Friday, September 12, 2008

The Secret To Happiness

I was in a bookstore the other day, and you know what? It's getting harder and harder – especially in a big chain bookstore -- to find a book. I mean a real book. Literature. Or and least something that you can't read while you're also watching TV. The reason you can't find the kind of book you're looking for is that all the self-help books about how to be happy fill up the shelves. Ironically, this makes some of us quite unhappy.

Some of these popular happy books include, "Climb your Stairway to Heaven: The 9 Habits of Maximum Happiness" and "Mary Lou Retton's Gateways To Happiness: 7 Ways To A More Prosperous, More Satisfying Life." The Dalai Lama's book, "The Art Of Happiness: A Handbook For Living" is on the shelves, and so are "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience" and "The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting The Life You Want." One thing is certain: if you're going to write a successful book about happiness, you need a colon in the title.

I don't want to call us "whiners," because I know that even advisers to presidential candidates can get in trouble using that term. But we are certainly seekers. Yet, it turns out that research has shown that seeking happiness is one of the least likely ways to find happiness. Of course, now they'll try to sell us books about how we don't need a book to achieve happiness.

I'm not denying the importance of happiness. On the contrary, happiness is one of my favorite things, along with magazines that don't smell like perfume and a nap when nobody's home. I'm just not sure we need so many books about it.

What is the real secret to happiness? What do the gurus of our era – scientists – have to say about being happy? The latest scientific research on happiness indicates that about 50% of one's propensity to be happy is genetically determined. So if you're happy, stop being mad at your parents. And if you're not happy, stop blaming them for more than 50% of your unhappiness.

The other 50% of your possible happiness comes from circumstances and from the way you act. Not surprisingly, the old standbys of doing things for others and being grateful for what we have are at the top of the list of things that bring us happiness. Exercise, meditation, and laughter are helpful, too – and they don't mean laughing at other people you think aren't as happy as you are.

With all of the complaining we do about not being happy, with all of the lack of gratitude that seems to permeate our society, with all the money we shell out in the hope of buying happiness, we must be the unhappiest group of people in the history of the world, right? Wrong.

The University of Michigan's Ronald Inglehart's recent paper published in "Perspectives on Psychological Science" refers to surveys taken over the past seventeen years by the World Values Society. These surveys measured happiness in 88 countries covering 90% of the world's population. Overall, happiness has increased 6.8%. Maybe 6.8% doesn't sound like a lot, but that includes places that have had wars, floods, and reality shows.

How is this possible? If we're happier than ever, why do we have such a need for "get happy books?" Why do so many people claim to be so unhappy if the statistics say that happiness is on the upswing?

Well, I have a theory. We all know that exercise can lead to better mental health and happiness. But recent research indicates that it's not just the physical act of exercise that improves our brain. Doing a repetitive activity like running or walking can help the health of our brain.

And what's the most common repetitive activity that we do: complaining about not being happy. So it's quite possible that our chronic dissatisfaction, our habitual lack of gratitude, and our constant fruitless search for an easy road to happiness all might be contributing to our actual happiness.

Those of you reading this, please don't write books about my theory. The stores are already running out of space. However, you have to admit it's interesting that these days, the credo of many people who are really happy is a variation of the old "I think, therefore I am." Maybe today it's, "I complain, therefore I am."


  1. I wish there were a survey about whether happy people are stupider or more intelligent than people who aren't so happy.

  2. Ironic that I am working on a book about happiness. Interesting angle you have. From what I understand, we all have about 50,000 thoughts per day. Most of them are negativley charged. The more positive material we can feed our brains, the better chance we have of creating the more positive habbits of gratitude and the other things that contribute to happiness.

    I work in the main stream media, where there are nothing but messages that we don't measure up. That we need more, more, more. I find that balancing all this with reaching out to people, letting them know that happiness is indeed a choice, helps me sleep better at night.

    If people would take the advice they read in some of these books, there wouldn't need to be so many of them. However, just like with many other things, people buy them, read them (maybe), and put them on a shelf, not implamenting anything they have read.

    If just one of these books can ignite the change, then it will have been worth the time and money spent reading it.

  3. Independent bookstores make me happy. Sipping a beer in my backyard with my old dog at my feet and a steak or hamburger on the grill makes me happy. Reading good writing (like this article) makes me happy. A good day at work makes me happy. Seeing my wife smile makes me happy. Breakfast places make me happy.

    A coworker of mine once told me a piece of advice his father passed on to him. "I never realized I was happy during moments I was doing little things. It wasn't until later that I realized I was. The secret to happiness aren't big things or big events. They're the small moments we look back on later. So slow down, savor them and enjoy them."

    Good advice.

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