Happiness by today’s standards is an ever changing idea. People have different ideas and opinion’s about happiness, but who is right? The truth is that nobody knows. Countless studies are conducted claiming a recipe for happiness while others claim to know why we like unhappiness. The theories and support for proving happiness are as varied as they are vague. There is no real formula for happiness, all we can do is what we think is right, and the rest will follow.
Happiness can be defined as being in a positive state of well being. Self-help experts claim that the first step to leading a happier life is to make positive lifestyle changes such as diet, exercise, and good social relationships. In an article by Channa Serenity, she claims that there are seven points that can lead to a happy life. Her main point is that, “Health is our authentic wealth.” The fact is that health is not necessarily a guarantee for a happy life, and the rest of her article is outlining how the seven points benefit someone to stay on a diet. Someone who is already on a diet and exercises regularly can still be an unhappy person because of family issues or health concerns that can’t be cured with diet and exercise. Certain researchers decide to observe the patterns behavior in happy people. People who are happy typically exhibit or adhere to certain behaviors, for instance they may wake up early or drink something other than coffee in the mornings. While one specific habit cannot be an absolute indicator of happiness in life, a broad range of lifestyle choices, can be. Gregory Ciotti wrote an article about 15 habits that are typically exhibited by happy people. In the article, there are ideas ranging from maintaining relationships, to self-awareness, to focusing on goals. While it is impossible to narrow down what specifically makes people happy, the article does cover lifestyle changes that are broad and vague enough to have some bearing on happiness among individuals. Gregory does admit that, “I simply feel that research is a great place to start when observing the patterns of happy people.” Meaning if there was a place to begin to grasp at the enormous subject, research is the best start. At the same time he agrees, “It seems a grandiose notion to define happiness with research, doesn’t it?” However the points that he raises are broad and diffuse enough that his efforts to truly “define” happiness are futile. Behavioral research is the closest thing to defining or providing a recipe for happiness that could be achieved. The problem being its evidence would have to be broad and therefore difficult to understand.
One of the most understood and common assumptions about happiness is that it cannot be bought. Countless examples are listed for people who are obsessed with material possessions and when that goal is finally achieved, there is dissatisfaction with the attained items. In a New York Times article by Arthur Brooks, there is the story of Abd al-Rahman who had attained everything in wealth and power, yet he characterized his genuine happiness over his 50 years to be a mere 14 days. Arthur went on to write that Abd al-Rahman decided to, “Love Things, Use People.” His problem was characterized by the fact that he put his love into objects that could not reciprocate his love and emotion. Arthur goes on to offer a simple explanation, “Love People, Use Things.” Meaning Abd al-Rahman should have invested his love and happiness into people, and put less interest into material possessions. He gives the suggestion to, “Only deny love to things that actually are objects. The practice that achieves this is charity.” The issue with giving away material possessions to accept love from others is when it is taken too far. As quickly as happiness can be won from giving things away, it can be taken by not having possessions to sustain oneself. If someone were to give in the name of charity to ones friends, they may become greedy and seek to absorb more than what is given and take what they please. Few things would feel worse than realizing a friend is only there to take from someone.
Self control is another factor claimed to have a superior effect on happiness. If someone is able to delay gratification in order to seek the long-term benefits, in this case happiness, they have happier lives. A classic research example of self control and long term benefits is the marshmallow test. In an article by Chuck Hadad reporting on the marshmallow test, the self-control test was given to children showing profound effects on children later on. The test showed that the children who waited 15 minutes for the “long term” benefit of more marshmallows was shown to be able to achieve happier lives. While choosing long-term over short-term benefits could lead to happier living, this isn’t an accurate assessment of living a happier life. People could make the right decisions and still lead an unhappy life because of events that were out of their control. At the same time, just because someone prefers short-term benefits doesn’t mean they won’t be happy. A person can be completely satisfied with making short-term happiness decisions throughout their lives, if nothing “bad” happens that results in unhappiness, then they shouldn’t be unhappy lives.
Efforts have been made to prove that individuals’ happiness influences overall societal happiness. It would seem to make sense since all individuals make up the society as a whole, an individual’s happiness should be proportional. In an article by Mark Williamson, he discusses the prosperity of England over the last several decades that comes at the cost of people losing trust in one another and a myriad of social problems. He expresses his opinion that the loss of trust and happiness can be alleviated by, “focusing our time and energy instead on things that have been shown to consistently bring happiness, we can live rich, rewarding lives.” The fault in Mark’s logic is that focusing time and energy on anything is an investment, and investments don’t always pay off. There is also a lack of specificity for bringing the happiness. In the article he describes typical activities that are claimed to bring happiness, such as improving relationships, self-awareness, and purpose in life, but he fails to go into detail. How can social relationships be improved to bring happiness? How can someone increase their self-awareness so that they are happy? Most compelling being, how can a purpose in life bring happiness?
