I had an interesting conversation about happiness with a bunch of guys.
We touched on a number of related topics, such as perception of the "rat race" in business. When asked about his definition of that phenomenon, one guy said that he thinks almost everyone in modern society works very hard to get more and better stuff which makes for a bad market for employees. In particular, people work to get better stuff than their friends or neightbours have. They work very hard and sacrifice a lot of time and freedom in hope that certain things and experiences (marketed through mass media over the years) will bring them happiness.
I don't know if I agree with the part that people work for the sole purpose of realizing those misguided dreams -- but I agree about the part about dreams themselves.
I think that most people want to be happy in a similar way, but they live in a certain way hoping or believing that these things like bigger plasma TV or better car will bring them happiness. The problem is that most people live in a way that is so similar to each other and so commoditized that what they believe will make them happy is in fact a product of strong forces such as marketing of international brands or most prominent "desired lifestyles" in a given society.
What is missing for most people is actual experimentation. Many people have limited experience in major areas of their life. They live in one city in their home country for decades; they are rarely if ever exposed to foreigners, and definitely never for an extended period of life. They only ever worked a regular, full time job, not trying freelance or starting their own business, or even being a manager (which is usually a radically different job from being an individual contributor). They are focused very much on a single industry rather than trying various different industries. They have few (if any) friends from outside their "class" / social circle, and they don't seek much more.
I have seen people from my parents' generation and people from my own generation whose life looks like a museum to me: it hasn't changed at all in the past 10 years or more. It is amazing to me. They do same things, eat the same way, dress the same way, have the same items at home ( most of which they never use but won't part with it), unchanged beliefs (!), no new friends etc. etc.
I think many people are not content with their life in part because they never really explore the world, so they can only get happy through luck. They never try finding a job /partner / place / hobby long enough to get a great match with their personality/abilities etc. They let mostly other people, especially the family, mass marketing and the media to produce their dreams of happiness. That indeed could lead to consumptionism and "rat race", since it serves big brands and employers very well. People will work hard to get the cash for something they hope will make them happy.
Another piece of this is also the fact that we humans suck at predicting what will make us happy. Also there's some research on motivation at work, its relation to rewards etc. but I don't care here too much about motivation - I'm just saying I am a strong believer in experimenting with different things, trying different jobs and places etc. I'm not particularly good at acting on my many ideas of what might feel nice (i.e. I am afraid to try some new hobbies for example), but I've tried lots of different jobs in many places, met lots of people and actively working on meeting more and more diverse people etc. And I like this a lot. I think I am as happy a person now largely because I never settled and I learned a good deal about my own preferences.
Now perhaps many of those who work hard eventually get happy when they get "it". The "it" they wanted not because they experimented a bit and found something they like very much, but the one that was programmed into them by their information environment: family, media, marketers. But I think most people never get it, and of those who do, many are still unsatisfied because what they were after didn't fit them, or doesn't fit human nature at all.
When I was preparing for my trip, nearly everyone said "wow, it sounds great and daring and interesting, I wish I could go, it must kick ass". Well, guess what. For me it didn't. After a week I was bored with sightseeing and tired with moving around all the time. I missed people from my hometown again and I decided to go back and stay in Wroclaw during the winter, despite high "hopes" for having nice warm weather in the Polish cold months.
I tried and it wasn't nearly as fun as I thought it would be. Now I know. I was really surprised by the outcome.
Now, out of those many people who said it must kick ass etc., how many would actually love a trip like that? Because maybe many would be like me - just get bored or tired, or both. So now I learned something about my preferences. I still may go somewhere if it gets really really cold and I have something specific to do which I could do elsewhere for a month. But I will be careful not to go for a random trip to random places where the main purpose will be to "see places".
In other words, it seems to me that we are prone to overestimate how great some things actually feel, especially if they are outside of our own experience. Moreover, people believe in what media and marketing produce too much. The outcome of media and ads is that many, many people have the same mental image of reality, same dreams etc. But it's not clear that if these dreams come true, the people who have them will actually feel great.
It's probably healthy to test our own dreams.