Baby Boomers and Other Elders
INTERESTING STUFF – 12 February 2011

The Meaning of Happiness

category_bug_journal2.gif I know we discussed this not long ago, but I'm doing it again anyway because I have had some interesting new input.

Happiness has become big business. There are dozens of books about how to achieve it. More people have been setting themselves up as “happiness coaches” - whatever that is. And growing numbers of social scientists spend their entire careers studying happiness.

Many of their research projects report that people become happier as they get older. One reason was posited by Laura Carstensen, the lead author of a recent happiness study:

“'As people get older, they’re more aware of mortality,' Carstensen said. 'So when they see or experience moments of wonderful things, that often comes with the realization that life is fragile and will come to an end. But that’s a good thing. It’s a signal of strong emotional health and balance.'”

Further, according to Carstensen:

“People who have lived a long time typically have made their peace with life’s successes and failures, while young people experience more frustration, stress, and disappointment over things like test scores, career goals and finding true love.”

That's certainly true for me. I don't, as we used to say, “sweat the small stuff” as much these days which is undoubtedly related to the fact that I am more able to distinguish between what is important and what is not.

I am not sure, however, that this relates to happiness as scientists, coaches and many others define it. I would not count myself less happy washing the dishes than when I am experiencing a “wonderful moment” that Carstensen refers to. I think I reserve unhappiness, in its usual definition, for heartbreak, grief and despair (or a painful dental appointment) and the rest of the time, I'm happy.

The notion of happiness has always puzzled me because when asked if I'm happy (as a friend I'd not spoken with in long time did on Wednesday), I suspect we are not talking about the same thing.

I suppose, as I sit here writing, I am happy in the sense that I am not unhappy, sad, depressed, annoyed or angry. Even then, I can be mightily pissed off at, for example, a particularly ignorant politician who is promoting legislation that would make our lives worse and I might even be railing against him or her in unprintable terms. But I could, if asked, honestly say I am happy at the same time.

So I think the idea of happiness is much more complex that we give it credit for and that the word happiness is too sloppy to explain what we mean.

All this came to mind earlier this week when I watched a TED Talk about happiness. The speaker, Daniel Kahneman, is a Nobel laureate and the founder of behavioral economics.

Now, don't let that scare you off. He confirms for me my sense that the notion of happiness is, as he puts it, a “confused mess,” and that how we perceive it depends on whether we are experiencing events in the moment or in memory.

Here is his 20-minute TED Talk.

Kahneman doesn't resolve my murkiness about happiness, but he did explain how I can be thoroughly pissed while feeling generally happy, and he certainly gives me more compelling ways to think about it. I hope you noted what he said at the end about expecting happiness research to affect public policy in the future.

Although Kahneman did not distinguish much between younger and older people in his talk, certainly what Carstensen says about an aging society is pertinent to Kahneman's assertion:

“'This all suggests that as our society is aging, we will have a greater resource,' Carstensen said. 'If people become more even-keeled as they age, older societies could be wiser and kinder societies.'”

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ernest Leichter: Some Wishes Really Do Come True


I'm off to work and I'll have to see that video later. I prefer to use the word contentment rather than happiness.

I was discussing something similar with my sister not long ago; I'm 59, she's 55. We were talking about how we seem to have a lack of "wanting" something else, material or even emotional. We were wondering why we were not really as anxious, motivated, or in general looking expectantly toward the future.

Finally I hit on the correct word for our current feeling: contentment. I wouldn't define it as a state of ecstatic happiness - more of just a general contentment. Not to say I can't get angry and outraged at some of the very things you described...but in general, this feeling of contentment was something I rarely, if ever, felt in younger years with struggles of one kind or another.

It takes some getting used to, but I like it.

Great post as usual!

This topic really interests me! The video was great and gave me much to think about.

