I was recently with a group of women filling out a questionnaire. One of the questions asked, Who is the happiest person you know?
I looked at the woman across the table from me. In unison we said, “Jillene!”
Jillene, who happened to be sitting between us, laughed merrily and said, “I wrote my name too!”
Undoubtably, in our circle of friends, Jillene is the Queen of Happy, but why? What makes her happier than me? And how could I get some of that happiness for myself?
On the margin of my paper I scribbled: Goal–Be as happy as Jillene.
As the meeting progressed, I kept looking at what I had written. What did it mean to be happy? Did I really want the pursuit of happiness to be my goal? While I enjoy when my life is running smoothly and there is a certain ease to the day, I also thrive on those sudden moments when I am flooded with such intense joy I think my heart is going to burst through my chest. I enjoy the sharp highs and adrenalin rush that come from having an idea that leads to a project. And there is also something to be said for the lows. Even though I don’t try to bring them on, I wouldn’t pass over the dark times in my life if given the chance. Cloudy, gray days help me find my source of light, and I would be less without my personal storms.
These ruminations brought to mind a conversation I once had with a friend who was a serious meditator. One day she questioned what it was all about. “I know I am supposed to being trying to attain inner peace,” she said. “But sometimes peace seems so boring!”
To me, happiness, like peace, seems a little dull. I picked up my pen and scratched out Goal–Be as happy as Jillene.
Jillene leaned over and looked at my paper. “Why did you do that?” she asked.
I shrugged. “I’m not sure I want to be happy.”
Jillene raised an eyebrow but didn’t comment.
French writer Colette said, “Be happy. It’s one way of being wise.” Eleven years ago Jillene was diagnosed with breast cancer. Thankfully, the breast cancer is now gone, but the lessons and perspective Jillene gained from the experience are not. I call it her “cancer wisdom.” Part of this wisdom is knowing when to keep her mouth shut and let others stumble around until they find their own answers. She knew I had to figure out this happiness thing for myself. I needed to figure out the whys and hows of happy before I could decide if I wanted to jump on the happiness bandwagon myself.
So I did a little research. Scientific studies have revealed that we all have a fixed happiness set point that is inherited from our parents. As my friend Howard says, “Some people are just happy.” This genetic happiness accounts for about fifty percent of each individual’s happiness wheel.
One example of a genetically happy person is my friend who works at the local used bookstore. Lately life has taken a big stick and whacked her repeatedly behind the knees, but she is still one of the happier people I know–even with tears in her eyes. And it isn’t fake happiness either. When I told her that Howard and I believed she was genetically predisposed to happiness, she said, “Oh yes! I just HATE to be unhappy.”
If I hadn’t been there to see that she was absolutely sincere, I would have assumed she was being sarcastic.
As you may have guessed, I am not genetically predisposed to happiness. I like my parents, and I got some very good genes from them, but we aren’t, by nature, a jolly group.
But all is not lost, because there is still fifty percent of the happiness pie left. Perhaps I can still claim a slice.
Research studies state that the next ten percent of our happiness is determined by our life circumstances such as age, ethnicity, gender, geographical factors, personal history, and wealth. Eric Weiner traveled to the happiest and unhappiest countries in the world according to the rankings by the World Data Base of Happiness, and wrote about his adventures in his book entitled The Geography of Bliss. A self-declared grump, Weiner found that happiness is often determined by your perspective regarding your circumstances. In a nutshell, the Swiss are generally happy when their environment is clean, sterile, and running on time (and boring according to Weiner). Moldovans (Moldova is a former Soviet Republic satellite country) are unhappy because they have a culture that “carves out no space for unrequited kindness…(or) the ‘happiness of hope.’” Plus, says Weiner, it is simply a grim place to live.
Scientists also state that past a certain subsistence level, money can’t buy you happiness either. Unless, of course, you are from Qatar located in the Middle East, one of the richest and happiest countries in the world. On the other hand, according to Weiner, the citizens of Bhutan, located in the Himalayas, are exceptionally poor but are ranked as happier than Qataris. In Bhutan there is even a governmental policy of Gross National Happiness that Bhutanese take very seriously.
