Last week we had a game party at our apartment. My son the park ranger was in town. He likes poker, so we had friends over and played cards and Taboo until 11:30. As a writer and a disabled person, I spend a lot of time alone, so it was great to have people over and to have fun.
A guest named Carol got me thinking, though. She said she has made happiness her only goal. She judges whether things are worth doing or having by whether they make her happy.
Happiness as a goal made me uncomfortable. I’ve not been so happy lately, but it seemed kind of selfish, and also maybe self-defeating, to pursue happiness. I like what Nathaniel Hawthorne said: “Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”
I think one of the things that screws up the U.S. is our belief in the “pursuit of happiness.” It’s right there in the Declaration of Independence, but I think pursuing happiness is likely to make you miserable.
Happiness as a realistic goal for people is a fairly recent idea. Confucius and the Buddha talked about it 2500 years ago, but most people throughout history have been too busy surviving to think much about being happy. If you got a few good days in between birth and death, you considered yourself blessed.
Now we expect happiness. If we don’t have it, we think there’s something wrong with us or with the people who are “making us miserable.” There’s a new field of “positive psychology” that looks at what makes people happy, rather than what is bringing them down.
The founder of the positive psychology movement, Martin Seligman, made his reputation by discovering “learned helplessness” as a cause of depression. He found out about helplessness by delivering electric shocks to dogs until they learned to be helpless. I guess he saw the error of his ways and is now trying a more positive approach, but his alleged history makes me a bit suspicious.
Studies seem to show that happiness leads to better health all over the world. Psychologist Sarah Pressman of the University of Kansas says of her research that the relationship between emotion and health was actually stronger “in countries where they’re only living into their Forties, places where they consistently go hungry, don’t have shelter. In those places, positive emotion was actually more strongly connected to health.”
So now we should be happy as a health practice. As a recent study shows, happiness may even help blood glucose control. But it is hard to be happy when your body doesn’t feel good. I’m pretty sure that happiness is mostly physical. If your body is full of energy, comfortable, and strong, it’s easy to be happy. Not guaranteed, but likely. If you feel weak, tired, pained, and tight, happiness will be much harder to come by.
That’s probably why, in dozens of studies, exercise raises people’s mood better than therapy or medicine. In fact, physical activity is one of only two things that reliably improve happiness (as measured by mood scales) in the long term. The other is love. I think good blood glucose control helps, though.
But how do you get happiness if you can’t pursue it? Exercise and love, OK, but is there anything else? Perhaps learning acceptance and cultivating inner peace. My favorite happiness quote is from the French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who said, “What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I had realized it sooner.” I’m taking Colette’s approach and trying to realize that it’s all pretty wonderful.
How about you? What do you do to be happy, and does it work? Does it matter? I’ll probably be back on some hard emotion next week, so if you want to speak on happiness, act now!