Just thought it would be fun to share a bit of what happens when I read your blog everyday. This is why I never get my house cleaned!

a) Read Ronni's blog on happiness, plus all comments. Decide that they said it all, so don't comment today.
b) Click on today's story at the storytelling link. Read a delightful baseball story about the San Francisco Giants. Remember going to see them during the summer of '63 in SF. Wonder if my recollection of seeing Willy Mays play the Spokane Indians in my hometown is true or not.
c) Google "Willie Mays, Spokane Indians" and find a poetry/music blog by a Montana writer, Mark Hinton. Start reading his blog and fall in love! Look at older blogs and discover he does a "Music Monday" feature with a lot of fabulous music I also love.
d) Write a comment to Mark about his blog and also refer him to Peter Tibbles' music entries on your blog.
e) Subscribe to Mark's MontanaWriter blog using RSS feed.
e) Skip back to continue reading TGB.

Anyone else spend their mornings like this? And it's all due to you, Ronni. Thanks.

Happiness is relative; well-being is reality. Reconciling the two is complex.

I do like the idea of government policy considering happiness of citizens but it won't happen here as long as the Tea Party is around.

Definition of happiness?
"A rose is a rose, is a rose..."
What more can be said?
You'll know it when you feel it

Oh, Kathleen, that's wonderful. What an interesting internet journey. So glad I can be of help with that, heh, heh.

My personal favorite definition of happiness comes from Abraham Maslow. To paraphrase: The only happy people I know are those who are working well at something they consider important.

I recently flew on Southwest Air and their on board magazine had an article on happiness. Because of your previous post on the subject I brought the magazine home intending to write a blog on it.

I am off to write that blog right now and you may want to read it because there are some interesting aspects of being happy that I found intriguing.

Thanks for the reminder, Ronni, and I will link to this post and to the video.

Seems to me that the more happiness is studied, probed, and dissected, the more elusive it will become, because happiness is inherently fickle. It can be there when you least expect it, but it might not be there when you thought it should be.

Happiness defies definition, description and explanation, and that's good! All I need to know is that I know happiness when I feel it. I don't need a "happiness coach" (here, class, is your happiness recipe ... just follow the steps and you'll be ... happy).

And they're expecting "...happiness research to affect public policy in the future." Oh, my. In what ways? Will we be forced to "learn" how to be happy, because a happy populace is easier to govern (or something)?

Leave happiness alone. Like a butterfly, it likes to alight whenever it feels like it. Try to capture it, and off it goes. You just can't force it.

I'm happy that you chose this topic for today, Ronni, because writing about happiness makes me happy!

Great post and comments. I don't have much time to think about it today. I'm off to take my cat to the vet, then to work a 6-hour cat Adoptathon sponsored by a shelter and a local pet store. Maybe this evening. . .cats make me happy.

I think of happiness as a transitory, elevated emotion, a high point that would lose its meaning if it were constant.

Contentment, acceptance, well-being, being in the moment, satisfaction, are all good states of mind, too.

Our national character is defined by our founding documents, one of which guaranteed our right to the PURSUIT of happiness. We get lost when we translate that as the right to BE happy.

Australians think Americans are insanely optimistic, with the emphasis on the insane.

It's easy to see why we are so hard on ourselves, and dissatisfied, when we realize or decide we're not HAPPY all the time. That's become a sign of moral turpitude laziness or some other character fault.

Here's what a lot of wise people have been saying for millennia: Ommmmmm . . . .

When I get really wound out, I visualize our beautiful blue earth floating in the infinite blackness of the cosmos. This almost always brings me peace, which I like even better than happiness.

I've always had trouble with that 'pursuit' business in the those docs. I firmly believe that happiness is an inside job. It is not a butterly to be chased or a Tiffany diamond to be acquired.

And one of the greatest slogans for living I ever heard (and for me, being the type A kind of person I used to be and still can be) was "Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?"

Boy that one has sure helped me in my confrontational modes.

I can't count the happy moments in my day, all ordinary stuff appearing extraordinary to me.

Now I'm off to watch the TED.


Oh, good ... I see that others like the state of being content too. Contentment -- no agita, no kids to pick up or pick up after, no husband/lover to confront or deal with ... ah, these are the days, my friends.
If that's "happiness", I'll take it over emotional highs and lows any time.

I suspect that there is a genetic/physical component to happiness. Some folks just seem naturally cheerful. And this is similarly true of their family members. I'm not in that category, but I can be quite satisfied with an absence of fear or physical discomfort. Still, it's very hard to distinguish between genetic and environmental influences.