The United States ranks 20th among 148 nations on the happiness scale. Not too bad. Add that to all my other positive life circumstances, and I would say that I am already wielding a good solid ten percent of happiness that I didn’t even know I possessed.
The last forty percent of each individual’s happiness circle is determined by “intentional activity,” or in other words, “actions or practices that people can choose to do.” These activities break down into three categories: behavioral (such as exercise, sex, socializing, or lawn bowling); cognitive, (when we strive to see the best in others or pause to count our blessings); and volitional (working toward a goal or committing yourself to a worthy cause).
Gretchen Rubin is all about intentional activity to raise happiness levels. This very idea is the premise of her bestselling book The Happiness Project, which was so successful Ruben’s now has a hotly followed blog (www.happiness-project.com) and a regular column in Woman’s Day magazine. For her project, Ruben devoted a year to practices aimed at helping her reach greater happiness. Each month she focused on a different area in her life. For example, January was about going to bed earlier, exercising “better,” getting organized, and “acting” more energetic.
I don’t know why she wanted to “act” more energetic rather than “be” more energetic, but I guess she had a reason for her phrasing. It is unlikely I will ever know because I couldn’t get past the first chapter of her book–something about her happiness project rubbed me the wrong way. It was like she was trying too hard. I’m all for the philosophy “fake it, ‘til you make it” in a pinch, but not as a lifestyle. Shouldn’t happiness be more spontaneous and easy? Besides, I already go to bed at 8:30.
But my friend Howard, acupuncturist by profession, says there is merit to Rubin’s method. He says that Chinese medicine believes that emotions, when strong and constant, can get into your blood. Focus consciously on happiness and soon it will be biochemical, circulating through your whole body. (The same can be true for negative emotions. Ever feel like you have been flooded by anger and it begins to taint your whole perspective? According to the Chinese, that is a full body emotive experience.)
I glance over at my bookshelf. Besides The Happiness Project, I have several other books on happiness. Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert has a wonderful cover photo of a bowl of cherries tipped onto its side, but in two years my bookmark hasn’t moved past page 58. Happier was written by a Harvard professor and based on his popular happiness seminar, but I can’t seem to make myself crack open the bright yellow cover. The only book on happiness I’ve read start to finish is Weiner’s book mentioned earlier, but that is only because he was so wonderfully grouchy about the whole happiness thing. A kindred spirit.
Maybe I’m just not destined to be one of those happy people. And after looking at the ins and outs of happiness, maybe I don’t want to be.
But then my eye wanders to the collage over my desk that I made with my daughters at the beginning of the new year. Among the jumble of photos, I see a quote that I can’t remember taping on there. I lean closer to read the small type.
“Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling.” –Margaret Lee Runbeck, Time for Each Other
I pull up the Internet and google “definition of happiness.”
The first definition in a list of many simply says: “State of being characterized by emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.”
There it is. There is my kind of happiness. I’m not looking to arrive at the Happiness Station where we all sit around and grin at each other, I’m looking to ride the emotional range of happiness. I don’t want to travel by train, I want to set off in a boat. I want the thrill of ever changing water, flat and serene seas as well as the exhilaration of wild waves. And I am fully aware that occasionally I will be dumped overboard, and maybe nearly drown, until I remember what it is all about and learn again to be thankful, gracious, and kind in this life.
A friend recently sent me the following quote: “A boat is safe in the harbor, but that is not the purpose of the boat.”
I dig out the survey from a pile on my desk. On the line asking to list the happiest person you know, I added my name next to Jillene’s. My happiness might not be the same as hers or my friend’s from the bookstore, and my happiness wheel might have some spokes missing, but according to my new definition, I am wildly happy. Perhaps the pursuit of happiness is as simple as releasing ourselves to our own individual type of happiness.
As for me, I’m onboard and riding the high seas.