I doubt what has happened to the “pursuit of happiness” in recent years is what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he wrote the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Happiness has become a research industry, being poked and prodded, dissected and investigated with the intensity of fetishists. Hardly a week goes by without a new happiness study.
Most surprising to me are untold numbers of people who call themselves “happiness coaches.” Go ahead, google “happiness coach” and see how many returns you get. Never mind – it's nearly 35,000, almost all of whom are selling books and expensive seminars mostly about how to become a happiness coach.
French president Nicholas Sarkozy wants to replace the traditional GDP as a measure of a country's economic health with a happiness GDP. Talk about squishy statistics.
One happiness study reports that to be happy, you need friends who are happy. In fact, according to the year-old study, if the friend of a happy friend of yours is happy, your chances of being happy increase not by five percent, nor 10 percent, but by precisely six percent. Uh-huh.
Last month, they told us that women aren't as happy as they were 40 years ago and in fact, men are happier than women. This is being called the “happiness gap” and no doubt someone somewhere takes this stuff seriously, blaming it on women's success in overcoming the “gender gap” that was a popular talking point in the women's movement 40 years ago.
A year ago, just a week or two before the presidential election which was looking good for Barack Obama at that moment, a Pew Charitable Trust survey found that 37 percent of Republicans were “very happy” compared to 25 percent of Democrats. Go figure.
Poor people are happier than rich people. Oh, wait. There's another study that says the opposite - that is, if happiness is measured by the amount of leisure time one has.
One survey reported that all types of parents – married, single, stepparents and even empty-nesters - are less happy than childless couples. This caused an uproar of belligerent emails from parents who disagreed.
And several surveys report that money won't make you happy. They're probably right, but it does pay the bills. Another survey says that financial security is more important than wealth in determining happiness.
Time Goes By being what it is, I'm most interested in what researchers say about happiness in old age. There was much to-do last year when a study reported that people become happier as they get older. But not so fast. Other reports say that women become less happy than men in old age or, if you that bothers you, try another study that says men become less happy after age 65. Take your pick.
In keeping with the dubious nature of all this happiness stuff, you can find a study to prove anything you want to believe about it which shouldn't be a surprise. Happiness is like a joke – try to explain it and it's ruined.
Most of these studies are done with what is called the Day Reconstruction Method. For a day, subjects keep a diary of every activity. The next day, they rate their mood and feelings about each of those activities as they were doing them, on a 12 point scale.
Some people give high unhappy numbers to such things as paying the bills, dusting and washing dishes which seem odd tasks by which to judge happiness. Dusting may be boring, but it's not important enough to cause unhappiness.
While I've been writing this, I've been trying to check my happiness meter which is difficult because I have never been able to say what makes me happy. Joy, I think, those momentary events that elate us for a short period of time, aren't related to overall happiness and well being and, in fact, can happen even during miserable times.
The reverse is also true – that terribly unhappy events take place during times of general happiness so the negative measurement of such an event hardly bears on one's overall well being.
Right now, I've just finished (I hope) a two week period in which car repairs, a broken furnace and computer problems cost me about $2,000 – a hefty sum for someone to whom a surprise $200 expense can make a serious dent in the budget. Does it make me unhappy? Not particularly. Annoyed would be a better description as it will cramp my style until it's paid off.
But I've got a secure roof over my head, enough to eat, something to do every day that I enjoy and I'm healthy. Is that happiness? I don't know. Is satisfaction, curiosity, interest in the world happiness? I don't know.
What I do know, however, is that happiness is too subjective, personal and ephemeral to be picked apart and entered into charts as all the researchers think they can do.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine: Wings