By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
For Ralph Waldo Emerson it was the triumph of principle. Washington found it inexorably linked to virtue, and George Bernard Shaw said it was “health and a course to steer.” Singer Cheryl Crowe said it is whatever doesn’t make you sad, and comedian Johnny Carson said it is “a tiger in your tank and a pussy cat in your backseat.” When Jefferson wrote defiantly that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, he still only mentioned three: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Whatever happiness is, it is a common quest and virtually universally misunderstood in the cacophony of money, sex, and digital splash that passes for it in the West. When parents are asked about the single most important outcome in their children’s lives the answer is invariably ” to be happy.” Why then is the human feeling of happiness so elusive in the modern world with all of our advances in science, technology, nutrition, medicine and standard of living?
Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly.
~LEO TOLSTOY, War and Peace
The answer may not lie outside the human mind though undoubtedly external factors impact human happiness. The topic has been studied and the conclusions from the experts are surprising – at least to many of us in the modern world. Let’s start with some basics. People are social animals. We know that isolated people rarely survive psychologically. Hence one of life’s greatest punishments is solitary confinement. We also know that acquisitions of things – money,power, prestige — doesn’t bring happiness. In fact as the Los Angeles Times pointed out (here), the reverse may be true in that happy people tend to attract wealth and all that goes with it. Finally, we know that we all want happiness and that we don’t consciously avoid the feeling.
So what then can get our dopamine going to produce that sense of well-being that we value. It seems three factors play a significant role according to documentary filmmaker Andrew Shapter, who produced the documentary Happiness Is. Shapter piled his crew into an RV and went around America seeking the answer. After three years, his conclusions seem both simple and elusive in the modern world.
First, we need relationships and social ties. Family, friends, and acquaintances all contribute our well-being. While human conflicts among social groups are well-documented, the presence of strong family interaction still makes people happy. It’s why we still all gather at grandma’s house for Thanksgiving dinner though we know Uncle Charlie will invariably make some statement to make us angry. Researcher Nic Marks of the New Economic Foundation cites research that says people in Western democracies who value money are less happy that those who value relationships. In fact, the happiness in valuing relationships extends beyond family ties into a connection with the whole community. Thus simply treating everyone with respect and dignity – as we ideally would treat family — adds more to your own happiness than anything you could acquire. It’s outflow over inflow.
Second, we all need a sense of purpose. George Bernard Shaw may have crystallized the thought by reminding us that we need a course to navigate. Aimlessly wandering through our lives on some tropical beach may seem a romantic idea by freeing ourselves from responsibilities attendant to any important endeavor, but it seems that won’t make us happy for any length of time. MetLife Insurance Company working in conjunction with Richard J. Leider, author of The Power of Purpose, found that having a clear reason to live was the largest factor in “living the good life.”
That sense of purpose is “interrelated with vision — having clarity about the path to the good life and focus — knowing and concentrating on the most important things that will get you to the good life.” Over eight in 10 (82 percent) of those who feel their lives have purpose are living the good life compared to 35 percent for those who are not living the good life. (article here)
It was the master of psychology and the greatest of Russian authors, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who explained that, “The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.” (The Brothers Karamazov)
Finally, for happiness’ sake we need to care for others — and not just those with whom we have a relationship. The old adage about it being better to give than to receive may be a statement of selfishness, after all. In The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubormirsky, explains research into giving that benefited the givers more than the recipients. A group of women with multiple sclerosis volunteered as peer supporters to other patients. Each volunteer received training in compassionate listening techniques and called the patients to talk and listen for just 15 minutes at a time. After three years researchers found that they had increased self-esteem, self-acceptance, satisfaction, self-efficacy, social activity, and feelings of mastery in their patients but more strikingly the positive outcomes for the volunteers were even greater than for the patients they were helping.
Aristotle understood the selfish component of giving. For the old Greek philosopher happiness was tied to self-dignity. He said, “Dignity consists not in possessing honors, but in the consciousness that we deserve them.” Thus acquiring honors, money, and fame were of no value unless it was perceived by the recipient that it was honestly won. And winning them meant doing it on a foundation of good character in service to others.
So what does make you happy? Can we find it though good works, a sense of purpose, and strong family relationships? What do you think?
And remember, your answer means a lot. There’s a test on it every day.
~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger