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The Meaning of Happiness

Posted Feb 11 2011 8:31am

category_bug_journal2.gif I know we discussed this not long ago, but I'm doing it again anyway because I have had some interesting new input.

Happiness has become big business. There are dozens of books about how to achieve it. More people have been setting themselves up as “happiness coaches” - whatever that is. And growing numbers of social scientists spend their entire careers studying happiness.

Many of their research projects report that people become happier as they get older. One reason was posited by Laura Carstensen, the lead author of a recent happiness study :

“'As people get older, they’re more aware of mortality,' Carstensen said. 'So when they see or experience moments of wonderful things, that often comes with the realization that life is fragile and will come to an end. But that’s a good thing. It’s a signal of strong emotional health and balance.'”

Further, according to Carstensen:

“People who have lived a long time typically have made their peace with life’s successes and failures, while young people experience more frustration, stress, and disappointment over things like test scores, career goals and finding true love.”

That's certainly true for me. I don't, as we used to say, “sweat the small stuff” as much these days which is undoubtedly related to the fact that I am more able to distinguish between what is important and what is not.

I am not sure, however, that this relates to happiness as scientists, coaches and many others define it. I would not count myself less happy washing the dishes than when I am experiencing a “wonderful moment” that Carstensen refers to. I think I reserve unhappiness, in its usual definition, for heartbreak, grief and despair (or a painful dental appointment) and the rest of the time, I'm happy.

The notion of happiness has always puzzled me because when asked if I'm happy (as a friend I'd not spoken with in long time did on Wednesday), I suspect we are not talking about the same thing.

I suppose, as I sit here writing, I am happy in the sense that I am not unhappy, sad, depressed, annoyed or angry. Even then, I can be mightily pissed off at, for example, a particularly ignorant politician who is promoting legislation that would make our lives worse and I might even be railing against him or her in unprintable terms. But I could, if asked, honestly say I am happy at the same time.

So I think the idea of happiness is much more complex that we give it credit for and that the word happiness is too sloppy to explain what we mean.

All this came to mind earlier this week when I watched a TED Talk about happiness. The speaker, Daniel Kahneman, is a Nobel laureate and the founder of behavioral economics.

Now, don't let that scare you off. He confirms for me my sense that the notion of happiness is, as he puts it, a “confused mess,” and that how we perceive it depends on whether we are experiencing events in the moment or in memory.

Here is his 20-minute TED Talk.

Kahneman doesn't resolve my murkiness about happiness, but he did explain how I can be thoroughly pissed while feeling generally happy, and he certainly gives me more compelling ways to think about it. I hope you noted what he said at the end about expecting happiness research to affect public policy in the future.

Although Kahneman did not distinguish much between younger and older people in his talk, certainly what Carstensen says about an aging society is pertinent to Kahneman's assertion:

“'This all suggests that as our society is aging, we will have a greater resource,' Carstensen said. 'If people become more even-keeled as they age, older societies could be wiser and kinder societies.'”

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ernest Leichter: Some Wishes Really Do Come True

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