Emily Smith wrote an article claiming that happy and meaningful lives are not the same thing. The evidence behind her article comes from her citations of renowned psychologist Viktor Frankl. In his life, he chose to choose a more meaningful life by comforting his parents in Nazi concentration camps rather than pursue a happy life with his wife and family in America. Throughout the article she attempts to prove the point that life needs more than just happiness, “Gallup also reports that 60% all Americans today feel happy…4 out of 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose.” Having a satisfying life purpose doesn’t necessarily prove that someone would be happier. She makes the claim that “Research” shows that a life purpose does provide more satisfaction in life but fails to provide any specific examples of research conducted on the topic. Take an oncologist who only works with terminally ill patients as an example. They have found that it is absolutely their purpose in life to help their patients deal with the diagnosis and oversee their treatments until they die. While it is a truly noble purpose, they cannot possibly maintain happiness while witnessing the inevitable death of their patients month after month. Someone could have a genuinely noble purpose in life but if it detracts from their happiness, they inevitably will not be happy.
Making decisions that will lead to personal happiness doesn’t mean their selfish. In Emily Smith’s article she makes the argument that being a “taker” is associated with a happy life, meaning selfish decisions would make a person happier overall. Her evidence comes from the Journal of Positive Psychology where the authors state, “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life.” While it is apparent that being unhappy doesn’t mean one is leading a meaningful life, it doesn’t draw the absolute conclusion that being happy without meaning is ultimately selfish. Someone could draw pleasure from the simplest gesture that couldn’t be characterized as selfish or selfless. If someone is merely happy reading the morning paper with a cup of coffee, that person is hardly an image of selfish greed. Therefore the claim that being happy without meaning condemns one to be selfish is harsh and hollow.
Maintaining good social relationships is a recurring favorite among researchers trying to prove what makes people happy. Happiness could be achieved by keeping good close relationships where you can open up to others about problems, they support one when needed, and provide a sense of identity. A PBS article outlines four major happiness benefits from connecting with others, “Belonging to a group gives us a sense of identity…Researchers have found that people are happier when they are with other people than when they are alone…Happiness may be surprisingly contagious…The positive effects from connecting with others are lasting.” While these points are certainly possibilities for happiness theoretically, practically the situation may be different. If the friend abandon someone because of something they did, then there are no friends to talk to he/she about the major problems in their life. They loose the close connections and could loose happiness very quickly and very likely become depressed. Just because someone currently has good relationships, doesn’t mean they will last.
A curious argument about happiness is that people actually prefer to be unhappy. Some research conducted supports the conclusion that people enjoy being unhappy because they don’t like to be happy and then “fall” back to unhappiness. In an article by David Sack, he lists ten points as to why people choose to be unhappy ranging from the fear of something new to pride in realism. He goes on to say, “It is often said that “happiness is a choice.” But then why aren’t more people happy?” The statement he provides operates under the assumption that there is always a choice whether or not to be happy. Certain situations allow people the choice to choose to be happy, for example a flight is going to be unpleasant, might as well try and be happy, no place to go but up. If more people were unhappy in those situations then his support would be more founded, however raising the question as to why people are unhappy when they could simply choose to be is a flawed premise. Just because people choose to be unhappy doesn’t mean they are afforded the opportunity every single time.
The truth is that how can people accurately decide that life needs more than happiness. Millions of people everyday go through their lives leading selfish albeit happy lives. These people don’t necessarily have feelings of discontent, and the evidence behind what would make them more happy is inconclusive. The problem with dissecting and proving what makes people happy is incredibly complex due to the simple fact happiness means something different for everyone. People who lead selfish lives and are happy about it, wouldn’t be more happy or fulfilled if they sacrificed their happiness for meaning.
Smith, Emily E. “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 09 Jan. 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2015. This is a main source used to make the counterargument that happiness is based on meaning in life.
“The Journal of Positive Psychology Ad-Hoc Reviewers 2008.” The Journal of Positive Psychology 10.3 (2015): n. pag. Web. This source is used to provide a statistical quote for the meaning and happiness topic of the debate.
Serenity, Channa. “Health Is Our Authentic Wealth: 7 Tips to Make Positive Lifestyle Changes.” MindBodyGreen. MindBodyGreen, LLC., 06 Aug. 2012. Web. 02 Mar. 2015. This source is used as evidence that what makes people happy cannot be solely based on diet and exercise.
Hadad, Chuck. “What ‘marshmallow Test’ Can Teach You about Your Kids – CNN.com.” CNN. Cable News Network, 22 Dec. 2014. Web. 24 Apr. 2015. This source is used for the background for the marshmallow test results for self control and happiness.
Ciotti, Gregory. “How to Be Happy: 15 Common Habits.” Sparring Mind RSS. Sparring Mind, 11 Sept. 2013. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. This source is used as an example of research supporting a variety of lifestyle changes that would improve happiness.
Williamson, Mark. “Let the Happiness In.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Ltd., 12 Apr. 2011. Web. Source used for the counterargument of proving happiness in society.
“Connecting.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. Source counterargument for the happiness and social relationships.
Brooks, Arthur C. “Love People, Not Pleasure.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 19 July 2014. Web. 27 Apr. 2015. A source providing background for the counterargument that happiness cannot be bought.
Sack, David, M.D. “Are You Addicted to Unhappiness?” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers LLC, 5 Mar. 2014. Web. 27 Apr. 2015. Source providing counterargument that people prefer unhappiness to being happy.