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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Be Happy, Damn It!

 The text of the second section of the Declaration of Independence reads:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident
that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
"But, are you happy?" This question poses one of the biggest considerations, and many would say the biggest consideration, people can make about the state of their lives. A  perceived level of happiness affects general attitude, outlook, and responses to surroundings. An unhappy person is, at the very least, someone others try to help "get on track." And, the proverbial "man of constant sorrow" is someone most people avoid.

What Makes Up Happiness?

Happiness, what it is and how to attain it, has been studied for thousands of years. Most psychologists generally agree that happiness has several parts. These parts are often divided into the following categories:

1. Happiness Over a Specific Period of Time

The temporal aspect to happiness such that one can measure happiness in a week, in a year, or in a life. It has been demonstrated that one can feel positive and negative emotions at the same time meaning that these items are not negatively correlated. (Ed Diener and Robert A. Emmons, "The Satisfaction With Life Scale," Journal of Personality Assessment, Volume 49, 1985)

2. Happiness Remembered (Subjective) Plus Happiness In Real Time (Objective)

Some people measure subjective happiness (how happy you remember being) while others measure objective happiness, based on the intensity and duration of positive/negative affect measured in real time. (Daniel Kahneman and Ilana Ritov, "Economic Preferences or Attitiude Expressions?" Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Volume 19, 1999)

3. Happiness As Satisfaction -- A Personal Appraisal of One's General Situation

Other people measure happiness ad "satisfaction," which can be thought of as an evaluation of how one appraises one's general situation rather than one's actual feelings. Satisfaction can be broken up into various areas or domains which is called domain satisfaction. Most all of these items are positively correlated, yet distinct concepts.

How is Happiness Measured?

No matter what part of happiness is considered -- happiness over time, happiness in memory, or general satisfaction of situation -- just how in the heck can anyone measure it? Most measures of happiness are based on self report. Theoretically, involuntary physiological measures over a period of time would give one an objective measure of happiness.

Involuntary physiological measures? I have no idea how someone would accurately measure "happy physiology." (Although I do know some instances when involuntary pleasure occurs - oh, forget it.)  Suffice it to say, the technical barriers to measuring this for any length of time preclude meaningful studies of long term happiness.

I guess a person can report a general state of "well-being," which may be considered happiness. But even in vague terms, well-being is subjective considering it is difficult to measure and distinguish differences between "positive" vs "negative" degrees of a state of wellness. "I'm doing pretty well," he says. Does that mean he is happy,  or does that mean he is merely in some relative state of good health?

And how in the world would you objectively measure "satisfaction"? Just consider the "satisfied" times in life and somehow relate them to happiness. Again, there is a lot of subjectivity and range of emotion in terms of being satisfied.

Happiness may  also be measured as a distinction between remembered happiness and experienced happiness. If you ask people how happy they are at regular intervals, you get a different picture than if you asked people how happy they were during a given experience. The difference is often attributed to the peak-end rule where people are biased based on how they felt at the end or on their peak experience.

Therefore, measures of happiness vary depending on whether one measures life satisfaction or moment to moment peaks. Short term, single high peak happiness may result from eating an ice cream cone every once and awhile. Whereas, eating healthy meals on a regular basis may produce extended happiness with multiple peaks.

Maybe it is impossible to gauge happiness because any measurement is full of subjectivity, but people still want to be happy, and others who love them insist they increase their satisfaction until they reach whatever "happiness" means to the individual.

Scientists believe gender and age may play significant parts in whether a person is happy. That stands to reason. Interestingly, some new studies are looking at genetics as a huge factor.

Happiness and Genetics

A new study by UK and Australian psychologists suggests that while happiness in life reflects personal circumstances, having the right genetic mix is equally important. (Rick Nauert PHD, "Genetic Link To Happiness,", March 5 2008)

Psychologists at the University of Edinburgh 
working with researchers at Queensland Institute
found that happiness
is partly determined by personality traits 
and that both personality and happiness
are largely hereditary.

Using 900 pairs of twins, researchers identified evidence for common genes which result in certain personality traits and predispose people to happiness. They found that people who do not excessively worry, and who are sociable and conscientious tend to be happier. (Dr Alexander Weiss, Psychological Science, March 2008)

But also, the findings suggest that those lucky enough to have the right inherited personality mix have an "affective reserve" of happiness which can be called upon in stressful times or in times of recovery.

So there is around 50% probability of more joy for people who inherit "happiness"? (If one could ever measure the term, that it.) The rest of happiness is still down to external factors such as relationships, health and careers. Don't you hope you are lucky enough to be "wired" to achieve happiness? It would seem to be a huge benefit, a head start to a satisfying life. Yet, you have no control over your genetics.

So, What Does All of This Mean? Are We Happy?
1. 50% of your happiness quotient is biological - 50% of your body is set to either say "yes" or "no" to happiness in your stressful life. You have no choice, so live with it, no matter what. Maybe the negative happiness folks have a better opportunity to pursue a career as a blues musician.

2. Increase your opportunites to socialize if you want to be happy. Don't worry, just try to be happy.

3. Be glad for your happy memories and your happiness over even short periods of time.

4. Your concept of personal happiness may be better considered in terms of general satisfaction with your life instead of in terms of some high degree of extreme joy or great fortune.

5. If you aren't happy, you should try being more conscientious of the feelings of other people's happiness. ("The love you take is equal to the love you make.")

"Each morning when I open my eyes 
I say to myself: I, not events, 
have the power to make me happy 
or unhappy today. 
I can choose which it shall be. 
Yesterday is dead, 
tomorrow hasn't arrived yet. 
I have just one day, 
and I'm going to be happy in it."

- Groucho Marx

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