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December 26, 2013
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Vail Daily column: Pursuit of happiness

Apparently, the founders had it right with that quip about the “pursuit of happiness.” You can chase it all you like, in other words, and one should be free to do so. Good luck.

Psychologists grown bored with the study of human dysfunction, or perhaps having extracted its meat, have opened a rich vein in the exploration of happiness. Economists, social scientists and others have done the same.

But ultimately, isn’t this a deeply personal, if squishy, phenomenon at heart?

We can find trends from asking large numbers of people about what makes them happy. We can declare that the science shows this lying in our genes (about half the puzzle) and in our values regarding family, faith, community and work.

And maybe there really is a regimen to increase our odds in the pursuit of this elusive state of being.

After all, it appears we do it all wrong. We buy lottery tickets, we mainline anything we think might be fun, we take jobs primarily for the money, we’re attracted to prizes and other artifacts signifying esteem others should feel for us.

None of that provides much beyond a momentary rush, sugar. This isn’t what makes people happy in any profound, long-lasting way. Not even forsaking the Bronx or Omaha for a Colorado mountain town, the very peak of happy destinations as far as I’m concerned.

Not that Americans are a deeply depressed people by any means, all due respect to the grumps in the opinion pages, blogs and talk shows muttering about our state of being and no-doubt ruinous future.

I was happy to see the president of a familiar conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, lead The New York Times’ Sunday Review section a couple of weekends ago. I mean, just the fact of the bane of Fox News running Arthur C. Brooks’ piece on happiness gave me a little glow.

Brooks runs through the studies that show for each of the past 40 years, 85 percent of Americans report feeling either “pretty” or “very” happy, and just 10 percent to 15 percent acknowledge they’re “not too happy.”

Gender matters, genes matter. Habits and values matter. Interestingly enough, conservative women test out as the happiest people and liberal men the most unhappy, according to Burks’ piece. I assume my hunch about cranky conservatives has to be true: They enjoy being grumpy.

Burk, of course, couldn’t resist the political side note, but work and surprisingly moderate conclusions about policy were his thrust. I mean, he gave governmental influence a role in this, a most un-tea party outlook.

As an alleged workaholic riding the muse on a Saturday morning, I was most drawn to his thoughts about the role work plays in the grand pursuit. We might get this wrong the most of all.

The science declares that wealth does not make us any happier. The role of money is more about relieving poverty, and three-quarters of us wouldn’t quit our jobs if we received a great windfall that allowed us to do so. I’m not sure I quite believe that, but it does show work itself means more to us than we let on or perhaps understand.

My kneejerk thought about winning a giant jackpot is just a sweet fantasy about leaving my keys on the desk. Then the realization leaks in that I’d stick around long enough for an orderly transition for my replacement. Then I consider all these people I take for granted at the office, the remarkable access I enjoy because of my job, and oh yeah, all the fun and long-term satisfaction I manage not to notice while pursuing our goals. That is, how much happiness has seeped into my work life for all my own grumbling and grousing.

We’re best off taking jobs that keep us fired up, once poverty is relieved. It’s probably time to move on if that light fades, for the sake of our well being.

The science of happiness supports evaluation of our work lives at regular intervals. And this time of year, so ripe for resolutions aimed ultimately at increasing happiness, seems like the right time.

A pursuit on the wrong path, after all, is only going to leave you miserable. So thank the founders — you have the freedom to change directions. Happily.


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The VailDaily Updated Dec 26, 2013 09:08PM Published Jan 8, 2014 07:27PM Copyright 2014 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.