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. Well I was really stressed out and living only for certain goals. And I am in my late 50s.

    I ended up having lots of sex with someone I’ve known for 40 years and had never even kissed before. That made us both happy.

  2. Bukko,

    As the owner servant to a cat nicknamed “Pooter”, I will testify that they can indeed make your eyes water in a style that would do most dogs proud.

  3. Bron — one reason dog farts are so noxious us because their diet is heavy in meat. Decomposing meat, whether it’s a squashed possum on the road in the summer heat being broken down by natural bacteria, or kibble being digested by dog-gut intestinal flora, gives off chemicals that are worse on the nose than rotting vegetables. Even worse than Brussels sprouts!

    There might be some evolutionary sense to why we perceive dead meat smells as bad. The same bacteria that decompose dead meat are also good at decomposing living meat, i.e. carnivorous creatures who eat it. So it’s a survival mechanism to perceive rotting flesh as something to avoid. Unless you’re a vulture. In which case you probably work for a TBTF financial institution.

    Dog farts are also bad because of the volume of the gas. Have you ever been around a cat (even more meat-diety than dogs) when it farted? Whooee! But cats are tiny, so they expel fewer cc’s of gas. Plus I think they have enough of a sense of decorum to poot in private most of the time. Not dogs. They’re the frat boys of the animal kingdom.

  4. A lot of things make me happy, not the least of which is just outcomes to unjust circumstance.

  5. I call BS. There is no one definition of happiness in the human race. What makes one person happy could make another miserable. The idea that socialization, service or sense of purpose would make happiness attainable for all is false. Look at your own children. What makes one happy does not necessarily make the other happy. We are all individuals and need to open our minds and find our own path to happiness.

  6. barkingdog:

    why is it that you dogs have some really smelly farts? Almost unbearable to the human nose. When my dog farts, I usually have to leave the room. He seems healthy and is a golden retriever of 13 but he has always had terrible farts and so have the other dogs I have had.

    Can you please give me an insider’s perspective?

  7. What makes me happy? As a guide dog for half blind guy, I like to cut farts in church and act like it was the lady next to us. Some people turn a blind eye to it but most of them hold their noses just as they do for the sermon. If we sit up close to the preacher it makes him speed up the service and then we get to go the coffee and donut scene and I am quiet there. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness with a bit of protection from the First Amendment right to free speech and the other prong about freedom of religion. Today is Sunday. Been to church. Ben there, done that. They call it a rank old church and some wonder why.

  8. I think the article pretty much covers it. The connections with other people make me happy, and so do the events or accomplishments that I feel have made a major positive difference in my world (which includes the world at large); and the more unlikely the accomplishment seems the happier it has made me.

    I do not think the events have to be something I worked to accomplish, some things are just happy accidents or good luck, or reflections of happy outcomes for other people.

  9. What makes me happy? Realizing how good I’ve got it, and taking the time to be thankful for it.

    Sorry to brag, but partly through my own preparation (career choice, investment decisions, choosing which countries I wanted to live in) and mostly by the sheer dumb genetic luck of being born a white male in an educated family in an industrialized Western nation, I’m sitting in the catbird seat. And I know it. I don’t want to forget it, either, or take it for granted.

    I contrast that with my now-ex wife, who had all the same advantages (aside from the being born with one of those unfortunate “Y” chromosomes). She had the lifestyle most people could only dream of — not having to work any more, being able to holiday for a month at a time in Europe staying at hotels that cost €250 a night, a home filled with great food, wine and furnishings… But all she focused on was misery. Peak Oil. Climate Change. The venality of politicians and the corrupt economic system. All of which is true. But if you choose to ONLY look at the shit beneath your feet, and don’t balance it with the sunshine in the blue sky, life looks like crap.

    I believe a lot of our “happiness factor” is genetic. Working with depressed patients in a psychiatric ward — my job gives me that”caring for others” factor the post mentions and I get paid good union wages for it too, hooray! — I can see that some people are just born with a bad balance of brain chemicals. Not enough dopamine, neurons that are too good at gobbling up serotonin, what-have-you, (there’s still so much we don’t know about neurochemistry). They’re just primed to be sad.

    I was born “a happy idiot” (to quote a phrase from an old Jackson Brown song) and I’m pretty sure I’ll stay that way until I pass away. I don’t believe in Fate, or God’s Rewards, or Buddhist Past Lives. But if I did, I’d have to say I musta done something right somewhere along the line to get the roll of the dice I have. The one superstitious factor I have is to be mindful of the happiness I’ve got, because I think that generates more happiness.

  10. Minimize pain and anxiety; maximize mental delight and the companionship of friends and loved ones. Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance. Epicurus

  11. I am generally happy most of the time, in that there is always something to do and there are always things to amuse me. In a sense though the times when I am happy are the times I’m not aware that I’m happy, but that I am living in the moment. Introspection of a happy time can kill the spontaneity of it through to much introspection. From experience and with that caveat above I’ll list what things I’ve learned make me happy these days.

    I am happy living in the here and now, unselfconsciously.

    I am happy being with my wife, my children, my grandchildren and my friends, doing anything.

    I am happy when I’m filled with positive emotions to the point of tears.

    I am happy when I’m finished writing my guest blog and publish it, which covers the aspect of having a purpose.

    I am happy when people treat me kindly and I’m happy when I treat others kindly.

    And finally, after all the years of struggle, confusion, hurt and pain I am happy being me and loving the person I am, with all my failings and successes.

  12. mespo:

    Everyone should have self esteem and happiness. But it takes personal effort, they arent handed to you. You earn them by your own achievements in life.

    A free society is only good if it is comprised of individuals who feel worthy of the blessings of liberty.

  13. Happiness is an illusive concept….. Those with or without degrees or formal or informal education can tell you that best….. I think your comments yesterday mark hit the nail on the head…. Some of the richest folks you’ll ever meet have very little material goods….. They in my experience are the richest and happiest people you’ll ever meet…. Good post…

  14. I am going to go against the status quo wisdom of the day a little here. I know what I need to make me happy; I cannot speak for others. First, I need to know my loved ones are safe and secure as well as myself. Second, I like a lot of solitude with more of that than people. I get as much a sense of purpose helping animals as I do people. I like to plant flowers and herbs and sit on a porch and watch them grow. Ultimately, we are all unique not clones and the recipe for happiness we must figure out all by ourselves. Perhaps, that’s our real purpose for being here.

  15. “Can we find it though good works, a sense of purpose, and strong family relationships?”


  16. 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?

    Maybe our “science, technology, nutrition, medicine and standard of living” have more myth in them than we want to be aware of?

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