Money is often said to be capitalist America’s brass ring. But judging by a recent spate of media stories, I believe that it’s happiness instead.
There’s an old saying that “money doesn’t buy happiness,” but those who say it are usually quick to add that a few bucks in your pocket make the road there a lot smoother.
Is happiness a state of mind? Peacefulness in your heart? Or a pleasant, passing moment with a baby’s smile or a songbird’s trill?
Or is it life’s elusive brass ring?
Can you will happiness to yourself, even in tough times? Work on it, practice it, build it up? Or are some lucky, chipper people born with a “happiness gene”?
Is happiness the same thing as love, whatever THAT is!?
Or is it something not grand at all, such as ownership of a “warm gun,” as John Lennon wrote in a song on the Beatles’ White Album. That would fit America’s culture.
Are there “secrets” to happiness — available while supplies last for $19.95 on a local cable channel or a bookstore near you?
Must it have a religious component, a connection with one’s maker or some ethereal spirit?
Can we be ambassadors of happiness, bringing OTHERS joy? Or are we on our own when it comes to gladness and bliss?
Are there degrees and shades of happiness? Tranquil sorts seem happy much of the time — content, anyway — but they aren’t very perky about it. And bubbly folks don’t seem all that deep. Yet both are liable to tell you they’re happy as a lark, a clam, or a bug in a rug.
**Note and homework assignment: Larks SOUND happy, but are they really?
You’ll notice that there are a lot more questions than answers here.
I have a VOA colleague who, from time to time, tells me that it’s foolhardy to chase happiness as a be-all and end-all goal. Be thankful for bits of it where you find them, she advises, and don’t make a big deal out of it.
She would appreciate this quote from Sharon Salzberg, a noted meditationist — if there is such a word — who is best-selling author:
By engaging in a delusive quest for happiness, we bring only suffering upon ourselves. In our frantic search for something to quench our thirst, we overlook the water all around us and drive ourselves into exile from our own lives.
Yes, indeed, everybody in America is talking or writing about happiness.
OK, not everybody, but a lot of people, including Kevin Huffman, who believes our whole country is “remarkably happy” despite our soaring debt, political ferment, and recent natural disasters. Huffman, a lawyer and teacher whom readers selected as the Washington Post’s “Next Great Pundit” in a contest, cites an Associated Press-Gfk poll in which 78 percent of Americans described themselves as “very happy” or “somewhat happy.”
This, despite what Huffman terms a “rotten decade” filled with bad news, terrible deeds, and worse people.
Huffman noted that those who live in lovely surroundings with agreeable weather report a higher level of happiness than those stuck in, say, the Snow Belt or some grungy town’s “wrong side of the tracks.”
Louisiana, for instance, finished first among states in a Gallup happiness ranking. A friend told Huffman this was because of its joie de vivre, or zest for life. I can attest from living there that although parts of the Bayou State are stunning in their grandeur, much of it is run-down, downright ugly, and full of varmints. Yet a lot of its citizens, including some of the poorest, are sunny optimists. They can make a celebration out of a tiny squeezebox or a meager pot of beans.
Studies routinely show that among four categories of adults — unmarried women, unmarried men, married women, and married men — gents in marriages report the highest degree of happiness by far. The six or seven women in our group of VOA feature reporters with whom I meet each Monday morning — I am the only guy — don’t even bother to explain why this is. They just smile, nod, and cluck knowingly.
I know, I’m in trouble for the “cluck” remark.
Parade magazine, the spritely tabloid inserted in many U.S. newspapers’ Sunday editions, carried a Q&A with Martin Seligman, whom it describes as a “positive-psychology guru.” Seligman, whose new book carries the encouraging title Flourish, told Parade that — despite what another positivist, Tal-Ben Shahar, told Great Pundit Huffman — happiness is by no means “the end toward which all other ends lead.”
Happiness does occupy one of life’s highest rungs, Seligman says, but flourishing claims a higher one. In addition to searching out such things as “a larger purpose” in one’s own life, flourishing involves helping others find happiness as well.
One way to do it, he says, is to make five positive statements for every negative one. Cooling the criticism and saying nice things will help others feel better about themselves. You, too, for the pleasure you receive from dispensing this psychological boost.
Here’s another Seligman tip: Figure out what you like or are really good at — and do more of it.
I’ll vote for that. I once got into management because I thought I was a warm “people person” and because it paid better. I was miserable and gladly went back to wretchedly compensated writing.
It occurs to me that I could have truncated this happiness kick by simply calling Hawaii, asking for Alan Wong, and telling you what he had to say.
He is, after all, “the happiest person in America.”
Or so the Gallup polling organization determined, at the request of the New York Times, after preparing a composite of a person who would embody all of the characteristics that correlate with happiness. This model person evolved from something called the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which charts the feelings of 1,000 Americans each day.
Alan Wong is a man, as you might have guessed. Men tend to be happier than women. (I hear clucking.)
He’s tall. Short people are less satisfied with themselves. (The Napoleonic complex.)
He’s Asian-American, has children, and lives in verdant Hawaii. And, possibly influenced by his marriage to a Caucasian woman named Trudy Schlandler, he is a Kosher-observing Orthodox Jew.
Reached by the Times, Wong said he was indeed quite happy with his lot. “My life philosophy is, if you can’t laugh at yourself, life is going to be pretty terrible for you,” he said.
So I’d pay less attention to positive-psychology gurus than to the wisdom of America’s happiest person. And as you’re laughing at yourself more, take a moment and write me with your own thoughts about happiness and how to achieve it.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Brass ring. Something — often a long shot with severe odds against reaching it — that people strive for, sometimes forever and often with little success. The term goes all the way back to medieval days, when knights would try to spear a dangling ring with their lances. But more recently, brass rings were a feature of carousel rides at carnivals and county fairs. As the merry-go-round whirled, a chute barely within reach would dispense rings, one at a time. Most were iron, but one was brass. A passing rider who could snare the brass ring was awarded another ride for free.
Chipper. Cheerful, jaunty, in upbeat humor. The term, originating from the Old English, related to one’s frisky moves more than to his outlook or state of mind. But since it’s logical to assume that one who trips merrily down the road is in a good mood, the meaning of the word soon broadened.
Spate. A large number or volume all at once. An outburst, as in, a “spate of angry e-mails.”
Squeezebox. A concertina or accordion, especially a small type favored in Louisiana’s French-speaking Acadiana region.
Truncate. To shorten or lop off something.
Varmint. An undesirable, often predatory, animal, especially as seen by the owners of animals on whom the varmints prey. In movie “westerns,” characters often complain about human varmints, such as scoundrels who are rustling cattle or stealing water, as well.