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The Decisions Made in Pursuit of Happiness

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For as long as we’ve been conscious, humans have been spending all of their lives making decision after decision only with the notion that it will bring us happiness or pleasure. Despite all of our efforts, however, happiness remains elusive and mysterious. The pursuit of happiness is granted to us as a right in the United States, yet most of us seem to have no idea where that pursuit is supposed to take them. Scientists, philosophers, psychologists, and many more study and all have their own thing to say about happiness, but subjective experience makes it difficult for them to find any solid data. The thing that humans crave the most is the thing we struggle the hardest to understand.

Only recently has happiness became the interest of psychology, but it has been working diligently to understand it. Working together, psychologists have been able to come up with a chart to measure different aspects of subjective well-being. Through research and study of identical twins, they have discovered what is called a “genetic set-point” of happiness. The genetic set-point states that 50% of our happiness is determined by our genes, and that no matter how happy or upset we get, we always return to our genetic set point. Of course, this isn’t always true. “Some life events are so severe that victims never recover back to their previous set-point or equilibrium level.” (Headey 2). Meaning that when someone is victim to a serious trauma, like losing their child or spouse, the genetic set-point is somehow lowered and the person generally remains unhappy. The genetic set-point still leaves room for more contributors to happiness though, so not all is lost. The remaining half is divided, surprisingly, pretty unevenly. Life circumstances such as our health, job, social status, surroundings, environment, and others only seem to make up 10% of our happiness. So, what exactly makes up the other 40%? Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D. and professor at University of California, Riverside, states that, “…there is a great deal you can do to become happier, and that 40% is left for kind of intentional behavior…” She, among others, believes that you can control your happiness by consciously changing things in your life or daily routine. Whether it be trying something new for dinner or simply sitting in the bedroom for a meal rather than the living room, it is important for happiness to not adapt to what you are doing. “For some people it’s going to be a lot of change, for some people it’s going to be a little. But that change is important.” (Lyubomirsky). As they always say, variety is the spice of life.

The most commonly raised question about happiness is about whether or not it can be measured. Hundreds of psychologists and philosophers have tried to find a way to measure happiness, but it is hard to measure something that is experienced subjectively. In fact, for a while happiness was deemed immeasurable, but Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven and many others have come to disagree. “When defined as the subjective appreciations of one’s life, happiness is something we have in mind and what is on our mind can be assessed using questioning.” (Veenhoven 3). Veenhoven describes a sort of questioning that they put subjects through in order to get a general assessment of happiness across areas by comparing peoples’ answers relatively. “An overview of acceptable questions is available in the collection ‘Measures of Happiness’ of the World Database of Happiness.” (Veenhoven 3). They stored all of the questions that were appropriate to ask in order to measure happiness and most of any other research on happiness in this World Database of Happiness for later use. Yet it seems the more information we build up on the concept of happiness, the less we seem to understand about it.

One of the many debates among the subject of happiness is whether or not we as humans have control over our own happiness. Surely there are many things that affect our happiness from the outside such as weather, the well-being of our peers, and many other social and environmental keys, but can we control it on our own from within? According to JoNell Strough from West Virginia University, we tend to attempt to control our happiness through a process called “maximizing.” “Maximizing is a decision strategy that seeks the very best option, which is more elaborate and potentially more regret inducing than choosing an option that is ‘good enough’” (Strough 1). Sometimes when we try our best to pick the best option in order to maximize our happiness, we end up falling shorter than we would have by picking the not-so-good option. However, this might only be a problem among the youth. “In surveys with a large national sample, we find that older adults are less likely than younger adults to self-report maximizing, which is associated with their better experienced well-being reported 2 years later.” (Strough 1). When we analyze options and compare them with others in order to determine the best option, we tend to shoot to high and fall back a few steps from where we started. Thankfully as we get older we tend to shake this habit and begin to settle for the option that is good enough, which actually saves us our happiness in the long run. So we definitely have some control over our own happiness, but we must be careful not to abuse it or we could very well end up paying for it.

