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We’re pursuing, but are we finding #happiness?

March 27, 2012

By JENNY SOKOL, Orange County Register

Pursuing happiness is our constitutional, unalienable right. A critical piece of the American dream, it’s something we’re practically programmed to chase with gusto.

Why then, in a wealthy nation ripe with religious and personal freedom, does it seem so elusive?

Numerous studies contend that Americans aren’t content. An estimated 40 million have been diagnosed with depression, according to a 2009 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index survey. A Medco report states that more than one in five adults took prescription anti-depressants in 2010. Annually, suicide consistently ranks in the top 10 leading causes of death, and insomnia costs the U.S. economy $63 billion annually.

How can the U.S. boast the strongest gross domestic product in the world, but can’t break into the top 10 on the “Happiest Countries” list?

Director Roko Belic explores these issues in his new, aptly titled documentary, “Happy.”  Viewers are introduced to compelling figures who radiate happiness, from a rickshaw driver in India to a surfer in Brazil. The filmmakers travel across the globe, capturing fascinating expressions of joy in places ranging from African villages to Okinawan streets.

Is there a secret? Yes, and it doesn’t include gobs of money, ambition, or success. The world’s happiest people, Belic found, maintain strong relationships and engage in meaningful work. They take care of their bodies, express gratitude often and make time to play and laugh. Also, cultures that value all age groups and live in intergenerational communities are among the happiest.

Swarthmore psychology professor Barry Schwartz, author of “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,” suggests that the American “culture of abundance” contributes to a persistent sense of dissatisfaction and anxiousness.

Because so many decisions must be made on a daily basis, consumers tend to agonize over even small choices, only to then question whether they made the right decision. A non-fat chai or a seasonal pumpkin latte? Iced or hot? Extra pump? Sugar or Splenda? If you’ve tried to choose a cell phone plan or deliberated between laptops in a massive electronics store, you’ve been there.

If you hate buying underwear because you can’t choose between low-rise, hi-rise, brief, hi-cut, boy-cut, or bikini, wait until you come face to face with the new Coca-Cola Freestyle machine. This soda dispenser allows customers to choose from over 100 beverage combinations. Add a spritz of orange flavoring to your Sprite or a burst of grape to your Coke, all with a touch of a finger.

Schwartz maintains that an abundance of alternatives can lead to perpetual stress. Additionally, expectations are high once a decision has been made, so consumers tend to inevitably be disappointed and feel remorse for having not chosen differently. What can help? Lowering expectations and agonizing less about less meaningful decisions.

Take heart, America: Happiness doesn’t require a promotion, a fancy sports car, or size 4 jeans. It’s a skill that can be learned with practice. A skill, as our forefathers agreed, worth pursuing.

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