Pursuit of happiness and the science of getting it

So the voting in my poll was lighter this week so I broke the tie and selected this topic. Please vote or make comments to help me make these posts as responsive to your needs as possible. Thanks!

President Obama's inaugural speech last week, which now seems like a lifetime ago, (because some of us have waited a lifetime for this moment!) was a great call to action. It was a repudiation of our collective dis-engagement from our local, national and global interests. It was a wake up call to get us re-engaged. Regardless of your political mindset and allegiances, all of us want our citizenry to participate in public and community service. We all want to serve, to come together and use our talents and resources to combat the issues that we face as a society. But to date, we have been lulled into an apathetic, NIMBY, cynical hypnotic state of how irrelevant our actions and opinions are. We have forgotten what a people inspired people can do. I am reminded of what Margaret Mead said, "A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."  This is truly a new day and we must all find our places to contribute. 

Here are a few selected passages of Obama's speech (read the whole thing a few more times!) that are worth further examination:

The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

….what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

I have dedicated this blog to connecting people to one another, to strengthen our sense of community and to helping one another by thinking about others first. Our President rallies our intellects and our spirits to think about how we can pursue "happiness", through "selflessness" and to our "duties" to the greater community. (Did I tell you I was enrolled at Occidental College the same time as Obama? Never met him but, aren't we "classmates"? :-))

So let me briefly address this "happiness" thing. In this context, happiness is not merely our disposition, how we feel, it is our holistic sense of our well-being and our satisfaction with our lives. It seems like human nature that if we do not feel personally fulfilled, or that our personal lives are not satisfying then we will struggle with adopting a lifestyle of helping others and deepening our relationships. Right? 

The Founders of our country, especially Thomas Jefferson, showed their brilliance in wordsmithing when he wrote that Americans were born with "certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." (italics added) It is this word pursuit that is so wonderful. Not getting, obtaining, achieving, or entitled to, but the right to pursue it. Also, remember that the original language that inspired this used the word property instead of happiness! Think about that. While for many "property" is an avenue to happiness. Most of us know that the road to true fulfillment is not paved with material things. After all how much stuff can you accumulate? 

Thomas Jefferson also said, "Virtue is the foundation of happiness." That exposes the myth. The truth is that by becoming the best we can be morally (by being virtuous) and professionally, then helping others and deepening our relationships is what will makes us happier. Happiness is not a pre-requisite to the other. Happiness is the by-product. 

But what is "happiness"? 

Just came back from an all day conference on Applying the Science of Positive Psychology. Some world re-known scientists and professors discussed the current progress of research about measuring well-being, life satisfaction, or forms of happiness. What are the factors that shape our well-being, a positive disposition? And does a positive disposition make a difference in our achievement of goals and becoming successful? And how can we use this knowledge to improve our health care systems, our schools, and our workplaces? 

At this 9 and 1/2 hour conference we were treated to a dizzying array of data and studies on "happiness".  Here are a few examples:

  • Study of nuns from the time of their acceptance into the convent to their deaths showed that 3X the "most cheerful" nuns lived to be 90 yrs or more than the "least cheerful" and lived 9.3 years longer!
  • Entering freshman at 18 years old were measured upon admission and then when they were 40 years old. the "happier" students made an average of 30% more money than the "less happy".  
  • Well being and "happiness" are being measured in 140 countries Gallup world poll  The US is relatively better off, but Denmark is happiest.  
  • The ideal ratio between positive and negative emotions is above 3 to 1 for humans to flourish. 

But how how happy are you? Check out authentic happiness, register and take a few of the free tests. At the very least take the Brief Strengths Test, the Authentic Happiness Inventory, and the Optimism Test. 

Some may think all of this is mumbo jumbo, but there is a science around how you perceive yourself, what strengths/virtues drive your sense of happiness and optimism. And maybe most important, how to focus on learning about what makes us happy, than trying to undo our unhappiness. 

Thanks for reading. John

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