It must be lovely to feel like the world is your oyster and that folks are just terrific. But, I'm thinking that a bit of cynicism and suspicion was an important factor in survival of the human species.

Is happiness a simple equation -- we're either happy or unhappy? Not for me.

There are degrees of happiness feelings for me. My feeling content is quite common during which I would also be able to say I feel happy. It would be untrue to say I'm unhappy.

For example, I had quite a higher, or different level of happiness, when I learned of the birth of my first grandson.

I think we get back to defining terms, which is true with so many common words we use, but a term has a differing significance or value to each of us. So, we may all be using the same word but investing different nuanced meanings in it.

Also, what makes you 'happy' might not make me 'happy' or vice versa.

Perhaps we should establish a shared list of what makes us happy for commonality. Then each person assesses each listed item in their life to determine happiness ranking for meaningful comparisons.

I agree we can take actions that offer the potential for our feeling happy, but there are no guarantees happiness will be experienced. The longer we live, if we've paid attention to our lives, we have likely accrued a good idea of what has often given us a happy feeling.

Personally, I believe the word messages we give ourselves, our attitude and the language in our minds contributes significantly to our happiness quotient. How we choose to perceive and interpret life events and situations has great bearing on our experiencing happiness.

Definitely, do not engage in such climbing gymnastics again, Ronni, unless you welcome the possibility of falling, breaking a hip, and/or incurring cognitive brain damage.

I personally know an aging lady in her sixties who prided herself in such antics about the house, indoors and outside. She landed on her back on the ground, bumping her head with resultant closed head trauma. Her judgment was henceforth sufficiently permanently impaired so she could no longer live independently. (This account is in addition to those I've encountered professionally in hospital and rehab centers.)

I don't have balance problems either. However, a few years ago I noticed when I climbed up a ladder to change a ceiling light that when I reached a certain rung on the ladder that I no longer felt secure enough to take that one step higher I needed -- and my husband wasn't around to steady me. I tried this task several times and always incurred that feeling. I determined the wise thing for me was to cease this activity. Am letting the burned out bulb go until they all burn out, then will have to find someone to assume this chore. I've never been a slacker, or fearsome about such things, but believe this decision for me was the better part of wisdom.

Since I have 5 ceiling lights, one is a pull down, I got the wise idea of exploring the costs of having pull downs installed for the other 4. I was unable to find such an item -- out of style, I guess. I even attended a Rehab. therapy all day seminar for professions focused on remodeling and/or equipping homes for independent living. The specialist was unable to direct me to any other professional or manufacturer who could provide such an item.

Am I the only older person in the U.S. with ceiling lights that require bulb changes?

Ronnie, do you monitor these posts and actively censor them? I can see removing for obscene or mean spirited content, but do you make decisions on merit of content or ideology, or, even the fit of posts to tone of blog? Just curious what your policy is. If so, you might consider a policy statement at header of comments section. Your blog, although owned by you, has become very public and people should know to what extent it is a public forum or not. Thank You.

I saw a documentary film about the country of Bhutan -- a very different place from the USA, a small mountain kingdom wedged between Bengal and China -- where a major government initiative is an index of "Gross National Happiness." This is attained through education -- schools where there were none before, health, clinics where there were none before, prosperity, ways for people to earn enough to have comfortable homes and tradition which mainly depends on their Buddhism. In this case "happiness" really means well being. It does not mean everyone is content although apparently people are reasonably content. It's too bad this is not applicable to the US.

Ronni. Nice article as usual. From your right of center friend, John. Keep up the good work.

I'm 'happy' due to having a roof over my head; food on the table; even though now sparse. I still have reasonable health. I have enough to clothe myself even though I do not 'compete' with others who pride themselves on the newness etc of 'things'. I've lived miserably as a child and teen, thus I am very aware of my blessings, my husband having been the most important. I believe if one is not self-centered, simply looking at all the suffering in the world as opposed to living frugally but warm, etc, should bring awareness of 'happiness' indeed. I prefer to name it contentment as others have stated. When I think of the alternatives, I am blessed and 'happy'.

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