Attitude is everything, so they say. There is truly something to that. According to one strain of research, our happiness is about 50% “determined” by our genes. There is little we can do to stray very far from our “set point” level of happiness. A death will bring us very low, and that “new car smell” will give us a happiness bump for days, perhaps weeks. A promotion will engender some greater satisfaction, but it’s effect, too, will fade (perhaps only leaving a somewhat larger paycheck and potentially greater stress associated with increased or different responsibilities). The point is, if genes are 50% of happiness, what does that leave us with? This is a blog about psychological research, applied philosophy, and values and virtues such as personal growth, free will, and responsibility.
Approximately 10% of the “glass is half-full” or “half-empty” viewpoint is based on circumstances. These are things such as where you live, whether you just got hired or fired, the general state of your marriage or your experience of singlehood, etc. You know the phrase that goes something like: “Life is not what happens to you, but how you view what has happened to you”? This 10% of the basis of happiness is about what happens to you (and, I think, where your free will and choices have landed you).
As Joshua Wolf Shenk relays the story in his long and deep piece entitled “What Makes Us Happy?” in The Atlantic Monthly, “[Happiness study lead researcher] George Vaillant says his hopeful temperament is best summed up by the story of a father who on Christmas Eve puts into one son’s stocking a fine gold watch, and into another son’s, a pile of horse manure. The next morning, the first oky comes to his father and says glumly, ‘Dad, I just don’t know what I’ll do with this watch. It’s so fragile. It could break.’ The other boy runs to him and says, ‘Daddy! Daddy! Santa left me a pony, if only I can just find it!’” Now that is attitude!
Shenk writes that “Vaillant brings a healthy dose of subtlety to a field that sometimes seems to glide past it. The bookstore shelves are lined with titles that have an almost messianic tone, as in Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. But what does it mean, really, to be happier? For 30 years, Denmark has topped international happiness surveys. But Danes are hardly a sanguine bunch. Ask an American how it’s going, and you will usually hear ‘Really good.’ Ask a Dane, and you will hear ‘Det kunne være værre (It could be worse).’ ‘Danes have consistently low (and indubitably realistic) expectations for the year to come,’ a team of Danish scholars concluded. ‘Year after year they are pleasantly surprised to find that not everything is getting more rotten in the state of Denmark.’” Attitude again, it seems.
“To the European,” philosopher and theorist of meaning, Viktor Frankl informs us, “it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.'” “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness,” he believes. This is certainly consistent with the very American author’s elegant quotation, “Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which if you will sit down awhile, may alight upon you.” I suppose this has the flavor of a paradox: try too hard, and it is elusive. One needs to set one’s life up so that the happiness flows in naturally, in the way that an investor with an eye on retirement doesn’t watch the stock ticker, but sets a plan and then lets the plan work for years, sometimes decades. “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” John Lennon counseled.
There also appears to be a bit of a difference in expectations for what happiness is. As writer Emily Esfahani Smith indicates, a study in the Journal of Positive Psychology indicates that “Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”
The authors of the study report that “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.”
“Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life. Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future,” the study determined. That is consistent with attitude, I believe.
“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors write.
Happiness appears to be more about “feeling good” and a relative lack of stress. Think of hanging out watching good TV, sailing, or joking around with an old friend. Meaning, however, is probably more about Study authors Kathleen Vohs, Ph.D., puts it like this: “Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others.” Prominent psychologist Roy Baumeister adds this: “Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy.”
Smith adds this well-crafted paragraph to her wonderful piece: “The wisdom that Frankl derived from his experiences there, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering, is just as relevant now as it was then: ‘Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is.’” Her book, though expensive, is probably very good. Check out this wonderful description:
To explore how we can craft lives of meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith synthesizes a kaleidoscopic array of sources – from psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists to figures in literature and history such as George Eliot, Viktor Frankl, Aristotle, and the Buddha. Drawing on this research, Smith shows us how cultivating connections to others, identifying and working toward a purpose, telling stories about our place in the world, and seeking out mystery can immeasurably deepen our lives.
