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The Pursuit of Happiness

” . . . [H]appiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.” – Victor Frankel

Thomas Jefferson’s phrase has long resonated in the minds of Americans.  But only recently has there been extensive research on what makes people happy.  For many years, the focus of psychology has been on the darker realms of mental illness.  But within the past decade, much effort has been made to understand the nature of happiness.  The January 17, 2005 issue of Time magazine focuses on the new research and understanding of happiness.  The danger with such articles, and this one, is that we tend to equate acquiring new information about a subject with an understanding of the subject.  The two are not the same.  As most trial lawyers know, we want our presentation to the jury, not just to impart information, but we want the presentation to the jury to be an experience of that information so that the jurors believe it.  Similarly, reading about what researchers have found out about happiness is not going to make you happy or make you believe how you can be happier.  The information is interesting, but until there is some action taken, based on the new information, there is not much possibility of a new experience that will allow one to actually change.  So with that caveat, let’s take a look at some of the new information, always keeping in mind that it’s not going to make us happy unless we do something with it.

Of course, the Time articles have a lot of survey data.  Interestingly, the survey data shows a large percentage of Americans, some 78%, believe themselves to be happy.  You may remember the statistics from The North Carolina Bar Association Survey in 1991 indicated a much larger percentage of lawyers being unhappy with the practice of law.  Subsequent surveys have shown some lessening in lawyer unhappiness, but not markedly.

The survey data shows that once basic needs are met, one’s amount of income has little to do with one’s sense of satisfaction about life.  The same is true of education.  Folks with higher IQs are not happier.  And, despite media focus on the pleasures of youth, older people are consistently more satisfied with their lives than younger ones.  The picture about marriage is complicated.  Married people are generally happier than single individuals, but that may be because they were happier to start with.  Of course, if the marriage is bad, a much more negative picture is presented.

Human beings are relationship oriented.  The quality of your relationships with your firm, the quality of your relationship in a marriage, and the quality of your relationships with your friends are the keys to your happiness.  A 2002 study conducted at the University of Illinois found that of those students who were surveyed, those who had the highest level of happiness and the least signs of depression, were the ones with the strongest ties to family and friends.  The bottom line take-home is that it is more important to have good social skills and close interpersonal ties than income, status or youth to be happy.  One’s emotional intelligence may be much more important than one’s IQ.

A survey of 900 women in Texas had some surprising results.  It asked participants to list the activities, which they enjoyed the most in descending order.  For these women they were: sex, socializing, relaxing, praying or meditating, and eating.  Not far behind was exercising and watching TV, but way down the list was taking care of my children.  This result is surprising because many surveys show that the thing that brings most happiness in a person’s life is their children or grandchildren.  What this does point out is that there is a difference between what provides meaning in one’s life and what provides happiness, and the two are not necessarily the same.  Perhaps joy comes when meaning and happiness meet.

Most research now points to the idea that each of us has a happiness set-point much like the set-point for our body weight.  The ups and downs of our life may move us into feeling happier or less happy, but we tend to return in short order to the range of our set-point.  Research has indicated two life events that seem to knock people lastingly below their set-point and these are loss of a spouse and loss of a job.  Statistical data shows that it takes five to eight years for a woman to regain her previous sense of well-being after loss of a spouse  What this tells us again is that personal relations are the most important things for our happiness, but also the things which by their loss can most threaten it.  When events push one below the set-point for any extended period of time, the possibility of some kind of clinical depression is greatly increased.

If the set-point theory is correct, there are numerous ways to improve your experience of happiness.  We see how this works when a lawyer returns from treatment for addiction.  Because the brain chemistry has been scrambled by the chemical that was being ingested, much of the joy of tasting food, seeing a beautiful sunset, just ordinary pleasures has diminished.  Seeking happiness only involves the drug. One reason it often seems to take more and more of the drug to get high is because drug usage pushes the set-point higher and higher.  Once the drug craving is removed, the set-point for happiness often is considerably lowered and one again experiences for the first time since drug use began, happiness from the very ordinary things of life.

Many people in recovery find that one of the ways that they learn to stay in their happiness range is by the use of a gratitude journal, a diary in which one writes down things one is thankful for each day.  Research has proven that the use of a gratitude journal significantly increases one’s sense of satisfaction with life.  Similarly, controlled trials have also shown that one of the best ways to increase one’s sense of joy is to make gratitude visits.  That is, to engage in acts of altruism or kindness, not for the ego’s sake, but just to do the kindness itself.  The results are even more remarkable in improving one’s sense of joy when acts of kindness are done on a regular basis.

