Is The Pursuit of Happiness Futile? Does it Come From a Gene, or a New Pair of Jeans?

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s right there in the United States Declaration of Independence. Our forefathers were smart enough to know that happiness can only be a pursuit, not a guarantee, and hence comes the dilemma on happiness. What is it? Where does it come from? Is it a gene we’re either born with or not? Early Christians, and even some in contemporary times, believe that suffering and sin is normal in life, and that  happiness is only to come in the hereafter. I know that as I attended very fundamental churches in my childhood, I came to interpret happiness and fun as well, maybe a sin. If it felt good and I was having fun, most likely it was a sin.

So I guess I settled at an early age for “mostly content” rather than “deliriously happy” as in wide eyed grinning and smiling and having “fun”, whatever that is. (If you’re having fun, don’t show it and maybe no one will know you’re sinning!) In fact in typical childhood “happy activities” such as roller coaster rides, I used to wonder why I was more scared to death than happy. Most of the time I felt I had to go along with the group’s idea of fun so as not to be boring. As I got older and learned to question authority, I more tenaciously resisted doing anything that didn’t feel good. Eventually I decided to quit going to church altogether. Life has been much better ever since.

Sometimes Hubby accuses me of not being adventurous enough, and even “heaven forbid” being negative. He, on the other hand, is always positive, always ready to try something new even if it seems a little bit dangerous. After a little learning about new research going on in the brain, I have come to believe I have a right to be whatever I am, even if it’s hard to define whatever I am. Through it all, I have always felt that I am basically a happy, though not “ha ha happy” person, and called myself a “realist” which Hubby translates as “negative person.” On the flip side, I’ve accused him of detaching himself from his real feelings. After all these years I now learn there’s abundant research that may eventually show that maybe we’re both right.

Back in the fall of ’06 we attended a lecture series at the U at which the featured speaker of the evening was Alumni Professor Ed Diener (University of Illinois) who has devoted much of his research to “measuring happiness.” He actually came up with a happiness profile with just six questions. How you answer these very basic questions gives him a very definite and measured sense of how happy you are which Hubby and I recently took. Ironic enough, my score, 31, rated me as “highly happy,” and his score of 30 also shows him to be “highly happy.” (You can take this test also by following the link above. What I find amusing is that I took the test by answering the questions as honestly as possible. On a measure of one to seven, two or three of my answers were in the six range, while at least one was less, somewhere around five. Hubby, who knows how to manipulate these tests, gave everything a six.)    

You can’t always get what you want . . . 

The Rolling Stones said it in 1968 when they first recorded this song about how hard it is to find happiness. It was said to have been inspired by an incident during the Stone’s first U.S. tour in 1964 at a local drugstore in Excelsior, Minnesota, after a concert which hadn’t been well received. Mick Jagger apparently thought that a cherry coke might make him feel happier but soda fountain clerk had to inform him that they didn’t have them, since cherry cokes at the time were only made with real cherries. Would a cherry coke have made Mick happy?

Now let’s note what Dr. Daniel Gilbert, of Harvard University, says will not make you happy. (You might as well forget that “new pair of jeans” in the title or, sorry Mick, even that cherry coke. Like pain, the pleasure only lasts “a little while.” Dr. Gilbert says its:

. . . wrong to believe that a new car will make you as happy as you imagine. You are wrong to believe that a new kitchen will make you happy for as long as you imagine. You are wrong to think that you will be more unhappy with a big single setback (a broken wrist, a broken heart) than with a lesser chronic one (a trick knee, a tense marriage). You are wrong to assume that job failure will be crushing. You are wrong to expect that a death in the family will leave you bereft for year upon year, forever and ever. You are even wrong to reckon that a cheeseburger you order in a restaurant — this week, next week, a year from now, it doesn’t really matter when — will definitely hit the spot. That’s because when it comes to predicting exactly how you will feel in the future, you are most likely wrong. 

As Dr. Gilbert points out, the real problem may be that we don’t always know what we want.

Still another scientist involved in brain research,  Silvia H. Cardoso, tells us that brain imaging studies show that the  prefrontal cortex of the brain processes information from the body as it is activated by emotions. What does that mean? Could it be that we may be able to to teach happiness sometime in the future? Maybe we could add another “R” to the fundamental educational background of Readin’, ‘Ritin’ and ‘Rithmetic; let’s call it “Rudimentary Rules for Happiness.” 

But I like the explanation from Dr. Diener’s studies best. He points out that it’s the journey, not the destination, that’s most important. It’s having the goal that makes us happy. When we get there and stay awhile, Dr. Gilbert’s observations (above) kick in. While marriage can aid in happiness, children do not since the positive feelings you get from the good times are often offset by the negative impact from rearing children. He also points out that we need community support; this’s how religion comes into the picture, as it provides such acceptance and support plus the idea that there’s somebody or some thing beyond yourself. We need supportive family and friends; in fact having friends helps the immune system, and while more research may prove that genetic makeup does influence to some degree our ability to experience happiness, in order to be happy you have to ACT happy.

So, next time you walk into the grocery store and feel like snapping at the clerk because somebody got there before you and snatched up all the French cruellers from the store bakery, instead of snarling, say good morning with a big smile on your face and ask her how her day’s going. Instead of making her day start off on a negative note, I’ll bet she smiles right back at you.

Top o’ the  morning to all of you as you go about in your own pursuits of happiness today! (and the rest of the day as well.)

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