Secret to Being Happy Is Not to Work Too Hard at It
By David E. Shi
Happiness perplexes me. It's not that I don't relish bliss; I love joyful moments
and fulfilling experiences. But happiness disappoints because it is so
rare, and its uplifting effects are so fleeting.
States was founded on the now sacred Jeffersonian premise that people
should be free to engage in the "pursuit of happiness." Yet despite
being awash in smiley-face decals, material delights and "have a great
day" urgings, Americans are not very successful in the pursuit of
felicity. We rank 46th in the world in our level of self-reported
happiness. Only a third of adults claim to be very happy, according to
the latest Pew Research Center survey.
Embedded in the survey's
results are some interesting correlations. According to the Pew Research
Center, older adults are happier than younger ones; married people are
happier than those who are single or divorced. People who attend church
or synagogue regularly and serve as volunteers in their communities are
happier than those who don't. People with high incomes are happier than
poor people. Whites and Hispanics are happier than African-Americans.
Residents of Sunbelt states claim to be happier than those who live in
the rest of the nation. Not surprisingly, good health is the factor with
the highest happiness correlation.
Prolonged happiness is not a
natural human condition, nor is it something we can necessarily control.
Ancient philosophers wrestled mightily with what Socrates called the
"tragic tradition of happiness." They saw little evidence that more than
a few exceptional individuals could determine their own fate. Early
Christian theologians were similarly grim about the prospects for
earthly happiness. St. Augustine insisted in "The City of God" that true
happiness was "unattainable in our present life."
In light of
such attitudes, it is not surprising that clinical psychologists have
been more interested in studying depression than happiness. Over the
past 30 years the major psychology and psychiatry professional journals
have published 46,000 articles on depression and just 400 on happiness.
Viennese founder of modern psychiatry, Sigmund Freud, insisted that we
shouldn't expect to be happy most of the time. People "strive after
happiness," he observed, but "reality" wars against their achieving it.
His objective in dealing with patients was limited to converting
"neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness."
Perhaps the rarity
of contentment explains why Thomas Jefferson highlighted the "pursuit"
of happiness in the Declaration of Independence rather than its
attainment. He understood that happiness has always been an elusive
We now know that all sorts of factors affect our moods and
outlook: genetics, brain chemistry, and envy. We don't want simply to
be happy in our own right. We want to be happier than other people,
which is extraordinarily difficult, since we often assume others are
happier than they really are. No matter how satisfied we are with our
salaries and possessions, vocations and home life, there is always
someone else who seems to be doing better.
equated happiness with the living of a virtuous and useful life. "It is
neither wealth nor splendor, but tranquility and occupation (meaningful
work)," he said, "which give happiness." The lyric intensity of simple
happiness, in other words, more often results from how we approach our
daily activities than from extraordinary good fortune. Some people are
content with very little; others are miserable with too much. Much of
the time we are seeking happiness in the wrong places and for the wrong
A wry old Chinese proverb teaches that if you wish to be
happy for an hour, get drunk. If you wish to be happy for three days,
get married. If you wish to be happy forever, become a gardener.
often than not, happiness is not something to be bought or willed.
Enduring gratification can rarely be achieved through direct effort;
instead, it is a byproduct of what we do, how we conduct ourselves and
how we respond to events. Happiness happens to us, often when we are not
As the writer Edith Wharton insisted, "If only we'd
stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time." Have a great
-- David Shi is a historian, writer and president of Furman University