Pursuing happiness


Recently, I happened to read that 84 percent of Americans describe themselves as happy. So there!

While we all know that the Declaration of Independence does not claim that being an American confers happiness, only the right to pursue it, that is still a very happy statistic in a world in which so much seems to be wrong.

Of course, the survey might produce different results if done today, as the cost of everything goes up as the value of our homes declines. Still, let us consider happiness in various manifestations.

Sometimes we can best examine the meaning of a word by defining its opposite. What would you say is the opposite of happiness? Is it unhappiness, misery, sadness, depression? What are its pre-conditions? If we look at the three major considerations most often cited as aspects of happiness – home, family, and success – it’s clear that the words may mean different things to different people.

Contrary to popular belief, most people do not go for psychological treatment, or even for pastoral counseling, because of sadness or generalized unhappiness. Like alcoholism, misery not only loves company, but is something we deny could ever affect us. The American dream is available for everyone, so it’s un-American to be miserable, right?

Depression, on the other hand, is more widespread than ever, or at least more anti-depressant drugs have been sold every year for the past 15 years. And the suicide rate, especially among young people, continues to mount.

How much does success in your career contribute to your happiness, and was this always a top consideration? How about family? Home ownership?

With 50 percent of all marriages ending in divorce, it is hard to believe that 84 percent of us are happily married. That may be an overrated criterion of happiness. Some of us, I’m sure, are happily unmarried. You wouldn’t know that from reading the “Dear Abby” columns, but it’s true.

Some married people are foregoing parenthood – deliberately. So let’s be careful about “family” being essential for happiness.

While money doesn’t seem to guarantee happiness, it certainly is helpful, yet people who describe themselves as “upper middle class” economically are not appreciably happier than those who are self-described as “lower middle class.” Between them, the two groups comprise 86 percent of all Americans, so the American middle class, whatever it may be, must be pretty happy most of the time if statistics don’t lie.

I think I’m happy most of the time, even with the various frowns that crease my brow when I look in a mirror. The “pursuit” of happiness, however, is a puzzle to me. I suppose it consists of a conscious effort of some kind, yet my happiest hours on this earth have been entirely serendipitous.

I understand “pursuit” to involve a conscious effort of some kind, like staying in school long enough to earn a diploma or a degree, or saving enough to make a down payment on a house or car, but then, of course, the question surfaces: How much is enough? If I set my heart on a Maserati, happiness will not be encompassed in a Toyota. Perhaps, then, the key to happiness is dreaming within one’s means.

Oddly, many people in later life report the years when they were pursuing happiness as happier than those lived after they reached whatever they were searching for. That almost certainly applies to the pursuit of romantic happiness.

A decade of happy marriage weighs less for many of us than the memories of the weeks or months of courtship – falling in love is much more exciting than being in love. We want to extend that kind of courtship high forever, and that, I suspect, helps explain our high divorce rate. I strongly suspect it accounts for the failure of so many Hollywood marriages. Actors and actresses expect real life to be as exciting as their romantic movie roles.

Both men and women rate success in one’s career equally high on the happiness index. Does that surprise you?

Many men define success as “earning more than my father ever dreamed of,” while women more often use expressions such as “earning as much as my husband” or “being self-supporting.” Possibly that has something to do with our high divorce rate also. Neither men nor women usually defined career success in terms of personal satisfaction with their career choices, though that answer did occur more often among those in the health and/or social service professions at all wage levels.

Asked to identify a 10-year span when “life was at its best,” a large majority of senior citizens chose the years when their kids were small.

Perhaps happiness happens when you’re too busy to pursue it.

At any rate, I’m glad to be excused by reason of hyper-maturity (that’s a new word for growing old) from pursuing it any longer.