2:18 pm
Tue May 4, 2004

Happiness

Everybody wants to be happy, even Wally!

Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Wally's commentary.]

In Greek mythology, sirens were creatures, who lured sailors to their death on the rocks by the sweetness of their song. Today, the air is filled with the songs of other sirens promising happiness.

In this Postcard from the Digital Age we're going to talk about that thing we've all got the right to pursue: happiness.

We Americans ought to be very happy because, by most measures, this is the best time ever to be alive. More of us Americans own our homes than ever before. More of us are educated. More of us travel. More of us have more real income than ever.

And yet, we're not as happy as we'd like to be. In his recent book, The Progress Paradox, Gregg Easterbrook, points out that real measures of happiness have, in fact, been going down, even while all the measures of how good we have it have been going up.

Part of the problem is that we are simply awash in our abundance. Your average supermarket, not a supercenter, stocks over thirty thousand items. We have so much food that obesity has become one of our biggest health problems, and the poor - who used to be rail thin and hungry - are now among the fattest of all.

We have too many choices and too many things to do. We've got ringing phones and mail and email and voicemail to answer. We've got errands and we've got work. Americans, you know work more than just about any other people in the developed world.

And we're worried. We're worried about losing what we've got, worried about losing our job since many of us are just a paycheck or two away from insolvency. We're worried about getting our kids into good schools. We're so worried that some days it feels like we're running in front of a thresher.

That's the bad news. The good news is that over the last couple of decades we've learned some things that can help you sort out what you need to do if you want to not only pursue happiness, but actually catch up to it. Here are some suggestions.

Start by becoming part of something that's bigger than you are. It might be a cause, or an organization. For many of us a religious faith gives meaning to life and provides a ready-made support system.

Pay attention to your relationships and work to keep them healthy. Happy people tend to be folks who have networks of relationships that energize them and that support them when times are bad.

Pay attention to your own health. It's hard to be happy when you feel bad, and taking care of yourself can help you feel better most of the time.

As far as work goes, your best shot at happiness is making enough money doing something that you enjoy. Money's a good thing, but beyond a certain point more money doesn't mean more happiness.

It helps if you can keep a good balance between being realistic and optimistic. There's good research that shows that optimistic people tend to be happier, but optimism with no grounds in reality can lead to lots of disasters that lead to unhappiness.

Learn from the prisoners of war who did a good job of surviving horrific conditions. They kept switching back and forth between a realistic assessment of their situation and an optimistic assessment of how things would come out.

You're more likely to be happy if you feel like you've got some control over your life and if you exercise that control. So take a moment to find something simple you can do that will make you happy.

That doesn't need to be a giant, life-changing step. You can start with something as simple as saying "thank you."

Send thank-you notes. My mother sent three every day, and I've tried to follow the same practice. There's always someone to thank.

Make gratitude visits. Choose someone you want to thank, and then go do it in person.

The Constitution grants us the freedom to pursue happiness, but there are no guarantees, except, perhaps, that happiness is not likely to pursue us.