I think perhaps Europeans have different views of happiness, and they may very well live lives more rife with meaning. They are less “caught up” in pursuing happiness. As well, their whole social, political, health and welfare, and economic systems are set up in ways that promote greater well-being. Since much of happiness depends on the relative context in which one finds oneself, I think it’s safe to assume that there is something about America which encourages or elicits a comparison to one’s neighbors, community members, and, crucially, what one sees on television.
Indeed, Europeans are decidedly less influenced by what is shown to them on television. As anyone who watches virtually anything on television, cable, and on the silver screen knows – especially those who have watched Mad Men – life is not reflected accurately by Hollywood. Heck, look at the apparently-endless soap opera market; the viewers obviously love losing themselves in a fantasy world where everyone’s good-looking, are either good or evil or some other black-and-white characterization, and do interesting and scandalous stuff every single episode. I think part of the malaise that characterized the “lonely housewife” in, say, the 1950s or 1960s, was primarily about seeing a difference between her life as-lived, and life as-possible. That idea deeply informed the book and movie The Hours and American Beauty.
We see such startling levels of wealth if we live in a big city, read newspapers, or watch enough news, television, or movies. The wealthy are now wealthier than I think any time in America’s history – a country which is indeed remarkable for having more than a century of growing and significant wealth. When one sees the difference between what is possible (in the top 1-2% of income earners, or inherited wealth holders), or especially as depicted in television and movies, one cannot help but feel a bit inadequate. In a competitive society such as America, inadequacy is a pernicious and toxic emotion.
Think of how much more you and I have than a person living in the rainforest – or the mountains of Montana, for that matter – and yet they are probably happier because they don’t see themselves through the lens of “small fish in a big pond,” to mix metaphors. Our reference group is significantly related to one’s appraisal of how successful one is, which is a key route to happiness. Ironically, “…we find all these interesting results; for example, often very powerful people, very wealthy people, are reporting life satisfaction levels only marginally (if at all) above the people whom they are employing in their offices,” notes Mattias Risse, professor at Harvard University and a “meaning scholar.”
Risse is pointing out the fact that above about $75,000, the ability to find happiness and satisfaction in income or wealth diminishes greatly. In other words, $150,000 not only doesn’t make one feel happier, by and large, than a person making half that. Thus, money doesn’t buy happiness, per se. At best, it helps us avoid some of the little hassles and entanglements that make life difficult, and therefore, likelier to be perceived as “unhappy.” Medical bills, credit card debt, and lack of vacations are what I’m talking about.
Nevertheless, we think more money makes us happier, and that is a fundamental point. We all tend to believe that with one more promotion, a larger house, or a new spouse, we will be happier. The data about what makes us happy seem to belie that wish. Happiness is more to be found in intentional activities, such as volunteering, church membership, sports, PTA, social causes of all sorts, and the like. Perhaps as high as forty percent. If genes account for 50%, there isn’t much to work with as far as free will, attitude, and personal responsibility. Considering that one’s life circumstances (broadly defined) accounts for a mere 10%, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, happiness researcher at UC-Riverside. I think Europeans are better at accepting their circumstances and simply dedicating themselves to participating in happiness-engendering activities and meaning-oriented relationships, projects, and aspirations. Stopping to smell the roses and other mindful activities are significantly related to being happy.
As well, American society isn’t what it used to be. We are far behind most of the European social democracies (to include Australia and New Zealand) in many important ways and measures. Hell, even people in Bhutan are happier than Americans. That is no coincidence. And we used to be happier, or at least, more content or confident. Our institutions have been fraying in recent decades. Certainly, our politicians, the media, the advertisers on Madison Ave., and corporate leaders have contributed to that degradation. In fact, I’m never more conservative than when I reflect on what has gone wrong with our values in America. Indeed, you won’t catch me much lamenting
Our institutions, a significant part of the American tapestry, have been fraying in recent decades. Certainly, our politicians, the media, the advertisers on K Street, and corporate leaders have contributed to that degradation. In fact, I’m never more conservative than when I reflect on what has gone wrong with our values in America. Indeed, you won’t catch me much lamenting Roe v. Wade or gay rights, but the culture of violence (in video games, television, and movies), the fact that kids don’t play outside much anymore (lest they be unsupervised), and the revolving door between politics and business make me feel downright nostalgic for a better, more virtuous time. If pay had kept up with inflation since 1960, or if we only worked a 30-hour work week, it might be a big help.
