Issue 64 / July - August 2008
Sources of Happiness
Happiness is a subjective concept that evades accurate definitions or objective measurements. Social scientists, philosophers, and ordinary people have different perspectives when they are asked to describe their feelings about happiness. People‚Äôs moods, such as being optimists or pessimists, influence their way of thinking when explaining happiness. Pessimists think that the pain of people greatly exceeds their pleasure; Rousseau was a pessimist who thought that, all things considered, human life was not a valuable gift. Samuel Johnson agreed that we are not born for happiness. In his book The Conquest of Happiness, the philosopher Bertrand Russell (1930-1985) reiterated that most people are unhappy. On the other hand, optimists feel happy and are satisfied with life (Inglehart 1990; Myers 1993).
Dennis Wholey (1986) interviewed experts from the perspective of the pessimists; the conclusion was that perhaps only 20% of all Americans are happy. Father John Powell (1989) agrees: ‚ÄúOne-third of all Americans wake up depressed every day. Professionals estimate also that only 10 to 15 percent of Americans think of themselves as truly happy and ‚ÄėHappiness is an imaginary condition, formerly attributed by the living to the dead, now usually attributed by adults to children and by children to adults.‚Äô‚ÄĚ (Thomas Szasz 1987). On the other hand, there is a sharp contrast in the responses of optimists. For example, in Western Europe and North America in total 8 out of 10 people rate themselves as more satisfied than dissatisfied. Less than 1 in 10 rate themselves as more dissatisfied than satisfied. Likewise, some three-fourths of people say yes, they have felt excited, proud, or pleased at some point during the past few weeks, while no more than a third say they have felt lonely, bored, or depressed. Across languages, these self-reports seem to retain the same meaning.
‚ÄúIf you fell happy you are happy, that is all; although we define happiness as consisting of something deeper and more lasting than a momentary good mood, our working definition is simply whatever people mean when describing their lives as happy‚ÄĚ (Freedman 1978). Happy people are less self-focused, less hostile or abusive, and less vulnerable to disease in comparison to depressed people. They are also more loving, forgiving, trusting, energetic, decisive, creative, sociable, reliable, helpful, and religious (Myers 1993; Veenhoven 1988).
Sources of happiness
1. Age and gender: Men more often act antisocial or have a tendency to alcoholism, while women more often think deeply and have a greater tendency for depression or anxiety, however, men and women are equally likely to declare themselves as ‚Äúvery happy‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúsatisfied‚ÄĚ with their lives. This conclusion is based on surveys of 170,000 adults in 16 countries (Inglehart 1990), on surveys of 18,000 university students in 39 countries (Michalos 1991), and on a meta-analysis of 146 other studies (Haring, Stock, & Okun 1984). The results are the same, irrespective of age, with age not being significantly related to the level of happiness a person might have.
2. Culture: Some cultures are favorable to an increased satisfaction with life, if not more positive emotions, in particular affluent cultures marked by political freedom (Diener 2000). Open cultures encourage more individual satisfaction, and therefore garner more happiness in comparison to closed cultures. But the relationship between culture and happiness is not well documented yet.
3. Genetics: Certain characteristics and temperaments also appear to predispose one to experience happiness. Some of these characteristics, for example extraversion, are known to be genetically influenced, which helps explain Lykken and Tellegen's (1996) finding that about 50% of the variation in current happiness is inheritable. Like cholesterol levels, happiness is genetically influenced but not genetically fixed. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990, 1999) has observed an increased quality of life when work and leisure engage a person‚Äôs skills.
