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.

“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 seem to 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.”

However. this was more a marketing campaign intended to generate support for the revolution than a mission statement for the country. 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, apparent, axiomatic, 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.

Many sources document our social problems. 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.

For all our alleged freedom and high standards of living, we are not very happy. Many of us are stressed out. Despite being one of the wealthiest countries, money problems are widespread. And financial difficulties are a major contributor to stress and other social problems. Medical costs, credit card debt, student loans, unaffordable 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, 24-7 entertainment channels, etc., are billion-dollar markets. The pursuit of happiness is big business with plenty of money to be made from the millions of stressed out suckers.

Being happy is good for you. Happiness is linked to better health and longevity. It boosts your immune system and helps you cope with stress and trauma. There are a number of recommended activities to improve happiness. Although backed up by science these are pretty simple, obvious ways to live better.

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.

Play 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.