xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: May 2015

Monday, 25 May 2015

What makes us happy?

What makes us happy?
A very good question. Presumably, if we could find out what makes us happy we would all live happily ever after. Perhaps that only happens in Fairy Stories?  Still, the Constitution of the United States says that each of its citizens has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So happiness is obviously important. At least Thomas Jefferson thought so.

Somebody once told me that we can choose to be happy or sad. It is an interesting concept which I found hard to believe when suffering from an abscessed tooth, or perusing my bank statements.

Speakers at the 2015 Sydney Writers' festival explored aspects of happiness and wellbeing when they addressed the topic: How to live. Those discussing how we could live happily and well were writers and social commentators, Hugh Mackay, Leigh Ann Hewison, Anne Manne, Douglas Coupland and Paul Dolan. 

What was made quite clear early in their discussion was that happiness is not the same as pleasure, which is generally fleeting. Mackay said that the Happiness Industry had a lot to answer for by making us believe that we deserve to be happy.  He said that meaning in life, and therefore happiness, comes from a  life of service, community and 'the hard work of love'.

Paul Dolan, an economist who advises the British Government, said happiness comes from what we choose to pay attention to. Dolan said that if we can identify what gives us purpose and pleasure in life and focus on those things, then we will lead happier lives. Other panelists offered similarly sage thoughts, which generally indicated that if we could live life with purpose and a sense of wellbeing, then we would be happy.

These were all very interesting reflections on Happiness and reminded me reading some years ago of a study by some researchers in the USA. They were studying anxiety and well being...maybe that is not exactly how they worded their project. Anyhow, they chose several fraternity houses in a large university and tested the students residing therein as to their levels of anxiety.

They then divided the students into two similar groups. One group carried on with their lives as usual, the other were given a specific task to perform on a regular basis. Six months later the researchers again tested the students for anxiety levels. 

The 'do nothing different' group recorded anxiety levels that had stayed at the same level or had increased. The 'do something specific' students all had lower anxiety level than they had registered six months earlier.

And what was the special activity undertaken by those in this less anxious group? The researchers had asked that they do each others' laundry each week! Yes, after six months of doing something nice for their fraternity house mates, these students had all lowered their anxiety levels and increased their feelings of well being. Doing good for others made them feel better about themselves.

When I was a school principal I used to tell this story to the parents, in order to encourage them to participate in a variety school activities. I used to write in a February school newsletter, "Not only will you be helping the children, but  it will make you feel good." Some of them believed me.

To my mind, it seems Hugh Mackay is on the right track. Then again, Someone much earlier did encourage us all to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. In fact, He went quite a bit further by saying that we should not only love our neighbours as ourselves, but that we should also love our enemies and be kind to those who persecute and speak evil of us. This is a recipe for happiness? Well, that's what He said.

I always try to keep this in mind when I am at Subiaco Oval cheering for the West Coast Eagles and am seated next to a loud and obnoxious opposition  barracker. It is not always easy...as Malcolm Fraser once pointed out? But, when that obnoxious opposition barracker is forced into a sombre silence by the Eagles resounding victory...well, that really is happiness.