Besides self-control, what other aspects of life can influence our happiness. Well the answer is a lot of things, but many people seem to believe money is one of them. America was founded on the idea of working hard and making it to the top of a capitalist system in order to accumulate as much wealth as you can to have a happy life. It is believed that a strong work ethic will pay off in the long run, giving you the ability to buy your happiness. However, in Japan where they have the highest work ethic and people work longer than in any other country the people’s happiness seems to be suffering. Tomoyuki Kawada, from the Department of Hygiene and Public Health, has done many studies on the cases of severe depression and sometimes even death due to overworking in Japan. “The prevalence of mental illness, mainly depression, appears to be increasing in many workplaces in Japan [19]. The suicide rate, which started to increase in the mid-1990’s, still continues to rise [18]. According to World Health Organization data [25], Japan has one of the highest rates of suicide among the developed countries.” (Kawada 1). People are working extremely hard in Japan to achieve a stable and happy life, but they are overworking themselves in the process. A cloud of exhaustion lingers over the country’s main cities as everyone tries to squeeze in their needed sleep on subway rides. Death from overworking is so common in Japan, in the 1970s they created a term for it: Karoshi. There is also Karojisatsu, a form of Karoshi that refers to a person being driven to the point of suicide because of stress due to overworking. After studying Japan, it’s hard to continue proposing that money could be the answer to our happiness.

On a more positive note, our friends can be a very reliable source of happiness so long as they themselves are happy. There isn’t much of a downside if they are sad either. According to Jennifer Abbasi from Happify Daily, “While having a friend who’s happy improves your likelihood of being happy by 15 percent, having one who’s unhappy lowers your chances by just 7 percent.” Not only can we control our own happiness, but our friends can contribute to it as well. “A Harvard Medical School study of 5,000 people over 20 years found that one person’s happiness spreads through their social group even up to three degrees of separation, and that the effect lasts as long as a year.” (Abbasi). That’s right even somebody whom you don’t know but is friends with your friend, or even your friend’s friend, can also affect your happiness. There is an astonishing sense of connection within the human race, and it could very well be a gold mine of happiness. Social interaction ties in with this as well. When we interact with people in the community on a daily basis, we become happier. Opening the door for someone coming in to the store, being friendly to the cashier, even smiling at someone can greatly influence not only their happiness, but ours as well. Dr. Art Markman from Psychology Today says, “The interactions we have with other people affect the way we feel about life. Our close relationships keep us grounded and influence both happiness and the sense that we are part of a larger community. Interestingly, even our interactions with people we do not know that well give us a sense that we are part of that larger community.” So whatever you do while you’re out of the house, don’t forget to put on a smile and connect yourself with your community. Who wouldn’t want an overall happier neighborhood? It’s more contagious than we think.

Happiness has always been thought to be an emotional or psychological state, but research shows that happiness has a direct relation with our biology. British researchers did a study involving 228 volunteers whose ages ranged from 49 to 59. In the study, volunteers were asked to report their level of happiness throughout a workday and a day off. Saliva samples were taken and the volunteers also completed a mental stress test. The results showed that those who reported being happier turned out to have a lower heart rate, lower levels of cortisol (a hormone linked to stress) in their saliva, and lower levels of a plasma linked to heart disease in their blood. Being happy is literally being healthy. Michelle Flythe, an author for “The Greater Good” says, “For years, research has shown that reducing depression, stress, anxiety, and other negative states decreases the risk of heart disease and other maladies.” Happiness is wired in to our brains and part of the system that makes us up, and is in sync with our biology, our health, and our mental state. Regardless of depression, anxiety, or other negative psychological states, studies always showed that there are health benefits to increased happiness. “This suggests that there may be a distinct biology of happiness that carries its own set of health benefits, beyond the benefits of simply not being depressed.” (Flythe). Maybe we should all start adding positive emotion training to our workout routine.

In a world where everything from the food we eat to weather outside to the mood that our friends’ friends’ friend is in can have control over our happiness, it’s hard to believe there is any room left for our own control. When we try to do so, we often end up worse off than if we wouldn’t have done much about it all. It almost feels as if we only have the illusion of control and the decisions we make daily to bring ourselves to happiness hardly have any affect at all, but is this really true? Or do we have more control then we think. The field of self-help tends to promote this belief that your happiness is up to you a lot more than others. Many authors have written books sharing personal experience and many of their own ideas on how to be happy, while always giving the same underlying message. You hold the key to your happiness. Other environmental cues may change your mood from time to time, but all it takes to become a happy person is a little bit of discipline and positive thinking. Anyone can do it, right?

When you look at all of the research and data that has been found regarding happiness, it becomes a bit overwhelming, hard to understand, and sometimes even a bit contradictory. How is it that something that drives one country to happiness, sends another down a horrible path of depression, death, and suicide? Happiness is vague and elusive. The subjective experience allows for very little understanding of happiness as a general idea, but scientists work with what they have to provide us with as much information as they can. This information shows us that while we definitely do have some control over our happiness, there are other things that affect our happiness from the outside that we just can’t control.

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