It used to mean more to serve; now, only the desperate and poor tend to enter the military as recruits, and the presidency of Donald Trump has debased government service to the point that it is virtually ignominious to be a bureaucrat. Politicians have replaced statesmen, college is extraordinarily expensive, and we are the only country in the world without health care for all our citizens. The religious are hardly any more virtuous than the nonreligious, and often are simply mired in hypocrisy. To act like a true Christian now is almost to be derided as quaint, or parochial. It is lamentable that service is almost thought of as “for suckers,” because that is a tried-and-true method of increasing one’s sense of life satisfaction and well-being. Another solid recommendation is to try to engage in flow activities as often as possible.
The ability to “make good on the American dream” seems to be further and further out of reach – while at the same time many hedge fund managers and other folks who studied economics at Harvard and Princeton pull down $300-, $500-, even $900,000 a year in income and bonuses. In fact, there are now no millionaires on the list of Forbes 400 richest people; they are all billionaires. We may indeed be in the waning days of the empire here in America, China is ascending, and the world is being made unfit for human habitation. And that doesn’t much lead to happiness. As the American Indian proverb goes, “We had better turn around now, or we just may get where we’re going.”
I think the reason I used that picture of Ted Danson as the image for this blog is not because I think we should revere him, or Hollywood, or anything of the sort. It was almost tongue-in-cheek. I mean, I like some of his stuff, but think about what this artificially-tanned, probably face-lifted, hair-implanted, capped-teeth, tie-wearing image represents. It’s not true happiness, meaning, or purpose; it’s an actor made to appear to be something by agents, producers, directors, make-up artists, and fashion/gossip magazines. Yes, Humphrey Bogart was around, and Chaplin was given a hard time then, too, for being a socialist. But somehow things just seem more materialistic, synthetic, and dystopian now.
I admit, Britain has an odd fascination with the “royal family” and loves those damned sensational gossip magazines, but there is much about Europe (and even America) that would consider what passes for television and movies and video games to be crass, violent, gaudy, vacuous, and short-sighted. Considering the power of right-wing talk radio, the absence of the Fairness Doctrine in news reporting, and the co-opting of our institutions by the concern about the bottom line and “the almighty dollar,” I can’t say I disagree. But, I digress.
I want to now share a few dozen quotes that should help to flesh out the points I made:
“From Aristotle’s polis to Jefferson’s agrarian ideal, the civic conception of freedom found its home in small and bounded places, largely self-sufficient, inhabited by people whose conditions of life afforded the leisure, learning, and commonality to deliberate well about public concerns. But we do not live that way today. To the contrary, we live in a highly mobile continental society, teeming with diversity.” ~ Michael J. Sandel
“In its truest form, optimism doesn’t mean always being happy, and it certainly doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to bad things. It’s not something you’re necessarily born with, or into, either. It’s a choice, and sometimes a daily battle, to stay open and receptive and keep looking outwards, to keep engaging proactively with the world instead of retreating inwards and strengthening the hard, protective walls you’ve built to try and shelter yourself from your fears.” ~ Sophie Caldecott
“While America never has been the fabled classless society of myth, it’s managed a close approximation of this myth at different moments. We’re not in such bright moments right now. Instead, we’re starting to feel like a corrupt banana republic – one of those places where a rapacious oligarchy sets the moral tone by ripping off the entire country and those below follow suit with corruption of every conceivable kind.” ~ David Callahan
“Seek work and leisure that engage your skills. Happy people are often in a zone called ‘flow’ – absorbed in a task that challenges them without overwhelming them. The most expensive forms of leisure (sitting on a yacht) often provide less flow experience than gardening, socializing or craft work.” ~ David G. Meyers and Jean M. Twenge
