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October 12, 2009

Happiness cannot be overrated

In the Oct. 5 edition of Newsweek, columnist Julia Baird bemoans America's "obsession with smiley-faced happiness" and poses the question, "Is this endless pursuit of happiness just making us all miserable?" Baird says studies show that Americans are no happier today than they were 30 years ago, despite steady economic growth and an increasing focus on positive thinking seen everywhere from best-selling self-help books to coffee mugs to corporate trainings. Furthermore, she posits the idea that this blind optimism is not only ineffective but dangerously distracting, causing us to ignore the warnings that might have prevented disasters such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

I agree with Baird on some points: Too much head-in-the-sand optimism can be harmful; our culture's obsession with happiness as a goal to be achieved can be damaging; and promoting the concept that you can "visualize" your way to love, riches and fulfillment can set people up for failure "" and make them more unhappy than they were in the first place.

It's true that Americans are constantly told that we can (and should) be happy, from the "Don't Worry, Be Happy" T-shirts and buttons of the late '80s to today's barrage of self-help advice in books, blogs, magazine covers and "Oprah" episodes.

What Baird fails to mention is the growing body of legitimate scientific research examining why some people are happier than others and what makes people happy over their life spans. The value of this research should not be dismissed, especially as life expectancy increases. (According to a Danish Aging Research Center study released this week, babies born in the United States and Western Europe today are expected to live to 100.) Thousands of happiness studies have been conducted in the U.S. and around the world, and many more are in progress. In an effort to create a clearinghouse for this research, the Department of Sociology at Erasmus University Rotterdam in The Netherlands has created a World Database of Happiness ( Maybe I'm just an incurable optimist, but I think some of these studies provide valuable insight. Consider:

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