4. Wealth: Most people deny that money buys happiness, but a significant portion supports the idea that wealthy people are happy people. There may be some connection between wealth and well-being. People were asked how satisfied they were with 13 aspects of their lives, including friends, house, and schooling, and Americans expressed the least satisfaction with ‚Äúthe amount of money they have to live on‚ÄĚ (Roper Organization, 1984). In particular the question ‚ÄúWhat would improve your quality of life?‚ÄĚ most often received ‚Äúthe answer ‚ÄúMore money‚ÄĚ according to the University of Michigan national survey (Campbell, 1981, p. 41), and the more the better. In one Gallup Poll (Gallup & Newport, 1990), one in two women, two in three men, and four in five people earning more than $75,000 reported that they would like to be rich. Thus, the modern American dream seems to have become life, liberty, and the purchase of happiness.
The annual UCLA and American Council on Education surveyed nearly a quarter million students entering college; when asked why they were going to college the reason ‚Äúto make more money‚ÄĚ was listed as a ‚Äúvery important‚ÄĚ reason ‚Äú‚ÄĚfor one in two in 1971, rising to three in four in 1998 (Astin, Green, & Korn 1987; Sax, Astin, Korn, & Mahoney 1998). The proportion who consider it ‚Äúvery important or essential‚ÄĚ that they become ‚Äúvery well off financially‚ÄĚ rose from 39% in 1970 to 74% in 1998. As Diener (2000) reports, there is some tendency for wealthy nations to have more satisfied people.
In poor countries, such as India, where low incomes prevent the ability to satisfy basic human needs, being relatively well off does predict greater well-being (Argyle 1999). Psychologically as well as materially, it is better to be high caste than low. However, in affluent countries, where most can afford the necessities of life, affluence matters surprisingly little. In the United States, Canada, and Europe, the correlation between income and personal happiness, ‚Äúis surprisingly weak (indeed, virtually negligible)‚ÄĚ Ronald Inglehart (1990). Happiness tends to be lower among the very poor. Once a person is comfortably off money begins to provide diminishing returns on happiness. All these findings support the idea that wealth or richness may help with being happy in some sense but it is not enough on its own.
5. Friends: People report happier feelings when with others (Pavot, Diener, & Fujita 1990). When asked by the National Opinion Research Center, ‚ÄúHow many close friends would you say you have?‚ÄĚ (excluding family members), 26% of those reporting fewer than five friends and 38% of those reporting five or more friends said they were ‚Äúvery happy.
6. Marriage: Most people are happier when in a relationship than when not. Repeated surveys in Europe and North America have produced a consistent result: Compared with those who never marry, and in particular compared with those who have been separated or divorced, married people report that they are happier and more satisfied with life. For example, among the 35,024 Americans surveyed by the National Opinion Research Center between 1972 and 1996, 40% of married adults declared themselves to be very happy. Happy people are more appealing marriage partners, because they are more good-natured, more outgoing, and more focused on others (Veenhoven 1988), and therefore they are generally socially attractive. Unhappy people are more often socially rejected; at the same time, positive, happy people more readily form happy relationships.
7. Faith: An active religiosity is associated with several mental health criteria. First, actively religious people are much less likely than irreligious people to get into trouble with the law, to abuse drugs or alcohol, to divorce, or to commit suicide (Batson, Schoenrade, & Ventis 1993; Colasanto & Shriver 1989). Religiously active people even tend to be physically healthier and to live longer (Koenig 1997; Matthews & Larson 1997). For example, compared with religiously inactive widows, recently widowed women who worship regularly reported more joy in their lives. (Harvey, Barnes, & Greenwood 1987; McGloshen & O'Bryant 1988; Siegel & Kuykendall 1990). Among mothers of developmentally challenged children, those with a deep religious faith are less vulnerable to depression (Friedrich, Cohen, & Wilturner 1988). People of faith also tend to retain or recover greater happiness after suffering divorce, unemployment, serious illness, or bereavement (Ellison 1991; McIntosh, Silver, & Wortman 1993). For people later in life the two best predictors of life satisfaction are health and religiousness (Okun & Stock 1987).