One of the leading researchers in this area is Martin Seligman.   Seligman’s recommendation for lasting happiness is to figure out your strengths and new ways to use them.  You can take a look at his suggestions for how to do this at his web site, www.reflectivehappiness.com.  All of the happiness exercises that have been tested and found to be effective involve making people feel more connected to others.  The bottom line from the happiness researchers is that being happy is not for the timid, that it takes discipline and a renewed commitment every day.  But, once strategies for connecting with others and being grateful are put into place, they become habitual and do not take great effort.

The Time article provides eight steps toward a more satisfying life based on happiness research as gathered together by a University of California psychologist.  They are:

(1) Count your blessings.  This may involve a gratitude journal.  Write down at least three to five things for which you are, in the moment, thankful.

(2)  Practice acts of kindness. The secret here seems to be not to do things to get  your ego stroked, but for their own sake, as when an act of kindness is done anonymously.

(3)  Savor life’s joys.  This just involves paying close attention to your physical   experience in life, whether it’s what you are eating, what you are seeing, or who you are listening to.  It is the practice of being more present.

(4) Thank mentors.  Find ways to be in relationships with those whom you look up to and have learned from.  Nurture and be grateful for these relationships.

(5) Learn to forgive.  Anger and resentment are the things most likely to   undermine happiness.  These emotions can be obsessive and drain energy.  Being able to forgive allows one to move on.  One may need help from a counselor in being able to achieve this with emotional integrity.

(6) Invest time and energy in friends and family.  As mentioned earlier, important   relationships that need to be nurtured in our lives are much more important than  our job in bringing us happiness. We need to put more of our time where it will count most toward our happiness.

(7)  Take care of your body.  Exercise, of course, is the best thing one can do to  relieve stress.  People who are caught with their stress response on all the time are going to suffer emotionally and physically.  Physical exercise can be one of the most important things to keep you in your happiness set-point range.

(8)  Develop strategies for coping with stress and hardships.  This gets back to relationships.  Having the relationships you need in your life and using them to deal with things that are really important to you and where you are most  vulnerable is the key.  People who practice a religious faith are shown statistically to be happier than people who do not have such a support system.  And, of course,  there are many self-help groups around for specific issues.  Becoming involved with one that fits you is a great way to develop good coping strategies.

Reading the Time articles reminded me of reading years ago about how Norman Cousins, then editor of the Saturday Review, helped battle a physical illness by stimulating laughter.  Cousins watched the “Three Stooges” and many funny movies as a way to help stimulate his immune system.  Current research continues to support the idea that humor and laughter are vital to keeping us healthy.  I’m reminded of listening to the Car-Talk guys on the radio.  They will get to laughing about absolutely nothing, but if you can laugh along, you will feel better.

If you’re having trouble laughing, get a pet.  A 2002 study at the State University of New York at Buffalo measured stress and blood pressure levels in people, half of whom were pet owners.  Those tested with animal pals had less blood pressure spikes and returned to baseline much more quickly.  It’s that capacity for unconditional support that makes pets such good company.

Finally, and most importantly, remember that happiness moves.  We complete one thing and are happy that we did it and then the idea of our happiness moves on to something else.  Embrace Frankel’s and Jefferson’s thoughts – enjoy the pursuit for the greater good.  In the Time articles, there is an essay by Nuala O’Faolain, the Irish writer:

“My great grandfather told how during the Great Famine, when everyone     around his part of the country was starving, a crow flew past with a potato in its beak, which meant it was a good potato, not diseased, and men, women and the children set off after      the crow, stumbling into ditches, falling, jostling each other to be the one to get the food if the bird dropped it.  That’s what the pursuit of happiness is like.  This is one of  life’s mysteries there’s no coming to terms with – that as long as we have breath we have no choice but to go running after happiness, our poor faces strained upward as if we cannot get enough of it, as if happy was what we were meant to be, as if without happiness we would starve.”

– by Don Carroll

The North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program is a confidential program of assistance for all North Carolina lawyers.  The Lawyer Assistance Program has two outreaches: PALS and FRIENDS.  PALS addresses alcoholism and other addiction; FRIENDS depression and other mental health problems. 

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