What Makes You Happy?

By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

happiness-in-intelligent-people-is-the-rarest-think-i-knowFor 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.

(Sourced Throughout)

~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

98 thoughts on “What Makes You Happy?

  1. Gene,

    Quite nicely put about materialism/determinism. While I can understand the need of some to examine and debunk the notion that we are more than automatons, to my mind the end result of that research is futile. As you rightly state the only way we can deal with the environment of our lives is to act as if we had free will, whether we have it or don’t have it. To behave any other way would be self-defeating. It brings to mind a zen tale I’ve read.

    Many years sgo in a Buddhist Monastery the wise Abbot sensed he was dying and needed to name a successor. He had everyone together in the main room. He placed a crudely made clay pot on the floor in front of everyone and said that the person who could best describe its essence would succeed him. Everyone made their attempts creating poetry, waxing eloquent and celebrsting this pot. The Abbot waved each away in turn. Finally the only person left was the lowly and unlettered cook. Though the multitude laughed the cook strode to the clay pot and kicked it shattering it to shards. The Abbot embraced him and made him his successor

  2. Mike,

    Great story. And oh so very Zen.


    I’ve had lefse. It’s really good. Then again, I like flat breads. Tortillas, crepes, blintzes, naan, pita . . . it’s all good. Except for chocolate chip pancakes. I like chocolate. I like pancakes. Something about the combo though just turns me off.

  3. burns the chocolate and makes the griddle hard to clean. mashed banana and a bit of cinnamon mixed with the batter. cover with strawberries after cooking. real butter and a good maple syrup. thick cut bacon on the side.

    now i’m hungry

  4. GeneH,

    Can not recommend our flatbread. My Kerstin’s favorite has a reiindeer on the package. Does not taste good. As Americans love odd lattes. The swedes have their peculiar seasonings in their bread. Although the crispy flat bread is good,

  5. GensH again,

    The comment covere many salient points. Just to add a couple of comments.
    Besides, the question of the quantum , we have at least 3 other undetermined factors which are free.
    There is brownian motion of molecules, we have the inonization factors in the cell, we have the plasticity of the child (and adult to a smaller degree) child brains where both pre-natal and post natal external factors play a large roll, thus giviing twins with separate homes different outcome. Genes (!) did not determine, No pun intended.
    Add to that the ridiculous idea that the brain is poured in concrete leaving experience, as recallle at some level, to guide us.
    As any one knows, ten thousand hours of practice is the figure to strive after, to achieve a mastery of some complex area, when it fact the act of practicing produces mesurable changes in the brains form and capacity

    And the idea that my genes deterrmine me is of cours rediculous when we find that activities, being free will, can still be passed on in a fashion not essentially as a genetically steered one. Epigenetics in other words.

    And lastly we have the idea that the random firring of neurons is a fixed process which results in choices steered in a fixed pattern or modified by experience are both wrong which I can offered an explanation if needed in the failings of signals to always go forward giving always the same results.

    Thanks for bringing it up. Look for the gist of my words, Not the logic. 🙂

  6. In summary,

    From a base of fundamental indeterminate processes, you can NOT build high order predetermined processes. There are too many internal and external factors beyond our control, that are profound in their effect, to say we are to any degree predeternined. And all of them are essentially random, as is the universe.

    That you meet and marry a certain woman is one of those.
    How predetermineed was that. Cite fate, but don’t think it has any value as a basis for clarification.

    I won’t use cosmological factors as planets don’t have genes. Ask Frick.


    It is alleged in approved official biographies, that Dubja and Laura hsd never met before the fateful barbeque where they. met. They had in fact lived in the same “screw one and screw all” luxury aparment complex We know that they went to the same grade school. I will support that they were in fact old phuck buddies. Eveything is the Bushes world is carefully planned and executed. We steer our fates, and alwsys not completely.

  7. NickS, the folks in MADISON AND MINNESOTA.

    How innocent the lyrics were then. Guaranteed OK for children’s ears.

    We have been assaulted by a snowstorm from Russia from love.
    So fae mildly. That’s enough thanks.
    Moscow is an amazing cold place some say.

    Meteorological explabations another time.

  8. ID707:

    “It turns your skin blue as one consequence of sunning.”

    you would be a Smirth, do you have a white beard?

    In California, that might be a turn-on for some of the ladies.🙂

    • “was that an Aristotelian Buddhist?”


      A zen Buddhist. I read that tale about 40 years ago and it has resonated with me since affecting my perspective on life. I pared down the descriptive part to its essence and it is a far more effective story in its’ long form. It has shaped my view in general of philosophers and philosophy. Another quote that I heard around the same time I will paraphrase because I don’t know the source and my memory from that time is clouded in a psychedelic haze.

      “All human philosophy and all the preaching on the meaning of life ca be summed up by the thoughts of a person while taking their Saturday night bath”.

  9. Gene H:

    I am a big believer in free will. We all have biological limitations and biological advantages. Some people have excellent taste and smell and so make good cooks, some have excellent eye sight and reflexes and so make excellent fighter pilots or race car drivers.

    But biology is not destiny, if it were we would all be fuked.

    I dont know why this topic irks me so much, it just really pisses me off. The idea that an individual cannot control his own mind, to me, seems facile.

    Do athletes not control their bodies? Are not mind and body linked? If we can control our bodies, why then cannot we control our minds?

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