“Our mounting global problems are in large part the logical consequences of a dominator model of social organization at our level of technological development – and hence cannot be solved within it. They also show that there is another course which, as co-creators of our own evolution, is still ours to choose. This is the alternative of breakthrough rather than breakdown: how through new ways of structuring politics, economics, science, and spirituality we can move into the new era of a “partnership” world.” ~ Riane Eisler
“We know that we live in contradiction, but that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it. Our task as men is to find those few first principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must stitch up what has been torn apart, render justice in the world which is so obviously unjust, and make happiness meaningful for nations poisoned by the misery of this century.” ~ Albert Camus
“When people ask me what I want for my birthday, I always say, ‘Time, time, time.'” ~ Vera Stravinsky
“To be sure, we need police, prisons, and social workers, all of whom help us deal with the social pathologies that plague us. It’s fine to swat the mosquitoes, but better if we can drain the swamps – by infusing our culture with nonviolent ideals, challenging the social toxins that corrupt youth, and renewing the moral roots of character.” ~ David G. Meyers and Jean M. Twenge
“Crusades against inequality typically don’t get very far in the United States – Americans admire the rich too much to want to redistribute their wealth to the masses….” ~ David Callahan
“Social situations do profoundly influence individuals. But individuals also influence social situations. The two interact. Asking whether external situations or inner dispositions determine behavior is like asking whether length or width determine a room’s area.” ~ David G. Meyers and Jean M. Twenge
“The ideals that have lighted my way have been kindness, beauty, and truth.” ~ Albert Einstein
“Where political discourse lacks moral resonance, the yearning for a public life of larger meaning finds undesirable expression. The Christian Coalition and similar groups seek to clothe the naked public square with narrow, intolerant moralisms. Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread.” ~ Michael J. Sandel
“If the 21st century wishes to free itself from the cycle of violence, acts of terror and war, and avoid repetition of the experience of the 20th century – that most disaster-ridden century of humankind – there is no other way except by understanding and putting into practice every human right for all mankind, irrespective of race, gender, faith, nationality, or social status.” ~ Shirin Ebadi
“The search for happiness is the chief cause of unhappiness.” ~ Eric Hoffer
“If happiness is the highest good of rational nature and anything that can be taken away is not the highest good—since it is surpassed by what can’t be taken away. Fortune, by her very mutability, can’t hope to lead to happiness.” ~ Anicius Boethius
“The Good Samaritan story illustrates altruism. Filled with compassion, he is motivated to give a stranger time, energy, and money while expecting neither repayment nor appreciation.” ~ David G. Myers and Jean M. Twenge
“We are the seventh generation since the Declaration of Independence. Can we stand up and tell the world that Americans are ready to transform the way we look at money and the pursuit of happiness?” ~ Bob Kenny
“Joy is but the sign that creative emotion is fulfilling its purpose.” ~ Charles Du Bos
“Your problem is how you are going to spend this one odd and precious life you have been issued. Whether you’re going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over people and circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it, and find out the truth about who you are.” ~ Annie Lamott
“There are a lot of people who feel unable or unwilling to stop cheating until broader structural changes are in place. And who am I, really, to lecture people about the sacrifices they should make to improve our society’s ethical climate – a goal that’s pretty abstract compared to providing for one’s family.” ~ David Callahan
“Happiness is a side effect of living life in a certain way. It’s not a mood—moods are biochemically regulated—and it’s not even an emotion, because emotions seem to be somewhat event-dependent. What I’m talking about is a way of living a meaningful, purpose-focused, fulfilling life.” ~ Dan Baker
“If they are not self-preoccupied by depression or grief, sad people are sensitive, helpful people. So, our happy people unhelpful? Quite the contrary. There are few more consistent findings in psychology: Happy people are helpful people.” ~ David G. Myers and Jean M. Twenge
