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Happy Regardless of Circumstances

How can one hold to that incredible moment of happiness? It turns out I am not alone in this matter. Happiness — at least, the pursuit of it — has obsessed almost all of mankind, from our founding fathers to a slew of high-powered scientists who have been tracking the elusive nature of happiness.

Martin Seligman, a psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania, developed a new school of therapy aimed at what he has termed “positive psychology,” a discipline that has tried to change the focus of psychoanalysis from mental illness to reinforcing positive traits, such as courage, optimism, and happiness. Seligman has summed up well-being in five key attributes using the acronym PERMA. P — positive emotion. E — engagement. R — respect. M — meaning. And A for achievement. Sounds catchy, but an operational definition of happiness still eludes us.

Surveys of happiness may help us sort out some of the subjective elements of well-being. Happiness might be, in this regard, akin to pornography: we can’t tell you what it is, but we know it when we see it. Surely all of us could answer this question with confidence: which of the following would make us happier: winning the state lottery and getting millions of dollars or being in a car accident and becoming paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of our lives? Phillip Brickman and his colleagues at the University of Michigan asked just that question. Naturally, when lottery winners were first informed they had won an enormous sum of money, they were ecstatic, while the accident victims who had been rendered paraplegic were understandably devastated. But — surprise! — one year later, when both groups were reassessed, the lottery winners and paraplegic patients were equally happy. It would seem, at first glance, that happiness is a moving target: when we are given what we dreamed for, it does not make us very happy, and when we are dealt a tragic blow, our happiness rebounds.

Turns out that money doesn’t make us all that happy either. Once people make above $60,000 a year — meet the reasonable goals of a roof, food, a TV set, and one car in the garage — they’re just as happy as millionaires. Youth? We all want to feel and look young, right? No, a survey undertaken by the Centers for Disease Control demonstrated that folks in their 20s experienced nearly twice as many sad days as did those in the mid-60s to 70s. What about seasonal affective disorder — literally, SAD? Surely those basking in the sun on the beaches of California are happier than poor souls trapped in galoshes and earmuffs in the bleak winter of Minnesota. No difference. Californians thought they were happier, but statistics did not bear that out. Getting a college education? Having a higher IQ? No effect. Having children? Princeton University evaluated questionnaires and rankings of daily activities with respect to happiness among more than 900 women and found that having sex, relaxation, socialization, prayer, and eating consistently scored higher in terms of generating happiness in their daily regimens than did activities involving the children. So did exercise and watching the television. Even cooking and housework were scored just about equal to being with the children! This is despite the fact that more than 35 percent of respondents in a Time magazine poll, when asked to name the one thing in life that brought people happiness, stated “being with the children or grandchildren.”

"7 Ways to Make Happiness Last"
- Allan Hamilton, Daily Good: News That Inspires website, January 22, 2013.