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Healthy Aging

What is Happiness, Anyway?

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 03/04/2010
Last Updated: 03/31/2015

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Happiness is always around but lately, I've noticed that it seems to be the "in" topic. Why is it that suddenly the media is awash in the H- word?

All this focus on happiness makes me think about what happiness really is…I mean, it's all so individual and diverse, don’t you think? Is it love, satisfaction, joy, pleasure? Or, do our life circumstances – like money, marital status, health and sex - determine our happiness?

I'm happy when I'm at an art museum, but some people might consider an afternoon looking at paintings and sculptures to be the equivalent of torture. I'm happy when I’m exercising, while other people would rather be tortured. And I'm happy when I'm eating a big, crisp salad filled with every kind of vegetable out there – but I suspect this would make some people swear off food for good.

But what's not individual is this: happy people have younger hearts, younger arteries, are better equipped to deal with pain and stress. They have lower blood pressure and have a longer life expectancy than unhappy ones.

And some studies also point to the positive relationship between happiness and strong immune systems. When happy people do get colds and viruses, scientists say, their symptoms tend to be milder.

And here's yet another interesting study: Research in the US finds that older Americans are generally happier than younger adults. Yes, aging comes with its own issues but what it leaves behind, some say, are things we have to deal with in our younger years like anger, anxiety, depression, troubled relationships and career stress. (I'm not sure I agree 100 percent with this: I mean, as we get older we still have these things to deal with. I think, though, we can just deal with them better.)

I know some people who are just naturally happy – no matter what, they seem to sustain a positive, satisfied perspective of the world. I often wonder just how they do it. They handle hardship with grace and resilience. But for me? Feeling happy is a lot harder than just getting out of bed in the morning– I need to consciously find things that will make me happy, and remind myself that they’re out there if I look hard enough. I may not have gotten the happiness gene, but I'm putting an all-out effort to learn to be happier.

And by the way, it's a good thing that happiness – we can not only shape the mood of others by our own happiness, we can pick it up from hanging out with other happy people. A study published in the British Medical Journal found this: if you are the hub of a large network of people (think of a real-life LinkedIn or Facebook) then you are more likely to become happy yourself.

It's no wonder, then, I'm drawn to happy people. Perhaps I harbor a secret wish that it'll rub off on me.

This Matters >  If you have to be exposed to anything that's contagious, wouldn't you rather catch happiness than say, the flu?

What's your definition of happiness? Do you think everyone can find it?

And stay with me on this topic. In the next few weeks, I’ll be blogging about the barriers to happiness and how we can push through them. And watch for my illuminating interview with a marriage therapist who is all about being happy in your marriage…even though all you really want is out.

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Comments

I'm happy you're covering this! It's such an important topic. Interesting about levels of happiness increasing with age.

I've noticed, too, that the H word is in the news lately. I think you're right about what matters - to stick around people from whom you can catch happiness from rather than a bad mood!

I'm happy with a big stack of magazines or an afternoon of exploring the city. I think most people are capable of achieving happiness, but some stubbornly choose to be unhappy.

I so agree with your statement, Susan, that some people choose to be unhappy. I know many like this. Sometimes I think it becomes a pattern that they expect - and they let it define them and get so used to it they don't even realize they can change it.

I was just thinking about this because I have become reacquainted with a woman who was born on the same day as me in our small town in Ohio. She counts blessings EVERYWHERE! While I'm grousing about what might have been, she is enjoying what is.

My own happiest moments come from nature--blue skies, big white clouds over the mountains, vivid green of the trees, and lots of sunshine.

Vera

How wonderful to reconnect with your friend. Make sure you hang around her a LOT - sounds like she has enough happiness to spread around and catch!

I love the idea that happiness in contagious. I want to catch it and spread it!

I think happiness is being at peace with oneself and one's place in the world, and understanding -- in a Zen way -- that we are all part of a wholeness.

Thanks for writing about this. I'll be eager to read more blogs on the topic.

