Finding happiness – an article from the Denver Post

Finding happiness – an article from the Denver Post

Get happy! It’s what we all seek

We’re all seeking it. For some, it’s easy; for others, elusive. Why is that?

By Colleen O’Connor

Denver Post Staff Writer

We’re a nation with a happiness fetish.

A new book on happiness seems to roll off the presses every day.

Millions of Americans are training for happiness by wearing “A Complaint Free World” bracelet because, they say, a global moratorium on griping will bring about happiness.

Still others prefer the “Complain All You Want” bracelet, manufactured by a company in Centennial, saying the emotional release of complaining is its own form of happiness.

And then there are those who seek happiness in the usual things: shopping, sex, food, drugs, alcohol, marriage, divorce, extreme sports, meditation and movies like “The Pursuit of Happyness.”

Our founding fathers were certainly sage: It “Asked the same questions that had been asked Americans in the 1950s, people in the 2000s reported themselves to be no happier,” writes Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of “The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think Is Right Is Wrong,” citing a compilation of these studies in “The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies,” by political scientist Robert E. Lane.

So what’s the deal?

We’ve got more wealth, more education, and more time-saving technology since the days of the ancient Stoics and Epicureans, who also wrote tomes on how to be happy.

Experts blame the so-called “hedonic treadmill.”

The modern pursuit of happiness, they say, is like running on a treadmill: Work hard and stay in the same spot.

“Once people get to a certain level of material prosperity, they’re no longer stressed by the pressure of getting that

Colorado Rapids G Bouna Coundoul talked about having a large wing span for his 6-2 height. (the Post | John leyba)next dollar,” says Stephen Post, Ph.D., co-author of “Why Good Things Happen to Good People,” which explores the link between happiness and altruism. “The second or third pair of $200 designer jeans doesn’t make people happy.

“People are comparative by nature. They compare the state of their material well-being to others, so they’re already on the treadmill, never satisfied.”

Worse, a 2005 study by Harvard economist Erzo F.P. Luttmer showed that falling behind the Joneses triggers a blast of unhappiness.

“The very famous, and disturbing, results showed that people were less happy if other people in their community were richer,” says Jeffrey Zaks, a professor of economics at the University of Colorado, who recently spoke on “The Economics of Happiness” at a Cafe Scientific gathering in Boulder.

“The idea that you’re happy only if other people are worse off is morally and ethically disturbing.”

No five easy steps

Authentic happiness takes work. And, like lush lawns, fancy cars and healthy marriages, it requires maintenance. It’s easier, experts say, to be unhappy than happy.

“I think we can do things to be happier,” says University of Michigan psychologist Stephen Peterson, a happiness expert. “However, it’s not five easy steps to lasting fulfillment. That’s absolute nonsense. I’m struck by this enormous new self-help genre on how to be happier, and then the crash-diet books. There are no shortcuts to happiness, and there are no shortcuts to weight loss.

“We do know what makes people happier: It is to have good relationships with other human beings, to do work you like, and to be a contributing member of some community,” Peterson says. “All of that is hard work.”

For Post, the most pithy summation of happiness was tossed off about 50 years ago by Viktor E. Frankl, a holocaust survivor and author of “Man’s Search for Meaning.” He wrote that people cannot pursue happiness directly; it is a byproduct of helping others.

“I could be surrounded by millions of people who love me and adore me, but unless I can become a source of giving, I’ll never be happy,” Post says. “Happiness is something of a paradox.”

In short, he says: “It’s good to be good.”

Let’s say you want to experiment with boosting your own happiness. You decide to follow the principles of just one of the many happiness books flooding the market. Let’s say you choose “The Happiness Myth.” The book, new in April, details three types of happiness:

There’s the good day – not spending too much time in tasks of drudgery and indulging in some things that bring pleasure.

There’s euphoria, an intense and fleeting state that involves some risk or vulnerability.

And there’s the happy life, which requires hard work – striving, nurturing, maintaining, mourning, birthing.

First, Hecht says, realize the fundamental problem. The reason we cannot do everything we want to do in order to be happy is that the three kinds of happiness conflict with one another.

If your long-term happiness dictates a trim body, but your idea of a good day is a daily pint of Chunky Monkey, you’ve got a problem.

Then, once you sort all this out, move along to doing all the work required by each category, trying not to mess up the balance between euphoria, pleasure, striving and maintaining.

If all this sounds exhausting and you’re already feeling a tad burnt out, don’t worry. Be happy. Just try another book.

Like maybe “Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile,” by biological psychologist Daniel Nettle. He writes that total happiness is not possible, so stop consciously seeking it.

Don’t obsess about being happy, in other words. Just let it be.

Staff writer Douglas Brown contributed to this report.

Staff writer Colleen O’Connor can be reached at 303-954-1083 or at coconnor@denverpost.com.

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Happiness is an inside job.

Experiment with what works for you. Try these five essential happiness habits, adapted from “How to Do Just About Anything” on ehow.com.

1. Figure out what is important to you. Do you value a certain kind of job, material things, a relationship, time alone, time with others, time to relax, time to be creative, time to read, time to listen to music or time to have fun?

2. To be happy, you have to make happiness a priority. Decide to make more time in your life to do more of what is important to you and makes you feel happier.

3. Start with little things and work up. Little things might be reading for 15 minutes, taking a walk, calling a friend or buying a great-smelling soap, shampoo, candle or tea that you will enjoy every time you use it.

4.Focus on what is positive. In a journal, write down as many positive things as you can think of about yourself, others and life in general. Keep it handy to read over, and continue adding to it.

5. Appreciate what is working in your life. In the major areas of your life – your health, job, love life, friends, family, money and living situation – what is going well?