The Elusive Goal of Happiness

From the time we were first able to understand the word, we have all been in pursuit of as much happiness as we can find. After all, it’s in the constitution, right? However, happiness is an elusive study target. It’s been hard to define, and even harder to measure. But in recent years, social scientists have produced some compelling findings.

One of several recent studies is that of Sheldon Cohen, who connected good health with a seemingly valid definition of happiness and found a strong correlation. In this study, Cohen found that individuals who reported both a “personal style” and “typical upbeat mood” had greater resistance to colds and flu than those who reported negative emotional styles (tense, anxious, depressed, sad). However, even though we can demonstrate that happiness and good health are correlated, we don’t really have a cause and effect direction (i.e. we have a chicken-and-egg problem).

In addition, studies are interesting, but what most people really want to know is how to get more happiness. Sometimes happy feelings seem as elusive as a shadow; some days we simply wake up happy. Some people seem to be happier than others just by their very nature. But no one is happy ALL the time. Life has its ups and downs, and try as we might to thrust and parry with those unexpected downturns, we are all going to spend some time being unhappy. Even though that can seem downright un-American at times.

Here is what social scientists believe they DO know about happiness:

  • The Personality Factor. People who do not excessively worry and who are sociable and conscientious tend to be happier overall. Some of this is genetic. About 50% of the differences in happiness levels among people are external and situation-based, and 50% is inherited personality traits. This was demonstrated very visibly in a study by UK and Australian psychologists.
  • It Ain’t Money! Money doesn’t make people happy. People in rich nations rank no higher on the happiness scale than those of poor nations. Researchers in the UK found that high pay only increases happiness if it exceeds what friends and colleagues make in similar positions. Money may also create a fleeting feeling of happiness if it raises ones stature in the community. Other studies have found that giving money away (no matter the amount) often creates feelings of happiness in the giver. Winning the lottery definitely does not make people happier. In fact, it may be just the opposite!
  • Relationships Rock. Strong, long-term relationships are perhaps the most reliable indicator of happiness for the most people. Marriage is the number one long-term relationship that has been studied, but it is by no means the only one. As marriage becomes less of a necessity in modern life, especially for women, long-term relationships are being forged in all combinations of ages and genders. These relationships become particularly critical as people age.
  • Go for the Gusto. People who seek out experience, rather than “things” report greater, longer-lasting feelings of happiness. Bigger homes and more expensive cars produce only fleeting moments of happiness for the buyers, whereas those who seek out novel and interesting life experiences report that these purchases often provided them with many happy hours, discussions, and memories.

One trap people can easily fall into as they age is believing that they will finally be truly happy once they retire. This is almost never the case. The personality factor is what comes into play here, and that generally does not change very much as we age. Yes, there are stories out there about people who have had close brushes with death or some other kind of epiphany and have actually altered their lives in such a way that they create a more desirable environment for themselves or surround themselves with relationships that are more genuine or less superficial than they had in the past. Those people will legitimately claim greater happiness after they make that change. It can happen, and I don’t mean to denigrate that experience. It just doesn’t really happen to all that many people.

I have always loved the saying “wherever you go, there you are.” I’m not sure who first said it, and it sounds about as trite as you can get (well, DUH!), but stop and think about it. It’s deeper than it appears on the surface. You really can’t run away from who you are. So when you hear people say things like “I’ll be happier when my kids are out of college,” or “I’ll be happier when my wife quits working,” or “I’ll be happier when we finally make that move to a sunbelt state,” it might happen, but research tells us it’s rather unlikely.

If you believe you are a chronically unhappy person or are situationally unhappy right now, you might want to look at what is blocking you from being the happy person you want to be. For most people, the answer seems to relate back in some way to relationships and what they are getting from life – not the job they are working, or the state they are living in, or the barking dog next door. When you change something in the “relationship” or “experience” category that seems to unlock the happiness door for many people – especially at midlife and beyond.

1 Comment

  1. Very nice article–thanks!

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