Wissot: Measure happiness in terms of friendships maintained, not achievements attained (column)
I never was a big fan of happiness. I came to the conclusion early in life that chasing after happiness was right up there with looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: a fool’s errand.
Part of my hardened attitude toward happiness was a product of the mood that prevailed in my family growing up. My parents were worried and stressed out most of the time. They were consumed by the anxiety of not having enough money to feed and clothe my sister and I.
I inherited their neurotic fears and developed a bleak outlook on life. By the time I was a teenager, I subscribed to the Woody Allen philosophy of happiness. Alvy Singer in his movie “Annie Hall” famously says, “Life is divided into the horrible and the miserable.” He goes on to describe the horrible as things such as terminal illnesses and debilitating diseases. “The miserable is everything else.” He concluded that you “should be thankful if you are miserable.”
I grew up feeling lucky to be miserable.
I no longer subscribe to a philosophy of doom and gloom. I’ve shifted from Woody Allen to George Orwell in my thinking about happiness. Orwell said, “Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness.”
I’m not alone in my more upbeat feelings toward happiness. Recent research shows that happiness increases as we age. This flies in the face of what those of us in our 70s and older know to be true as we reach our final years.
Jeffrey Kruger in a Time Magazine article expressed what I am getting at here: “If life wanted to mess with you, it couldn’t have come up with a better way than death. Especially the lead up. Your strength flags; your world narrows; much of what once gave you pleasure and satisfaction is now gone. But as it turns out, happiness is still very much with you — often even more so than before.” (Jeffrey Kluger, Time Magazine, Sept. 17, 2018, p. 19)
Elders share an affinity for happiness with children. One study describes happiness and age as a U-shaped curve. The twin peaks are experienced during childhood, “when the world is one great theme park” and in old age, “when we’ve been on all the rides a thousand times and are perfectly content to watch.” It is only in our 40s and 50s, “when our power, potential and productivity are the greatest and we should be feeling our happiest — that life satisfaction bottoms out.” (Time, p.19)
I can relate completely with that middle-age trough when happiness is most elusive. I can recall a time in my early 50s when I would come home from a business trip exhausted and dream about the day I could begin to finally enjoy the fruits of my hard work. The research supports the feelings I had at the time and many middle-aged people shared with me. The conclusion reached is that “your evaluative happiness (how your life would appear if measured in terms of wealth, achievements and a stable family) can be very different from your affective happiness (how you actually feel). A life that looks happy is not necessarily experienced as happy.” (Time, p.19)
Older people feel happy because much of what they worked hard to achieve when they were younger has been achieved. I remember worrying during my most productive and successful work years, 48 to 55, about losing what I had earned by making bad decisions or not keeping my nose to the grindstone. I was driven more by a fear of failure than I was motivated by a desire for success.
I measure my happiness now in terms of friendships maintained and not achievements attained. That and the benefits I experience on a daily basis by being with my wife, Alyn.
I’m not saying that as a dutiful husband feeling obligated to praise his wife in a column.
You see, unlike her less innately joyful husband, my wife radiates a happiness that is contagious.
It’s hard to be a cloud when you are married to a sunbeam.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.