Happiness Is …

We’re on an eternal quest to fathom the depths of this elusive emotion — and to figure out how to find it for ourselves.

Happy New Year! Funny how we can’t even escape the word “happy” as we start 2010, huh? Maybe it’s even your New Year’s resolution: to get happy.

Happiness. It sounds simple and yet it’s so complex. Even the definition is tricky. What does it mean to be happy? It depends on who you talk to.

For most of us, “happiness” conjures up a vision of a smile or a laugh. Perhaps you think of a young couple in love holding hands. Maybe you recall specific moments in your life, such as a vacation or a holiday. Or you visualize a time that brings you joy: sitting in the sunshine, taking a walk on the beach, spending precious moments with your children, or even something as simple as a breath of fresh air.

One thing is certain about happiness: Everyone wants it. Even the founders of our country felt so strongly about it that they put happiness in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

But for all this talk about happiness, how many of us are actually happy? That’s a question even the folks at Facebook want to know. The social networking Web site has indexed how its members are feeling based on analysis of the positive or negative words in their status updates. A team of researchers has developed the GHP — the Gross Happiness Product. Data-team intern Adam D.I. Kramer wrote on Facebook’s company blog that those status updates are “tiny windows into how people are doing.” And that’s a lot of windows; about one-third of the company’s 300 million users are in the United States.

Facebook concluded that, in 2008, the GHP spiked toward happiness on major holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas and plunged when celebrities like Michael Jackson died in 2009. While that sounds obvious, think of what we may learn after decades of research combined with economic factors or other monumental events.

Here’s another telltale sign that how we feel is of utmost importance to our country: A government study says antidepressants have become the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. In its study, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at 2.4 billion drugs prescribed in 2005. Of those, 118 million were for antidepressants. The use of antidepressants and other psychotropic drugs, those that affect brain chemistry, has skyrocketed over the last decade. Many psychiatrists see this statistic as good news — a sign that Americans finally feel comfortable asking for help with psychiatric problems. Whether or not you feel prescriptions are the answer, these statistics show more people want to be happy.

Research suggests some people are born happier than others. Studies indicate genetics plays a significant role — perhaps as much as 50 percent — in determining a person’s day-to-day mood. Roy Baumeister, a Francis Eppes Professor in the Department of Psychology at Florida State University, sheds some light on the “happy” gene.

“Some people are born with a more cheerful or sunnier temperament than others,” he says. “Happiness also tends to stay about the same over long periods of time, despite day-to-day fluctuations. Everyone is happy after something wonderful happens, but then the happy people continue being happy while the grumpy people go back to being grumpy. Genes count for something, but not everything. People can learn to be happier. Obviously, people can change to become unhappy also.”

Bringing Happiness Into Focus

To gain real insight into happiness, it helps to look into the history of it. And one of the world’s top experts on the topic lives right here in Tallahassee. Darrin McMahon is the Ben Weider Professor of History at FSU and author of the book “Happiness: A History.”

“I think people are hungry for happiness, and when people are hungry, it usually means they are not getting enough to eat,” McMahon says. “I think our almost obsessive focus on happiness today is a sign that all is not well in the world. If you open your eyes to it, happiness — or at least its promise — is everywhere: in advertising, in contemporary economic theory, in psychology and psychopharmacology, in religion. It is the great horizon of modern societies.

“Personal happiness, you might say, has become our salvation, and happiness itself our ‘god,’” he says. “But to focus so exclusively on happiness — which in modern societies is almost always thought of in terms of personal feeling — is to forget about a whole range of other human goods that matter too: virtue, say, or justice, or honor, or beauty, or wisdom, or spiritual growth — the list is long. And when these other goods get forgotten, people become unhappy. And then they chase after happiness. It is kind of a vicious circle.”

Baumeister weighs in on the quest for happiness: “People have always wanted to be happy,” he says. “But perhaps expectations have risen. People living in America today are blessed with much greater chances for happiness than most others ever have, because so many of the major causes of suffering have been reduced. Health is better and lives are longer. There is almost no chance of a war being fought on American soil. Unfortunately, expectations rise with circumstances, so as our lives have gotten better, we also want more out of them.”

So What Is the Secret to Happiness

“There is no such thing as a secret to happiness,” McMahon says. “You ought to be really careful about giving your money, or anything else for that matter, to someone who claims that there is.”

The beginning of this article discussed the difficulty that people have in defining happiness. In fact, it took McMahon 585 words to answer that very question. He says its definition has evolved over the years.

“Happiness is now thought of more and more in terms of pleasure and good feeling,” he explains. “In other words, happiness is for modern people more about feeling good than being good. Maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain is the formula that was created in the 18th century, and we continue in many ways to adhere to it. The problem is, as anyone who has bothered to live a little will tell you, there is a lot more to a deep and meaningful life — I would say a happy life — than just feeling good.”

American Novelist Edith Wharton once said, “If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we’d have a pretty good time.” So does that mean we shouldn’t pursue happiness? McMahon says she might have been on to something.

 “We place such an emphasis on being happy in this culture that in a sense we put too much pressure on ourselves,” he says. “There is a great line from the English philosopher John Stuart Mill who says that the moment a man asks himself if he is happy, he ceases to be so. So I would say, don’t pursue happiness. Pursue friendships. Pursue meaning in your life. Pursue excellence in your work. Pursue virtue in your dealings with others. Pursue God, pursue joy, pursue the perfect barbecue sauce, or whatever it is that gives you a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment and a bit of spice. The happiness will follow. If you don’t chase it, it will come to you.”

As you start a new year and wonder how to be happy, perhaps it’s simpler than you think. As Abraham Lincoln put it, “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

Contributing writer Triston V. Sanders is an executive producer and news anchor for WCTV. Watch her televised medical segment, “Health Matters,” weekday mornings on “The Good Morning Show” on WCTV.

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