Ruminations On A Happy New Year

“They say a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for.” Tom Bodett, author and NPR personality.

“Christmas is just around the corner and what better way to celebrate a religious holiday than with a month of frenzied consumerism.” Calvin, a cartoon character from Calvin and Hobbs

“Happy New Year” is one of the meaningless Hallmark platitudes of the season. You hear the greeting from friends and strangers. It is in the shopping mall Christmas music tape loop. The cards you get from the power company or your dentist wish you happiness. For a few weeks everyone is full of good will and peace on earth. At least until January 2nd.

All humans seek happiness. We are social animals with a propensity to smile, laugh, sing, create art, feast, and seek pleasure. In our country the “pursuit of happiness” was one of the goals of our founding. The preamble of the Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But equality and happiness were more a marketing campaign intended to generate support for the revolution than a mission statement for the country. Throughout our history there was seldom any real effort to create a happy society beyond the individual acquisition of wealth. You were free to pursue happiness, but achieving it was your problem. The American Dream has been about getting money and stuff rather than finding contentment and enjoying life.

There are many truths that should be self-evident if we are actually seeking to have a happier society. Being “self-evident” means that something is obvious and needs no evidence or justification to be accepted. It should be self-evident that a happy people would have health care, enough to eat, decent, safe places to live, and meaningful work to support their families. Tolerance of religious, ethnic, and political differences, economic fairness, and equal justice are necessary for a happy country. It is well established that our country falls short on these requirements. We fall short in comparisons with other countries and we have disparities between regions, states, and local communities in the well being of our people.

For all our alleged freedom and high standards of living, we are not very happy. Only about one-third of Americans describe themselves as “very happy.” More than 20% of us will suffer from emotional and psychological disorders. We have problems with drug abuse, alcoholism, gambling addiction, high divorce rates and personal finances. Many of us are stressed out working multiple jobs to seek success and happiness.

Despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, money problems are widespread. People’s financial difficulties are a major contributor to stress and other social problems. Medical costs, credit card debt, student loans and lack of affordable houses – on top of decades of stagnant wages – have left many of us drowning in financial troubles. According to the Census Bureau 14.5 % of us live below the official poverty line. Other sources say roughly half of Americans are not doing well financially.

In typical American fashion, all this has created a number of industries selling us crap to deal with unhappiness. Mood pills, comfort foods, dieting books, self-improvement gurus and 24/7 entertainment channels are all billion dollar markets. The pursuit of happiness is big business with plenty of money to be made from the millions of stressed out suckers.

Henry David Thoreau, one of the earliest American writers suggested, “That man is the richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.” But this philosophy never fit our lifestyles.

We all know money can’t buy you happiness. Family, friends, health, meaningful work or making a contribution are all more important. So why do people spend most of their time chasing after money? We measure national success with the Gross Domestic Product not happiness. Individual success is all about more stuff not more happiness. It is about bigger houses, more cars, the latest electronics and entertainment gadgets. He who dies with the most toys wins.

Albert Schweitzer, a late 19th century polymath, said, “Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.” Happiness is linked to better health and longevity. It boosts your immune system and helps you cope with stress. Being happy is good for you.

But in America we have millions of uninsured and the most expensive, fragmented, bureaucratic health care delivery system in the world. Because of cost people often forgo preventive care and are less likely to practice healthy physical habits. Obviously any effort to increase happiness would begin with a rational national program for universal health care.

There are a number of recommended activities to improve happiness. Although backed up by science, these are simple, obvious ways to live a better life:

  • Go outside:Research has shown that being out in nature can impact your health and your happiness. Humans are a part of, not separate from, nature.
  • Regular exercise: Exercise helps control weight, combat disease, boost energy, and improve your mood. Exercise releases endorphins in the brain that have positive effects on mood.
  • Enjoy music: Listening to music floods your brain with dopamine, a chemical that affects your emotions and sensations of pleasure and pain. Actually playing music rather than listening is even better.
  • Sleep: Not getting enough sleep is linked to problems with mood and your social relationships.
  • Spend time with other people: Close relationships with friends and family are the single most important factor in determining a person’s happiness. We are social animals. Modern society results in too many people living alone or disconnected from family and needed social contact.
  • Help others: Even small acts of kindness can make both you and the other person feel more positive.

The good news is we can live happier lives. As poet William Wordsworth wrote, “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…” It is in our power to be content with simple pleasures. We can love, do, and hope instead of pursuing more.