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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:

ä In a nearly 70-year study, researchers traced the paths of 268 men, starting when they were sophomores at Harvard University in the 1940s, and found that the quality of the men's relationships with family and friends in young adulthood was the biggest predictor of health, wealth and success later in life.

ä A study by researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, found that life satisfaction comes from positive emotions experienced in response to tiny, everyday events, rather than big accomplishments or life-changing experiences.

ä A study by an assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University found that spending money on experiences creates more happiness than buying material things.

ä Happiness research is complicated by the fact that happiness is measured through self-perception, but University of Vermont mathematician Chris Danforth is addressing this limitation with a real-time happiness "index" that measures how happy people are through computer analysis of the feelings expressed in blogs and Twitter messages. (Using the same technology, Danforth found a significant decline in happiness in song lyrics over the last 60 years; he attributed this to the addition of the hip-hop, rap, punk and metal genres, because the "happiness index" of Gospel, soul, pop, country and folk music remained the same over time.) We need a fair amount of pessimism to keep us grounded, to provide a rational approach to assessing risk and recognizing danger, and to make smart decisions. However, we should not discount the role of positive thinking in healing, overcoming adversity and making the most of our time on this planet.

Scientists can't manufacture happiness, but their research may influence the perception of happiness by revealing the attitudes and pursuits in life that will most likely lead to contentment.

There is, of course, a difference between being content and being happy. At its core, happiness is a transient state "" an emotion that's as fleeting as a butterfly kiss, a bar of music, the scent of lilacs in the night, the sudden urge to laugh or sing or hug someone.

My own philosophy isn't scientific, but it's simple: Enjoy each joyful moment as it comes "" and, in times of sorrow, frustration or despair, be optimistic that happy days will come again.


Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at