5 Things I’ve Learned About Happiness
October 24, 2012
Don’t Worry, Be Happy.
Bobby McFerrin’s exuberant song seemed so simple: Happiness will fall upon you if you just stop fretting.
But when Republican presidential candidate George Bush Sr. adopted Don’t Worry, Be Happy as his cheerful campaign song, all of a sudden McFerrin was not happy. He was angry.
Truly, happiness is not easy to maintain. Given that the subject of happiness covers almost everything that matters about human existence, it’s understandable: Happiness is complicated.
Here are five useful things I’ve learned writing this series on the psychology, economics, philosophy and spirituality of being happy in difficult times:
1. Happiness can be measured.
Happiness wasn’t taken too seriously for most of the past 100 years. Instead, influential thinkers tended to focus on all the things wrong with humans. Two horrendous world wars can do that.
But, in the past decade or so, research psychologists made it clear they could measure people’s moods. Neuro-biologists could also pinpoint brain patterns associated with well-being. And statisticians could collate thoughts about what humans find satisfying.
As a result, happiness has become a subject of scientific research, which is today’s quickest route to social acceptability.
That’s helped economists, the most politically powerful of academics, to finally take an interest in happiness.
After putting most of their energies into measuring only market activity through the Gross National Product, some economists have been realizing there are many other ways to chart a society’s well-being.
It’s sparking what could turn into a revolution in social and economic policy.
2. Happiness requires certain conditions.
Most people, to get a real crack at happiness, need certain minimum conditions met.
On a societal level, researchers are finding most people need a decent income and to reasonably trust their neighbours. They also need assurance the politicians and business leaders they rely on are not corrupt. In their intimate lives, most humans need meaningful relationships to be happy. And, in their vocation and volunteering, they need a sense of larger purpose.
3. Happiness is not “having it all.”
Many people confuse happiness with success.
Overcome with restlessness, they believe if they just had more money, intelligence, attractiveness or prestige – the kinds of things idolized in popular culture – they finally might be happy.
Even though envy of such things can be motivating, it’s not much of a route to happiness. Indeed, affluence can create its own dissatisfaction, in the form of addiction, boredom and disenchantment. Life satisfaction is most closely associated with accepting limits; recognizing one has enough.
4. Happiness is a skill
Happiness is teachable . Although some people seem born with contented temperaments, and many in the West are lucky to be raised in financial comfort and secure societies, it doesn’t mean there is no hope for the rest.
The greatest philosophers and spiritual leaders have taught that people can learn happiness. They can discover how not to feel overwhelmed
by emotions, how to find belonging in community, how to share much of what they have, how to be grateful and kind, and how to discover what give their lives a larger purpose.
5. Happiness is embedded in the universe.
Although it might not exactly be the right word, something like “happiness” seems to be a feature of the evolving universe.
Resistance is rising to the Western academics and thinkers who have often taught in the past century that existence is ultimately cruel and meaningless, basically absurd.
A growing band of influential philosophers and spiritual thinkers, inspired by evolutionary science, maintain there is an entity in the universe that lures all living creatures toward greater possibility, enjoyment and satisfaction.
In other words, they say, every living thing is being beckoned to happiness.