Religiously active people also report somewhat higher levels of happiness (Inglehart 1990). The highest scores on a spiritual commitment scale (by agreeing, e. g., that ‚ÄúMy religious faith is the most important influence in my life‚ÄĚ) were twice as likely to declare themselves as ‚Äúvery happy‚ÄĚ as those who were low in spiritual commitment. The National Opinion Research Center surveys reveal higher levels of ‚Äúvery happy‚ÄĚ people among those who feel ‚Äúextremely close to God‚ÄĚ (41%) rather than ‚Äúsomewhat close‚ÄĚ (29%) or not close or unbelieving (23%). Self-rated spirituality and happiness may be both socially desirable responses (US Gallup Organization survey, 1984).
Seeking to explain these associations between faith and happiness, researchers have considered several possibilities. A partial explanation seems to be that faith communities provide social support (Ellison, Gay, & Glass 1989). Religion is usually practiced communally, involving ‚Äúthe fellowship of kindred spirits,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúthe bearing of one another‚Äôs burdens,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúthe ties of love that bind.‚ÄĚ This was the vision of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, who declared, ‚ÄúWe must delight in each other, make others‚Äô conditions our own, celebrate together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body.‚ÄĚ
Another possible explanation for the faith and happiness correlation is the sense of meaning and purpose that many people derive from their faith. Seligman (1988) has contended that a loss of meaning feeds today‚Äôs high depression rate, and that finding meaning requires an attachment to something larger than the lonely self. For Rabbi Harold Kushner (1987), religion satisfies ‚Äúthe most fundamental human need of all. That is the need to know that somehow we matter, that our lives mean something, count as something more than just a momentary blip in the universe. Said Nursi, a leading Muslim scholar of the twentieth century, asserts that true happiness can only be achieved through establishing and strengthening our connection with God. Through the intellect and imagination, the human being is a unique creature who is concerned with every part of creation. Human happiness encompasses not only individual happiness, but also the happiness of our beloved ones, our neighbors and relatives, our fellow countrymen and even the people of the Earth. This can be extended to animals and plants as well. Again through the intellect, our desires and fears are endless. God is the only one capable of answering all of our prayers, satisfying all of our needs, granting all of our desires and protecting us from all our fears. Only in submission to such a Lord can a human heart find satisfaction. A Qur‚Äôanic verse indicates the same principle: ‚ÄúIt is in the remembrance of and whole-hearted devotion to God that hearts find rest and contentment‚ÄĚ (Rad 13:28).
Many religious worldviews not only propose answers to some of life‚Äôs deepest questions, they also encourage hope when confronting what Sheldon Solomon, Jeffery Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski (1991) call ‚Äúthe terror that results from our awareness of vulnerability and death.‚ÄĚ Religion offers a hope that in the end, the very end, ‚Äúall shall be well, and all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well‚ÄĚ (Julian of Norwich, 1373/1901). In Islamic faith, death is not an end, but rather a door to a new life. Just as the death of a seed leads to the life of a plant, the death of a human leads to an eternal life (Nursi, 10th Word).
Happiness is an expression of a mood which has many meanings for different interest groups. For example, optimists may find different ways in their life to be happy and they are usually happy. Pessimists have more reasons in life to be unhappy. There are many factors that may influence happiness. These are age and gender, culture, genetics, wealth, friends, marriage and faith. Age, gender, and income give little clue to someone's happiness. Having a supportive network of close relationships and having a faith that encompasses social support, purpose, and hope have the strongest correlation with feelings of happiness. Therefore, faith is significant source of happiness that an individual must pay attention to. All belief systems support being optimistic, having friends, and finding the right path if one follows certain rules. These rules are universal virtues that anyone can obtain, such as honesty, being helpful, love, hard work, patience, forgiveness, submission, and etc. All these embrace and furnish the people‚Äôs life, providing infinite happiness for human beings. And as Said Nursi stresses that true happiness can only be achieved through establishing and strengthening our connection with God, and by remembering that it is He Who always satisfies our all needs.
Salih Uslu is an academician and freelance writer. He lives in Boston and teaches at local universities. He can be reached at [email protected]
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