UNCOMMON COMMON SENSE
By Bill Frayer
Do You Strive for Happiness?
I think if you ask a random sample of people what was their goal in life, many would likely say that they want to be happy. Parents often tell their children that they just want them to be happy. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, in the US Declaration of independence, immortalized our inalienable rights as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” With the stroke of a pen, he was declaring that it was our destiny to seek happiness.
The only problem is, how does one go about doing this? Many make the erroneous assumption that if they have more money they will invariably be happy. Studies of lottery winners conclude that winning a large jackpot is as likely to make you less happy as it is to make you more happy. After all, if money made us happy, then rich people would all be happy.
I think many people believe that achieving some particular thing will make them happy. It could be getting a particular job, moving into a nicer home, or even having a new car. These are all corollaries of the money myth. When people shop because they are depressed, the possession of some new item is unlikely to do much good.
Many expats who retire in Mexico will explain that they are happier living here. But are they really happier than they were before? I doubt retirement or warm weather make an unhappy person happy.
Abraham Lincoln is purported to have said, “A man is about as happy as he makes up his mind to be.” This may be as good evaluation of the secret to happiness as any. It presumes that happiness is an internal attribute. Many of us have noted how happy the Mexicans seem to be, even though they are often poor and must work very hard just to survive. Why? Perhaps they are happy because they have big families. Perhaps it is something about the culture. Both of those may contribute to their happiness, but I think it’s a satisfaction that comes from within.
Daniel Kahneman has suggested that the happiness of traveling may come more from remembering the experience of traveling than from the actual traveling itself. Do you agree? His point is that happiness is a complex and elusive human goal. What we think may make us happy may not.
Adam Phillips, writing on “The Happiness Myth” in The Guardian contends that setting out to seek happiness is futile. In fact, true happiness actually comes as a by-product of doing something else, like raising children, doing good work, or developing good friends. People who consciously work to achieve happiness, he suggests, are probably unhappy to begin with and likely are not successful in making happiness a goal. He even points out that some people actually enjoy being unhappy. I have known some of these people.
George Valliant, a researcher at the Harvard Center for Adult Development has, for over 4o years, been keeping records of people’s lives to try to determine what makes them happy. His conclusions, developed in his book Aging Well, suggest that having people to love and being generous with your time and money are the key factors in achieving happiness, surprisingly more important than money, career success, and, even good health.
So, I suppose we should stop trying so hard to find happiness. Instead, we should stay busy living, loving, and sharing our time, money, and energy with those about whom we care. If we do that, happiness will come.
Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.
Percy Bysshe Shelley