Happiness is.... 

 The Success and Happiness Paradox

"To the extent to which one makes happiness the objective of his motivation, he necessarily makes it the object of his attention. But precisely by so doing he loses sight of the reason for happiness, and happiness itself must fade away."
"Success and happiness must happen, the less one cares for them, the more they can."
Viktor E. Frankl, The Will of Meaning

"All that is best for us comes of itself into our hands--but if we strive to overtake it, it perpetually eludes us."
Ananda Coomaraswamy, The Dance of Shiva

Born to be happy?

The circumstances in life have precious little to do with the satisfaction we experience. Married churchgoers tend to outscore single nonbelievers in happiness surveys, but health, wealth, good looks and status have astonishingly little effect on what the researchers call "subjective well-being."

Psychologists have amassed a heap of data on what people who deem themselves happy have in common. Mood and temperament have a large genetic component. In a now famous 1996 study, University of Minnesota psychologists David Lykken and Auke Tellegen surveyed 732 pairs of identical twins and found them closely matched for adult happiness, regardless of whether they'd grown up together or apart. Such findings suggest that while we all experience ups and downs, our moods revolve around the emotional baselines or "set points" we're born with.

In his book, "Authentic Happiness" (Free Press), University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman tells us that happiness is not about maximizing utility or managing our moods. It's about outgrowing our obsessive concern with how we feel. He says, "The time has arrived for a science that seeks to understand positive emotion, build strength and virtue, and provide guideposts for finding what Aristotle called the 'good life'."

Beyond pleasure lies what he terms "gratification," the enduring fulfillment that comes from developing one's strengths and putting them to positive use. Half of us may lack the genes for bubbly good cheer, he reasons, but no one lacks nascent strengths or the capacity to nurture them.

Source: The Science of Happiness by Geoffrey Cowley (with Anne Underwood) in Newsweek, September 16, 2002

There is an ancient tale of happiness that appears in many cultures, and it goes something like this: Once there was a prince who was terribly unhappy. The king dispatched messengers to find the shirt of a happy man, as his advisers told him that was the only cure. They finally encountered a poor farmer who was supremely content.

Alas, the happy man owned no shirt.

"Happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in length."

Robert Frost

The Road to Happiness

by John Reich and Ed Diener, Psychology Today, July 1994

Happiness, venture William James, the noted 19th century philosopher/psychologist, is reflected in the ratio of one's accomplishments to one's aspirations. This suggests, of course, that when it comes to feeling happy in our lives, we can choose one of two paths: continually add to our list of accomplishments--or lower our expectations.

Since then, researchers have suggested new definitions of happiness and how we should go about getting there. In their attempt to understand and quantify the state of "subjective well-being" (lab-speak for happiness), a new ratio/question has emerged: How many positive vs. negative experiences must people have before they can call themselves genuinely "happy"?

The general consensus of current research is that happiness is greatest when we combine frequent numbers of good experiences with a few very intense ones. To feel happy, our focus needs to be on the frequency, not the intensity, of positive events in our lives. Learning how to take pleasure in the littler victories, recognizing their importance in our lives, and working hard to minimize the negatives will accomplish more than waiting around for a burst of intense pleasure.

Happiness is being aware not only of the positive events that occur in your life but also that you yourself are the cause of these events--that you can create them, that you control their occurrence, and that you play a major role in the good things that happen to you. The sense of mastery over both the good and bad events in your life contributes to an overall sense of well-being.

"Success is maintaining your enthusiasm between failures"

Winston Churchill

Pursuing happiness

by David G. Meyers in Psychology Today, July 1993

If I wanted to predict whether you feel happy and find life satisfying, there are some things that, surprisingly, it would not help me to know. For example:

Tell me your age, and you've given me no clue. we can forget tales of "mid-life crisis," "empty-nest syndrome," and despondent old age. Actually, happiness is equally available to people at every age. Moreover, rates of depression, suicide, and divorce show no increase during the mythical mid-life crisis years.

Tell me your sex, and you're given me no clue. The sexes are prone to different sorts of misery. When troubled, men more often become alcoholic, while women more often ruminate and get depressed. Yet men and women are equally likely to declare themselves "very happy" and "satisfied" with life.

Tell me your race, and you've given me no clue. African-Americans, for example, are only slightly less likely than European-Americans to feel very happy. Yet how could this be, given what everyone knows-that disadvantaged groups suffer impoverished self-esteem and resulting depression? It's because what "everyone knows" is wrong.

Tell me your income, and-assuming you can afford life's necessities-I'm still in the dark as to whether you're a happy person. Most people suppose otherwise. They are not crass enough to say that money buys happiness. But they do think that 20 percent more money would make them a little happier. And three in four students-nearly double the proportion in 1970-now begin college agreeing that its "very important" that they become "very well off financially."

