Happiness eludes most Americans

Ever since Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence and declared that the pursuit of happiness was our inalienable right, many Americans have felt the need to make this pursuit their number one priority. So that must make us a happy lot. Right?

Wrong. In 2016, residents of Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, and Finland ranked highest in the happiness poll. In the U.S., we’ve dropped from third place in 2007 to nineteenth in 2016. And only about a third of us say we’re happy. Among the reasons given by American respondents were lack of social support and the perception of corruption in business and government.

What is happiness?  Do we all agree on a definition? Not likely. But from the “Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life” website we have this definition: Happiness is “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

One reason the editors at The Greater Good liked this definition was that “it captures the fleeting positive emotions that come with happiness.”  I believe that “fleeting positive emotions” is part of the definition. We can’t experience joy 24/7, nor should we want to. Experiencing the contrast between happy and sad makes happy moments even better.

There are almost as many ideas on how to achieve happiness as there are raindrops in Seattle these days. Dr. Amit Sood, author of the Mayo Clinic’s “Handbook for Happiness,” lays out a daily schedule of emotional responses starting with “gratitude” on Mondays and “forgiveness” on Fridays, with compassion, acceptance and meaning (as in a focus on what gives your life meaning) on the days in between.

In “Real Simple” magazine, writer Gretchen Rubin offers her own list of ten practical tips for achieving happiness. Among my favorites: “Realize that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Challenge and novelty are key elements of happiness,” she says. “The brain is stimulated by surprise, and successfully dealing with an unexpected situation gives a powerful sense of satisfaction. People who do new things―learn a game, travel to unfamiliar places―are happier than people who stick to familiar activities that they already do well.”

Another one worth mentioning: “Don’t insist on the best.” Rubin says those who struggle to make the best decision, “expend more time and energy reaching decisions, and they’re often anxious about their choices. Sometimes good enough is good enough.”

Finally, it’s comforting to know the quest for happiness is not as strong in all cultures as it is in ours.  British writer Ruth Whippman says her countrymen are not nearly as obsessed with finding happiness as we are. Since the quest isn’t producing the results here we’d like, maybe we should emulate the British and pursue some other goal.

Whippman shares a World Health Organization report that says while Americans are not the happiest, we are the most anxious. Well, at least we get a first place in something.

If happiness is our goal but only a third of us are happy, perhaps we’re aiming for the wrong target. Whippman cites University of California, Berkeley studies showing “the higher the respondents rated happiness as a distinct personal ambition, the less happy they were in their lives generally and the more likely they were to experience symptoms of dissatisfaction and even depression.”

Whippman’s article is both telling and laugh-out-loud funny, but she’s also been biased by her setting.  She calls Silicon Valley her home in the U.S. and spends perhaps too much time with techie’s wives obsessed about whether they’re enjoying the lives they could/should live.

PS. I recommend checking out each of the links above. All have useful and/or interesting information and ideas about happiness.

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About stillalife

I retired June 30, 2010 after working for 40 years in the field of education and most recently doing school public relations/community outreach in a mid-size urban school district. I wrote for superintendents and school board members. Now I'm writing for me and I hope for you. In this blog, I offer my own views coupled with the latest research on how to preserve our physical and mental health as we age, delve into issues most of us over 50 can relate to like noticing wrinkles and forgetting where we left our keys, discuss the pros and cons of different ways to engage our minds and bodies after we leave the workplace, and throw in an occasional book review, all peppered with a touch of humor, irony, and just plain silliness.
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