Vail Daily column: Pursuit of happiness
Regardless of which song wins 2014 song of the year, I am calling it for Pharrell Williams’ hit “Happy.” In this age of Internet-amplified haters, “Happy” is a defiant anthem cloaked as a peppy pop song. It spawned legions of viral videos depicting fans from Iran to Slovenia dancing and celebrating their happiness. It resonated worldwide with the simple message; don’t let the haters get you down.
But is it haters who get us down and drain our happiness or are we our own worst enemies?
Americans see happiness as their God-given right. Thomas Jefferson enshrined happiness’s pursuit in the Declaration of Independence with these words: “ … unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Despite government endorsement, Americans are not the happiest people on earth, the Danes and the Norwegians are. America is still high on the list, but apparently not high enough. Americans want more. Amazon.com lists thousands of self-help book titles promising readers the secret of happiness. For added pressure, movies and television provide neatly wrapped conflicts that resolve in less than two hours. In the end the characters find love or success or both, and happiness flows. Easy right?
However, it is not only love that we look for in all the wrong places. According to psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, we also look for happiness in the wrong places. Often we grasp at things that provide temporary happiness, such as money, rather than lasting happiness, such as social connections.
Elizabeth W. Dunn and Michael Norton writing in The New York Times reveal how money can make you happier, but not in the way you might think. They point out, “buying more, and buying for ourselves … is ineffective at turning money into happiness.” They suggest if you do spend money on yourself, then it is better spent on experiences rather than material possessions. However, for a bigger happiness payoff they advise spending money on others.
Success and accomplishments do make you feel happier, for a short time. Often however, happiness returns to a set level. Interestingly, after a setback or tragedy most people’s average happiness also returns to a set level. There may be a strong genetic component to that set point.
According to Lyubomirsky, about half of our happiness does appear to be genetically predetermined. My DNA did not do me any favors and my parents made matters worse. Coursing through my DNA is a cantankerous disposition aggravated by a grim first name — Deirdre. The full title of the Celtic myth about my name is “Deirdre of the Sorrows.” Who saddles their kid with a name like that? It is about a young princess who commits suicide after the king, whom she is to marry, kills the man she really loves, who happens to be his nephew — a typical Irish rom-com. On the other hand, Irishman James Joyce believed the phrase “nomen est omen” applied to his name. “Nomen est omen” is a Roman saying meaning “names are destiny.” Joyce believed his name was derived from the French word joyeux or joyful, which may come as a surprise to anyone who has attempted to read “Ulysses.” Still, his omen was far more auspicious than mine. I have been working against destiny from day one.
All is not lost for me, or anyone else either. Only a small percentage of our happiness can be attributed to our life circumstances including income, health and relationship status. Encouragingly, we can exert influence on a sizable portion of our happiness. In her book, Lyubomirsky provides a tool to help determine what will improve your happiness. Nevertheless, chances are very good it is one or more of the following: Gratitude, avoiding social comparison, investing in social connections, being kind and committing to meaningful goals. The most critical component to our happiness is not genetics or life circumstances, but our daily behavior.
For more strategies to increase your overall happiness and contentment, consider reading “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D. She is a researcher, not a self-help guru. Unlike other titles in the genre, Lyubomirsky’s book is based on empirical evidence gathered from studies focused on the science of happiness.
For a quick mood enhancer, Yuna Ferguson from the University of Missouri authored a study echoing what many people may already suspect, listening to upbeat music improves your mood. So turn up the “Happy,” “Let it Go” or “Shake it Off.”
Happiness is not a frivolous ambition. Extensive research confirms that happiness contributes to more energy, greater productivity, better relationships and even a stronger immune system.
May you discover ways to increase your happiness whatever comes your way in 2015. Let’s all do our part to knock the Danes and the Norwegians out of the top spot.
Claire Noble is the author of “State-Sponsored Sex and Other Tales of International Misadventure.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thehkhousewife.