The Myth Of Happiness

But are we in fact asking the wrong question—instead of how do we stay happy, should we ask how do we survive, stay alive, or even bloom when the world goes dark, when we are, for instance, overwhelmed by illness or heartbreak, loss or pain?  Julia Baird, Phosphorescence: A Memoir of Finding Joy When Your World Goes Dark

We Americans are not a happy bunch.

In a March 2023 poll, conducted by the Wall Street Journal and the University of Chicago, only 12% of those surveyed said they were “very happy.” This is the smallest percentage of “very happy” responses ever recorded in this particular survey, which has been administered yearly since 1972.

Curious about the shrinking percentage, the Wall Street Journal called those who said they were “very happy” to find out why*. According to the replies, the very happy value strong relationships, marriage, community involvement and God. They’re more likely to be older (60+) and female. Their political party had no bearing.

But the detailed profiles of some of the respondents revealed a more nuanced story. Connection mattered, but for one man, a single close friend was enough to sustain him and feed a deep sense of happiness. Staying physically active, whether through working out, playing sports or maintaining a home was key for many, as was having a sense of purpose. For one woman, it was choosing joy and learning to be happy.

In short, there was no simple or singular answer. Reading the comments of those interviewed only clouded everything further as people introduced other factors that influenced their level of happiness.

I chuckled when I discovered that the Journal’s survey only included 1,019 people, an infinitesimal percentage of the 332 million living in the United States. What it is about us humans that we want to uncover the secret to happiness through polling? And how could any contingent of 1,000 people possibly represent us all?

As a young person, I remember hungering for happiness, often feeling as though I must be doing something wrong when it remained stubbornly out of reach. Looking back, so much of my discontent was due to ordinary teenage angst – a boyfriend who wasn’t enamored with me or no boyfriend at all, the physics concepts I couldn’t seem to grasp, the English teach who didn’t like me. I spent a lot of time daydreaming about what was coming next, sure that starting college, graduating or moving out on my own would fix everything.

The internet is full of books and articles on how to be happy, many claiming to be “scientifically proven.” Professor Laurie Santos produces a podcast called “The Happiness Lab” and is famous for teaching Yale University’s most popular class on how to be happier, called “Psychology and the Good Life.” There are tips and techniques, practices and behaviors everywhere, if only we are willing to master them.

Over time, I realized that I wasn’t alone in my belief about the possibility of being happy. That others also subscribed to the idea that when a certain event does or doesn’t happen, then we can (or can’t) be happy. Once I find the love of my life, I’ll be happy. I can’t be happy until I lose 10, 20, 30 pounds. As soon as I get that new job or that promotion, then I’ll be happy. Now that I’m divorced and alone, the best years of my life are over. Then, when the eagerly anticipated event happens or the dreaded occurrence doesn’t, we think we’ve failed if happiness isn’t the outcome. And in situations in which we deem happiness impossible, we create our own self-fulfilling prophecy by deciding it’s not even an option.

In my younger years, I sabotaged myself by believing that happiness was a steady state, a constant. A place to get to and set up camp. Once that weight loss or relationship made me happy, I would remain in my bliss spot indefinitely. As soon as I figured out how to pay my dues or punch my ticket, I was in, as if happiness was a club with an exclusive membership. But happiness is an emotion and thus ephemeral. We feel it for a while, and then it’s gone. Like joy, it often comes in crumbs. A few bits here, a few bits there. We can even miss it altogether if we’re not paying attention.

Death and loss and life itself have taught me to stop striving for happiness. That I can’t catch it and should waste time trying. Instead, I’ve learned that it often comes unbidden, in quiet moments when I look up from what I’m doing and realize I am happy.

Unlike my younger years, it takes so little to induce happiness now. A text from one of my beloved cousins. Breakfast with a dear friend. A great blue heron passing overhead as I take out the garbage. The butterfly bushes on the back patio erupting into indigo flowers. Any time spent with Dan and Molly. Commonplace occurrences that matter because I am alert enough to notice them. They are the small, shiny pieces that make up the mosaic of a rich, beautiful life. The little lights that, when life goes dark, allow me to go on and find a way to bloom again.

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  • RememberKala says:


    I begged for, and chased, love, true love, family love, most of my life. What I didn’t take time to realize, was what I was chasing after, was but a vapor of life, and not real life. Once I stopped seeking outside love, and began self love, life for me got “happy”. But even as happy, and as loved, as I am, my life has known GREAT sorrow. As you say, “happy” isn’t a club I joined and therefore can never again be “unhappy”. Just as my great sadness isn’t a club that prevents me from never experiencing happiness again.

    I am currently reading the Bible through, chronologically, and today in fact am reading in Ecclesiastes, where it talks about much of the same that you’ve shared here. Basically, it rains on the just and the unjust, and our calling is to be grateful in the moment, because everything changes and God is in control of it all. This knowledge gives me the eyes to “SEE” and truly appreciate and enjoy the good times; the simple pleasures of life, AND the courage and strength to withstand the hard times.

    Thank you for sharing your heart so beautifully with the world! YOU MATTER! YOU MAKE A DIFFERENCE! And you are part of my “happy”!

    Love and Peace~

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