupational or educational, like “get a college degree,” “go back to school,” or “start working.” Another 14% indicated they would “do more” or “be more productive” if their problems no longer hindered their movement toward to happiness. Lastly, 14% of respondents said they would travel in the absence of their obstacles.
Twelve percent of respondents would focus more on their relationships by spending more time with children and/or spouses, “see more people,” and “concentrate on relationships.” Relaxation arose as an important part of happiness for 8% of respondents in which they indicated they would “stress less,” “have more peace,” and “relax more” in the absence of their most problematic problems. Five percent reported that they would move and another 5% would like to take more risks. Lastly, 3% stated that they would engage in more creative activities. Of course, some obstacles arose that were not shared by other respondents, such as “be more motivated” and “forgive more.”
Again, the Miracle Question does not directly ask about happiness. Given the nature of the question, however, it can be reasonable to assume that the vision it engenders is one that the respondent believes will bring them great happiness. In this group of people, it seems about half would pursue occupational and educational goals, be more productive, travel, and spend quality time with loves ones if only they had more money and relief from psychological/emotional pain.
The next question would be “how can you pursue these things with your life being as it is?” Can a person pursue occupational or educational goals in the presence of psychological/emotional pain? Can one be more productive, travel, or spend time with loved ones given their current financial circumstances? Can you pursue the things you envision in your happiness scenario in the presence of your current problems?
In future entries I will discuss results from other questions asked in this survey as well as a discussion of the overall results. In an effort to continue the dialogue, and thus collect more data, I would love to hear responses to the information presented. If you would like to anonymously respond to the current blog entry, please click the link here.