A sunrise stroll on Seven Mile Beach. A gourmet meal served in exquisite ambiance. The perfect mate, who completes you in every way. Fulfilling work, which satisfies your soul. Do we each possess a unique formula, a particular combination of life experiences and stimulations, which guarantees our happiness? And, perhaps a deeper question: Is happiness a worthy goal, in and of itself?
Psychologists contend that happiness can be directly researched, producing measureable and repeatable results. In other words, if we work hard, we can create happiness in ourselves and others. But does science provide a complete answer? After all, philosophers have tinkered with the mechanics of happiness for centuries.
“Happiness depends on ourselves.”
Aristotle (384 – 322 BC)
The great philosopher Aristotle felt that happiness is the primary purpose of human existence. In his Nicomachean Ethics lectures, he proposes a theory of happiness that is still quoted 2,300 years later. Aristotle recognized that people have always thought that wealth, pleasure, and the admiration of others will make them happy.
But he claims that when seeking these things, our actions must be “that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.” Aristotle was also a believer in the “big picture” of bliss.
In other words, true happiness can only be fully realized at the end of life. We can’t say that a soccer match was “great” until it ends. We can’t say that an orange seed is a tree, because its tree potential hasn’t yet been reached. Aristotle said, “ . . . for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Socrates (470 – 399 BC)
Socrates was the first Western philosopher to conjecture that happiness is only obtainable through self-examination. Socrates felt that happiness doesn’t depend on money, intelligence, or physical appearance, but on whether people use these things in positive ways. The wise Greek’s contemporaries believed that happiness should be reserved only for those favored by the gods, so “ordinary” people seeking happiness were punished accordingly. But Socrates felt that if average citizens could control their desires and actions, a pure state of happiness could be achieved, as crucial to the soul as morality.
The Science of Happiness
Surveys show that individuals possess wildly different perceptions of happiness. Some say it means a successful marriage, children, money, or fame. Others say they only feel happy when they make others happy. But apparently, even when people achieve their gladness goals, they often don’t perceive themselves as “happy.” In fact, one University of Illinois study found that the richest Americans – those earning more than $10 million a year – report feeling only marginally happier than their employees.
Studies reveal that benefits of being happy often include higher income, closer friendships, longer-lasting marriages, and better physical health. Happy people are also proven to be more creative, charitable, self-confident, and better able to cope with life’s adversities. With these heady benefits at stake, thousands of self-help books have been penned on the subject of happiness (a recent Amazon.com search found about 92,000 entries).
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a Harvard-educated psychology professor at University of California, has devoted her career to examining happiness and well being. Her books include The How of Happiness and The Myths of Happiness.
Lyubomirsky looked at how people compare themselves to others, how they evaluate themselves, and how they react to events in their lives. She found that “ . . . truly happy individuals construe life events and daily situations in ways that seem to maintain their happiness, while unhappy individuals construe experiences in ways that seem to reinforce unhappiness.”
In other words, happy people tend to see all of life’s events in a positive light, and are able to put a positive spin on memories. Unhappy people are more likely to fixate mostly on the negatives.
After carefully observing the habits of naturally happy people, Lyubomirsky came up with some suggested steps to happiness:
1) Regularly set aside time each day to recall moments of gratitude. Keep a journal to count your blessings, or write “gratitude letters.”
2) Engage in positive thinking about yourself. Meditate, write, or talk to others about your happiest events and future goals.
3) Practice altruism and kindness. Try each day to make a loved one happy, or give to complete strangers and charities.
4) Pursue significant, intrinsic life goals. Write down specific actions you want to take, and take “baby steps” toward your happiness goals.
5) Savor positive experiences. Use all five human senses to relish good moments in your life, even the smallest ones.
The Dopamine Effect
There is some evidence that moods are the result of chemical changes in the brain, specifically the amount of dopamine present. Simply put, according to Cambridge University Professor of Neuroscience Wolfram Schultz, when good things happen to us, dopamine is released in our brains, and we feel good. When bad things happen, levels fall along with our moods. Positive expectations also tend to increase the levels of dopamine in the brain, so it follows that simply choosing to believe that things will get better may help us maintain happiness, even if it’s a chemically induced state of mind.
A Hitch to Happiness
But is there a downside to happiness? Some research indicates that elated emotions can evoke a kind of “boomerang” effect if the experience is too intense or prolonged. Persistent euphoria is linked to high degrees of increased risk-taking behavior, psychological disorders, and even early mortality.
Let’s face it, if we were always deliriously happy, it would be impossible to distinguish between happiness and sadness. After all, when blue skies break through the clouds after a rainstorm, we experience some of life’s deepest epiphanies.
Instead of suppressing gloomy moods with medications, Lyubomirsky recommends that we not view feelings as “negative” or “positive.” All emotions motivate us to learn, change, and achieve goals. Unhappiness can help identify what’s wrong in our lives, and suggest a means for repair and survival.
The Happiness Gene
Some studies indicate that each person is born with a genetic “happiness set point.” a baseline for happiness to which we are bound to return, regardless of our efforts, after each of life’s setbacks or victories. But in her book, The How of Happiness, Lyubomirsky writes that set points determine only half of our happiness. Ten percent can be attributed to life circumstances such as wealth or luck, leaving a whopping 40 percent of our capacity for happiness within our power to change.
The Happiness Project
Gretchen Rubin, author of the best-selling book The Happiness Project, took a less clinical look at happiness, examining her own life in detail to pursue the meaning of happiness in an average person.
“I remember so clearly the moment when I had the idea to do it. I was on the 79th Street cross-town bus, and I looked out the window and thought, what do I want from life anyway? I want to be happy,” Rubin says. “I realized, though, that I didn’t spend any time thinking about whether I was happy, or how I could be happier.”
She divided a year into 12 categories of life to address, such as marriage, friendship, parenthood, money, and mindfulness. She devised specific methods to increase happiness in each category, and set forth to tackle one per month. Since its publication, The Happiness Project has launched a worldwide movement, including support groups where people discuss her advice and how they have personalized it.
“Even people who can’t agree on what it means to be ‘happy’ can agree that most people can be ‘happier’ according to their own particular definition,” Rubin writes. “I know when I feel happy. That was good enough for my purposes.”
Rubin says happiness is “like dieting. We all know the secret of dieting — eat better, eat less, exercise more — it’s the application that’s challenging. I had to create a scheme to put happiness ideas into practice in my life.” She says through this research project she achieved “feeling good” and “feeling right” in her own life, and is now able to better control her moods and actions.
Through this kind of self-analysis, Rubin says each person can discover his or her unique happiness formula, but hers turned out to be fairly simple:
One of the best ways to make myself happy is to make other people happy.
One of the best ways to make other people happy is to make myself happy.
“I found out what I knew all along: I could change my life without changing my life,” Rubin writes. “When I made the effort to reach out for them, I found that the ruby slippers had been on my feet all along; the bluebird was singing outside my kitchen window.”