2009

13 May: True happiness is created not obtained

True happiness is created, not obtained

What is happiness? Is it a substantive condition or mental state? Or perhaps, is it the ideal, that which is unreachable, like Robert Browning’s heaven—something to strive for just beyond the grasp?

According to Charles Schultz, happiness is a warm puppy, a sentiment that dog lovers clearly understand.

“None of the above,” would say Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard.

“Happiness is a skill,” he states.

To him, happiness is not a state of mind, but an art, an ongoing practice, much as writing might be for me or designing for an architect.

Ricard ought to know as neuroimaging of his brain makes clear he is the “happiest man in the world,” says Vesela Simic in her Shift magazine article “In Search of Happiness.”

Covering considerable ground, Simic mentions the Greeks who spoke of eudaimonia, or “human flourishing,” and Buddhists who consider happiness the “cessation of suffering.”

Flourishing, of course, offers different connotations to different people. For some, it might mean having a large family, and for others, developing one’s talents and producing significant works.

Still for others, flourishing means accumulating material wealth.

The problem with that perspective—money can buy happiness—is that it doesn’t work.

Simic claims empirical studies give evidence that once security needs are met, increased wealth does not correlate into greater satisfaction. In fact, they show conclusive evidence for the opposite effect, “that materialistic values are a strong predictor of unhappiness.”

Then there is the “hedonic adaptation,” which is what happens when we experience temporary good fortune—e.g., winning the lottery, wedding day, or a new home—or the opposite: prolonged illness or loss of job.

Usually we return to our previous level of happiness since “50 percent of our happiness is genetic, 10 percent circumstantial, and 40 percent is in our hands to skillfully cultivate.”

It comes down to you having four times a greater chance to create your own happiness than to experience good fortune.

In Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

While we are not quite to the depths of Gen. Washington’s army at Valley Forge, nor of the Union’s in 1863 when the Confederates were still having their way, nor of the despair of the Great Depression, many Americans are, nevertheless, experiencing a time that is trying their souls.

The recent poll Associated Press poll shows the mood of the country, however, greatly improving in terms of it being on the right track, growing 31 points since October 2008 to 48 percent despite continued increases in unemployment.

One responder places the credit directly with President Obama given his upbeat, can-do attitude.

“He presents a very positive outlook,” says Cheryl Wetherington. “He’s very well-spoken and very vocal about what direction should be taken.”

In short, Obama exudes confidence though it will take more than happy talk to get us completely out of the economic doldrums. But that’s where it starts.

The irony is that many of those who believe the country is correcting its course are also the ones most impacted, either the working poor or middle class workers who might have deluded themselves into believing they were living the High Life.

A recent Denver Post study points out an interesting tidbit: the zip code in the Denver metro area with the highest rate of foreclosure compounded by unemployment is in southeast Aurora, right smack in the middle of Middle America.

Surely, they will have a reversal of their misfortune, but not without some hard lessons being learned.

One hard lesson is to understand which of the powers-that-are is really on their side. For all his happy talk, Ronald Reagan, when it came down to it, was not. His base was not unlike recently unemployed George W. Bush’s: the religious right and the financially privileged.

And the talk of the exorbitant rate of taxation, especially at the April 15 street carnival called the Tea Party, probably has fallen on deaf ears for those who can’t be worried about paying taxes they would theoretically pay on money they are unable to earn.

Simic quotes University of Illinois professor of psychology Ed Diener: “Enduring happiness comes not from running the hedonic treadmill but from working for goals that are consistent with our cherished values.”

As we know, the only guarantees in life are death and taxes. Just like Voltaire who would defend your right to speak even though disagreeing with what you have to say, I will defend your right to pay your taxes along with your right to squawk about them.

Simic notes the outcome of a panel of scientists and experts at a Happiness Conference: “Accept suffering. Happiness is a process, not a goal—a means, not an end.”

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