“Service to a just cause rewards the worker with more real happiness and satisfaction than any other venture in life.” ~ Carrie Chapman Catt
“Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife. The first question was, “Did you bring joy?” The second was, “Did you find joy?” ~ Leo Buscaglia
“The wish that all sentient beings who lack happiness be endowed with happiness is the state of mind called universal love, and the wish that sentient beings be free of suffering is called compassion.” ~ Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama
“To deliberate well about the common good requires more than the capacity to choose one’s ends and to respect others’ rights to do the same. It requires a knowledge of public affairs, a sense of belonging, a concern for the whole, and a moral bond with the community whose fate is at stake.” ~ Michael J. Sandel
“Of course, we revel in the animals themselves. Still, part of what we see when we look at a dog is: the dog looking at us. This is a component of our bond, too. I still imagine my own dog, Pumpernickel, looking at me, seeing herself in my eyes. And I look at her, seeing myself in hers.” ~ Alexandra Horowitz
“Remember these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This vision still grips the imagination of the world. But we know that democracy is always an unfinished creation. Each generation must renew its foundations. Each generation must rediscover the meaning of this hallowed vision in the light of its own modern challenges. For this generation, ours, life is nuclear survival; liberty is human rights; the pursuit of happiness is a planet whose resources are evolved to the physical and spiritual nourishment of its inhabitants.” ~ Daniel R. Katz
“Happiness comes of the capacity to feel deeply, to enjoy simply, to think freely, to risk life, to be needed.” ~ Storm Jameson
“Contentment is happiness, pleasure has a sting in its tail.” ~ Chinese proverb
“Everyone, I think, uses the word happiness to name that which he seeks for its own sake and not for the sake of anything else. Why do you want to be happy? The only answer anyone can ever give to that question is simply because I want to be happy. There is no ‘because’ for happiness itself. One wants to be happy because happiness is the ultimate good that everyone seeks.” ~ Mortimer J. Adler
“For all their invocations of God, it seems that the right’s moral missionaries had only read every other page of the Bible – ignoring the incessant warnings in both testaments about the evils of becoming obsessed with riches and growing callous toward the less fortunate.” ~ David Callahan
“Meanwhile, the growth of large impersonal cities teeming with immigrants, poverty, and disorder led many to fear that Americans lacked sufficient moral and civic cohesiveness to govern according to a shared vision of the good life.” ~ Michael J. Sandel
“Happiness is a way-station between too little and too much.” ~ Channing Pollock
“Moral excellence does not consist in aggregating pleasures and pains but in aligning them so that we delight in noble things and take pain in base ones. Happiness is not a state of mind but a way of being, “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” ~ Michael J. Sandel
“Awareness, contentment, freedom, and love are aspects of the primal, underlying state of mind— a state which simply is. Unhappiness is a disturbance of that state, a disruptive modulation of it. Unhappiness is a wanting, judging, condemning, rejecting, emotionally charged reaction to information that is present in the mind.” ~ Copthorne Macdonald
“If I look at human nature and consider natural desires, I think all the goods that constitute happiness fall into these four major classes. First, external goods, the things we call wealth, all the economic goods and services we employ, all the commodities. Second, bodily goods, things like health and physical pleasure and rest. Third, the social goods that satisfy our human social nature, our friends and the society in which we live. And finally, fourth, the goods which are especially goods to the soul: knowledge, truth, wisdom, and the moral virtues. Now, these correspond to all of our natural desires and the happy man is the man who has all these goods, some wealth, health, some pleasure, friends, society, wisdom or knowledge, if you will, and the virtues.” ~ Mortimer J. Adler
“Men are a thousand times more intent on becoming rich than on acquiring culture, though it is quite certain that what a man is contributes more to his happiness than what he has.” ~ Arthur Schopenhauer
Here is another blog on how to find meaning, fulfillment, joy, contentment, and satisfaction in life, entitled Happiness Tips and Insights.