Maria Gutzeit: Happiness doesn’t come in a box

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Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” These classic words from the 1957 Dr. Seuss book still ring true 60 years later, especially when my daughter asked what I wanted for Christmas. She has her own allowance now and was eager to buy something. I was a bit shocked when my father’s words came out of my mouth. “I just want everyone to be happy and healthy.”

The year goes out a bit like as it came it. Chaotic. Uncertain. Contentious in some circles. We had devastating fires, starting with Sonoma up north and repeating in Southern California many times over. We had a tax bill that reminded us that hyperpartisanship and rampant misinformation are both alive and well. Overlapping all that we had a holiday season that seems to now officially start after Halloween, roll through Black Friday, Cyber Monday, right up to Year End Clearance!

One thing that also happened was the November 2017 National Geographic cover story on the world’s happiest places. I found it fascinating that not one person in the entire article talked about taxes, or much about stuff. The featured places were Costa Rica, Denmark, and Singapore. Happiest place in the US? Boulder, Colorado. Each area had its own cultural spin which influenced their happiness. Costa Rica was very social, highly literate, with a government health program that focuses on preventive medicine. Danes apparently feel very sure everything will be ok, even with a high tax rate. They have good quality education, healthcare, and plentiful vacation and social support systems. They also have ample time to be engaged in their communities, with reportedly 90% belonging to clubs or associations.

Singapore is more heavily tilted towards financial happiness and seems a bit like the US. Per the article’s author, Dan Buettner, “Success for Singaporeans lies at the end of a well-defined path: Follow the rules, get into the right school, land the right job, and happiness is yours.” Though filled with millionaires, the article points out Singapore also offers living wages to workers, subsidized housing and healthcare, and that people generally trust each other and feel safe.

The United States scored 14th worldwide on happiness. Boulder, Colorado, topped 190 US cities in happiness scoring, and had their own specific values. People are involved. They are active. They have a “clear vision of the good life” and are very fit, yet are fighting back high levels of stress that are creeping in of late.

A water agency employee lost their house in the Thomas fire. Likely everyone knows someone who had losses or very close calls. People, including children and the elderly, died tragically and heroically. I was troubled by stories of the many horses who lost their lives, confused by the fires and sometimes horribly trapped and suffering. Yet I was cheered by the story of the college soccer player who saved her huge pit bull by stuffing him in her gear bag and pedaling her bike to safety in Sonoma. A friend in the area took a picture of his wife, dog, and camper van, safe on the beach after fleeing the fires, and posted it with the caption “all we need.”

The commercial element of our society teaches us to find the best present, find the best deal, and to buy more- save more! Many families, seniors, and children just wish for a gift, any gift, at the holidays, at the same time others leave a pile of wrapping paper behind as they wander off to the mall. We’re encouraged to find happiness spending at the sales, yet we’re also indoctrinated to believe that the agencies who provide roads, schools, power, and health, retirement, and yes fire protection aren’t deserving of another dime, and we wring hands over every penny of tax. No doubt, right now, people are also worriedly executing year-end tax strategies with the new tax bill.

It’s my hope and wish for the New Year that we remember what is really worth saving, what is worth risking it all for. It isn’t stuff. It’s people. It’s animals. It’s children. If you ask folks in the happiest places in the world, they will tell you happiness doesn’t come in a box, and it isn’t terribly related to dollar signs. It comes from being safe and secure. Let’s keep our eyes on that.

Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner, elected official, and mom living in Santa Clarita.

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