I posted this but I think I wrote the wrong Captcha so I'm posting it again in case it does not go through (to the moderators: once you've been approved as a commentator, why do you have to wait to see your comments posted? It's hard for readers to have any kind of real conversation with the system you are using!)

I love the idea that happiness in contagious. I want to catch it and spread it!

I think happiness is being at peace with oneself and one's place in the world, and understanding -- in a Zen way -- that we are all part of a wholeness.

Thanks for writing about this. I'll be eager to read more blogs on the topic.

I agree on that.. in this house we're as happy as the LEAST happy person. I would say that I'm generally a happy person--yet I'm not a bubbly type. I think there are degrees of what is happy. But it is an interesting question: are you happy?

I do think cultivating gratitude is a foundation for happiness.

I think happiness is an attitude. We have to look to find joy in everyday life, in the little things. It's corny, but my dog Zoey teaches me this all the time. She's always got that tail wagging and she's happy to be chasing her tennis ball or chewing on a bone or getting her belly rubbed. We have to all look for things that we really enjoy doing and that validate us without the need for any external validation. Creating because you love it, blogging because you love it, etc.

And we can't get caught up in this big concept of happiness. That's so overwhelming. It's the little things, I tell you, that matter!

I remember watching an intriguing TED video a while back on happiness. Their research suggested that people have a happiness "set point." Whether people won the lottery or became a paraplegic, this set point returned after the high or low in about two years. Interesting to ponder.

What an interesting concept, Melanie. I can kind of understand the "set point" philosophy. I would hope that happiness builds on itself the more we experience it and that we can get that "set point" to register even higher. Wouldn't that be nice?

I've been thinking a lot about happiness lately myself, as it so happens, not because of all the external chatter but because of internal shifts within myself.

A couple of weeks ago someone came up to me at dance class and said "you look so happy," and it sort of blew me away to realize that I was indeed deliciously happy.

Not only am I noticing these moments of joy, I'm wise enough to know they're cause for both celebration and gratitude -- and worth cultivating.

Sarah, What a wonderful moment that must have been. Your happiness must have been so great that it was reflected outward like that. I hope some other people around you caught it, too!

Sarah, What a wonderful moment that must have been. Your happiness must have been so great that it was reflected outward like that. I hope some other people around you caught it, too!

I'm happy working in my organic garden, with the bees and butterflies buzzing around me. My granddaughter always makes me happy. My husband usually makes me happy. Eating a Dancing Deer brownie makes me smile with happiness. Oh, so much to explore on this topic! I look forward to reading more ...

I sure wish happiness was contagious! Thanks for sharing this great information. I didn't know that if you are happier you are generally healthier too.

I have become happier as I've gotten older, but I've worked at it. I've shed a lot of the negative behaviors and thought processes that led to unhappiness in the past. For me, happiness is a state of mind. I can generally have it at any given time--no matter what is going on in my life--as long as I remember that it's possible for me. It's about keeping life in perspective, living a meaningful life, and staying true to my values.

So true, Alisa, to remember that happiness is possible and to reach for it always!

Thank you to everyone who commented here- it makes ME happy to read your different definitions of happiness!

I like to substitute the word joy for happiness. To me, joy implies something more lasting and deeply felt than fleeting happiness. I draw joy from spending time with my family, going on long walks and spending time meditating.

I think eliminating the negative voices in your head is a key to happiness. Sometimes it's hard to do but I'm working on it. Dale Carnegie was on the right track with his Power of Positive Thinking so many years ago.

Sheryl,
was thinking about this as I read your post: we all communicate so much online these days. I've read and heard -- and seen in my own expereince -- that even postive and neutral emails may be taken as negative. just thinking about that as it plays into the idea of maintaining happiness, a nd wht's need to change that.

to answer the questions you posed, I tend to think to happinees as transient and joy as continuing. I think every one has the capacity for both. for me, one of the big components of joy is my faith, and seeking out and doing what I'm called to to through that.

I was just telling my son who is 22 that you can't rely on other people or things to make you happy. You need to be at peace and accept, dare I say love, yourself.
And, whoever said the best things in life are free is so right.

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