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Happiness—What is it? How to get it? How to keep it?

Has there ever been a parent who never said to their child, "I don't care what you do; I only want you to be happy." Indeed it seems that what everyone wants is continuous and genuine happiness. Even the US Constitution refers to "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". However, happiness cannot simply be reduced to nothing more than having a good time.

What is happiness?

  1. Happiness is an activity. Helen Keller said, "True happiness is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose." In other words, we become happy by doing things that make us happy, whether in our work or in our play.

  2. Happiness is an attitude. Abraham Lincoln said, "Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be." In other words, if we decide to be happy, we are more likely to be happy. And we now know that Lincoln suffered from depression throughout his life. But they didn't call him a Depressive; they called him Mr. President.

  3. Happiness is a feeling that is the result of our attitudes and actions. But notice that the feeling of happiness is the result, not the cause, of attitudes and actions.

What determines happiness?

Believe it or not, studies have found that a large part of the variance (about 50%) in whether we are happy or not depends on our genetic makeup. Happiness just seems to come more naturally to some people than to others. If your parents and other relatives were happy, it is more likely that you will be too. But if they weren't, well, it doesn't mean you are doomed to unhappiness forever. Because research has also found that your intentional activity accounts for about 40% of the variance in whether or not you are happy. Surprisingly, only about 10% of your happiness is determined by your individual circumstances. Therefore, if you are unhappy today, you'll probably be unhappy tomorrow - unless you decide to do something about it.

To what is happiness related?

  1. What is very important to happiness: Your personality, work, self-esteem, optimism, and a sense of control over your life. Those who work in meaningful occupations and have control over large aspects of their lives are more likely to be happy. Surprisingly, perhaps, spending money on other people rather than yourself is very important! But most parents know that.

  2. What is somewhat important to happiness: Good health, religion (religious people are happier than non-religious people), and relationship harmony. For example, while a bad marriage may make you miserable, a good marriage can make you happy.

  3. What is not important to happiness: Money, age, gender, intelligence, attractiveness, and parenthood. This is very surprising to people because they tend to assume that they'd be happier if only they had more - money, beauty, etc. Likewise, we often assume older people are unhappy because they're, well, old and full of aches and pains. But some of the unhappiest people are the young who are insecure about relationships and practically everything else. Therefore, you don't need to be rich and beautiful to be happy, and you don't need children. Indeed, research has discovered that marital satisfaction actually declines during the child rearing years and increases after they leave! So much for the myth of the "empty nest" unhappiness. And changing your life circumstances (for example, your spouse or your place of residence) won't help make you happier either. If you are unhappy in Ohio with your old spouse, you'll likely be unhappy in Florida with a new spouse because you take yourself with you wherever you go!

What are the primary sources of happiness in life?

They include the quality of your family relationships, your employment, your community and friends, the state of your health, your sense of self-control or autonomy, the quality of your personal ethical and moral values, and the quality of your environment. Fundamentally, things won't make you happy - relationships will.

What are some happiness-enhancing activities in which you might engage?

  1. Practice expressing gratitude for what you have. Interestingly, many people constantly moan and complain about what they don't have, which is a good recipe for unhappiness. Each evening write down three specific things that happened that day for which you are grateful. Think small!! Write down different things each evening.

  2. Cultivate optimism. Express faith in yourself, other people, the world, and God. A sense of optimism is a good predictor of mental health.

  3. Ambrose Bierce once said, "Happiness is an agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another." Psychologists call this downward social comparison comparing ourselves to others who are worse off than we are. It really will make us happier than upward social comparison which is comparing ourselves to those who are better off than we are. For example, research has shown that if we look at and admire attractive members of the opposite sex, we are unhappier with our spouses. If we look at others who are more attractive than we are and then envy them, we will feel worse about ourselves. Spending too much time watching television can make us unhappy because all the people in the sitcoms are younger, thinner, more attractive, and have better spouses and sex lives than we do. But remember the saying, "I felt bad because I had no shoes until I met a man who had not feet."

  4. Practice random acts of kindness, such as letting someone cut in front of you in traffic. It's catching! Mark Twain once said, "Always do the right thing. It will impress some people and astonish the rest." The same goes for kindness and generosity.

  5. Put more effort into building and enhancing your social connections with others. Social relationships are a buffer against negative life events. Ask yourself, "How many people would come to my funeral? Who would they be and why should they?" In Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, no one came to Ebenezer Scrooge's funeral in the scenario posed by the Ghost of Christmas Future. Remember also, no one ever says on their deathbed, "Gee, I wish I'd spent more time at the office!"

  6. Learn to forgive others and yourself. A lack of forgiveness hurts you, not the other party. Forgiving primarily benefits you. This is another complete topic for another time.

  7. Commit to your goals and follow through with actions. Remember, "When all is said and done, some people have said it and some people have done it - and they aren't the same people!"

  8. Savor and think about life's joys. Relish the mundane and the ordinary. Have fun in small activities. Do outrageous things-outrageously... Remember, happiness is not something that just happens to you. Like love, it's a decision, and deciding you want to be happier is the first step. Then foster it by planned activities. But don't try to force it; let it come to you. For in the words of the 1960's saying, "If you want something let it go. If it comes back to you it's yours. If it doesn't, you never had it."

E. Thomas Dowd, Ph.D.

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