There are three fundamental human rights listed in the Declaration of Independence. They are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Notice that the pursuit of happiness is listed right up there with the obviously basic rights of life and liberty. And over 200 years later, when you ask people what they wish for their children, happiness is almost always at the top of the list.
When Yale University professor Laurie Santos offered a course on the psychology of happiness, titled “Psychology and the Good Life,” officials expected significant enrollment. But they had to scramble to accommodate the over 1,200 students who signed up to take the course. This is the largest class ever in the over 300-year history of the university.
It would be no exaggeration to say that there is presently an epidemic of anxiety and depression at colleges and universities. At Yale University, for instance, over half of the students will at some point avail themselves of mental health services. While in the general population these statistics are somewhat lower, even among those with no mental health diagnosis, happiness seems to be elusive with less than a third of respondents in a recent Harris poll survey describing themselves as happy.
“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and believe me rich is better” is a quote attributed to singer Sophie Tucker. Research findings in the field of behavioral economics support that assertion. There is a clear and dramatic relationship between personal income and happiness. On average, people living in poverty report the lowest levels of happiness. At each increased level of socioeconomic status happiness improves, with the most affluent reporting the highest levels. And we can predict the level of contentment in any country in the world by looking at the wealth of that nation.
Research findings such as these help us understand what makes some groups of people happier than others. Another such finding is that people are happier when they have a sense of control over their lives. For instance, we know that levels of happiness are much higher in democracies than in dictatorships or totalitarian countries.
These statistics bolster the view that to foster happiness, it is good international and domestic policy to foster economic prosperity at home and political freedom around the world. Whatever we can do to help pull people out of poverty and promote freedom will lead to increased contentment and decreased despair and anger.
But studying how life circumstances affect people’s happiness yields some surprises. For instance, lottery winners turn out not to be any more content than the rest of us once the initial rush wears off. And on the other hand, people who have suffered a devastating injury report about an average level of happiness once they’ve adjusted to the dramatic change in their situation.
So how might each of us increase our experience of happiness? Let’s go back to the Yale University course and see what suggestions, based on research, professor Santos offers her students.
First, do the right things. If lying in bed a little longer in the morning yields a better day, do that. If getting started right away is better, do that. Overall, spending more time in direct social interaction is good. Also, finding a way to resist overscheduling and having a more leisurely pace is good.
Second, take care of your body by getting enough sleep and enough exercise. Sometimes this is difficult to do, but it pays off big time.
Third, express gratitude to yourself, to others or to God. Pausing to do that has been shown to yield benefits. And be specific about the things in your life for which you are thankful.
Fourth, do something generous or just nice for someone. We know that being of service makes life more meaningful. But even a small act of kindness yields surprisingly lasting good feelings for the person who commits the act.
Fifth, find some time to become centered and mindful. Meditation can be helpful, but if that’s not your thing, you could listen to a favorite piece of music, sit by the fire or spend a few minutes in the garden. My grandmother, at age 93, told me that every morning she said a simple prayer for each of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “God bless Robert, God bless Donald, God bless Kathleen.” The list had almost 80 people on it. She said that practice always started her day right.
So there you have it. Happy trails.