Again, the findings astonish us: People in rich countries are not consistently happier than people in not-so-rich countries. And rich people-even those surveyed among Forbes' 100 wealthiest Americans-are only slightly happier than working-class folk.

So, what would give us a clue about someone's level of happiness and how can we use this information to improve our inner well-being?

Although there is no surefire "How to Be Happy" formula, here are a few suggestions:

What do you long for? Fame? Fortune? Unlimited leisure? Imagine that I could snap my fingers and give it to you. Would you now be happy? Indeed, you'd be euphoric, in the short run. But gradually you would adapt to your new circumstance and life would return to its normal mix of emotions. To recover the joy, you would now need an even higher high.

Happiness, said Benjamin Franklin, "is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by the little advantages that occur every day."

As a future-oriented person, I periodically remind myself of Pascal's remark that we too often live as if the present were merely our means to the future. "So, we never live, but we hope to live-and as we are always preparing to be happy, it is inevitable we should never be so."

To live in the present means, for me, taking delight in the day's magic moments, from morning tea and cereal, hunched over a manuscript, to the day's last moments, snuggling and talking with my wife. Happiness isn't somewhere off in the future, but in this mornings phone conversation with someone seeking advice, in this noon's meal with a friend, in this evening's bedtime story with a child, in tonight's curling up with a good book.

There is nevertheless a place for setting goals and managing time. Compared to those who've learned a sense of helplessness, those with an "internal locus of control" do better in school, cope better with stress, and live with greater well-being. Deprived of control over one's life-an experience studied in prisoners, nursing home patients, and people living under totalitarian regimes-people suffer lower morale and poorer health.

One way to feel more empowered is to master our use of time. For happy people, time is "filled and planned," says Oxford University psychologist Michael Argyle. "For unhappy people time is unfilled, open and uncommitted; they postpone things and are inefficient."

Study after study reveals three traits (in addition to the above-mentioned personal control) that mark happy people's lives. First, they like themselves. They exhibit self-esteem by agreeing with such statements as "I'm a lot of fun to be with" and "I have good ideas." Second, they are positive thinkers. Writing from a place called Hope [College], it is fitting that I concede the power of hope-filled optimism. Third, they are outgoing. We could imagine opposite findings-that introverts would be happiest, living in peaceful solitude, or that pessimists would live with greater gladness as things keep turning out better than expected. But its the sociable extroverts and the venturesome optimists who report more happiness.

Sometimes the challenges of work or home are too great, and we feel stressed. At other times, we're under challenged and bored. In between these two states is a zone where we feel challenged, but not overmatched. We get absorbed. We lose consciousness of time. We are in a state that University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow."

In his studies of writers, dancers, surgeons, chess players, mountain climbers, and the like, Csikszentmihalyi discovered that people find the flow experience satisfying. Even if we make a lower but livable wage, it pays to seek work that we find interesting and challenging. The well-being that accompanies flow extends to leisure.

A slew of studies reveal that aerobic exercise is an antidote for mild depression and anxiety. Repeated surveys show that people are more self-confident, unstressed, and in better spirits, if physically fit.

The exercise research is producing such consistent and encouraging results and with such minimal cost and desirable side effects-that most people seeking to boost their energy and well-being can benefit from at least a moderate regimen. Chuck, my 76-year-old friend, plays basketball daily with people half his age and younger. "If I don't exercise five times a week," he explains, "I begin to get the blahs. The stamina I get from exercising helps keep me optimistic about living." Mens sana in corpore sano. Sound mind in a sound body.

Happy people live active, vigorous lives, yet they reserve time for renewing sleep and solitude. Today, however, many people suffer from shortened sleep, leaving them groggy and unable to get into flow. William Dement, director of Stanford University's Sleep Disorders Center, laments the "national sleep debt." Among the college students I have spent my adult life with, few behaviors strike me as more self-destructive than the typical late nights, with resulting fatigue, diminished alertness, and, not infrequently, failure and depression.

There are few better antidotes for unhappiness than an intimate friendship with someone who cares deeply about you. People who can name several close, supportive friends-friends with whom they freely share their ups and downs-live with greater health and happiness. in experiments, people relax as they confide painful experiences. Like confession, confiding is good for the soul.

"Joy is the serious business of heaven," said C. S. Lewis. One surmises as much from reading the new research on faith and well-being. Actively religious people are much less likely to become delinquent, to abuse drugs and alcohol, to divorce, or to commit suicide. They're even physically healthier, due perhaps to less smoking and drinking.

Source: Digested from The Pursuit of Happiness (Avon Books; 1993) by David G. Myers, Ph.D. Copyright 1993 by the David and Carol Myers Foundation.

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