In his Autobiography, the British philosopher John Stuart Mill writes: "Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so." (BTW he just had a birthday. Happy 209th JS! You know what they say, with age comes wisdom!)
And yet these days the venerable Mr. Mill's words have fallen on deaf ears. If anything happiness is the buzzword. There are TV shows (Showtime's Happyish), movies (1998's Happiness, 2006's Pursuit of Happyness). Scores of books have been written on the subject. The Happiness Advantage, The Happiness Mindset, The Happiness Project, The Happiness Guide are only a few of them. Happiness is now an art, and a science. Most major magazines regularly publish articles on being happy. As does this blog which nobody reads.
There's the Pharrell song, called of course "Happy," which is so gay! Gay as in not happy. Gay as in it makes me want to flush my head down the toilet, and I'm not usually so scatological. Don't get me wrong, I love gay guys. Just like I love cheese and corn but use the terms cheesy and corny to describe things like . . . Pharrell's song! I don't know what it is about the song. It's so on the sleeve that it just gets under my skin. Impossible though that may seem. I know I know, Adam, if you don't have anything nice to say . . . P's cool though.
And now scientists are busy studying the emotion/phenomenon/some say our natural state, call it what you will. And their findings on being gay (as in happy) are neither cheesy nor corny. Psychologists at the University of Bolton recently recreated a 1938 study on happiness. Eighty years ago, security, knowledge and religion were the three most important aspects of a person's wellbeing. Whereas now good humor has replaced knowledge and leisure has replaced religion, while security has moved from first to third place.
What does this say about you? Well, not all that much, unless you happen to live in the Bolton, a town in Manchester, England. To apply the results to the entire globe is a stretch, but we can say that in general people value what is precious and rare. In 1938 the world was on the precipice of a second World War, which threatened personal liberties, for example the freedom to practice religion - if Hitler's extermination of the Jews had been successful.
Knowledge might have been rated highly in 1938 since a college education was harder to come by - 50% of high school graduates went on to college in 1940, 65% do today - and books used to be harder to find than in today's digital world where if you have a Kindle you can read the classics of every major culture instantly and for free. Security is a no-brainer. It will always be integral to our happiness, since we cannot live without food, clothing, shelter and the money to procure these essentials of survival. Good luck being happy if you are not around to enjoy it.
But why in today's world (or at least in Bolton) are humor and leisure valued so highly? Is it because they are harder to come by now more than ever? This is certainly the case when it comes to leisure time. Our frenetic, wired lives keep us on the edge. Lyndon Stambler, writing for U Magazine, explains:
"Americans are overwhelmed. Living in chronic-stress mode, our days running 24/7, our senses assaulted by the pinging of smart phones and our attention diverted by relentless tweets, texts and emails, we are in constant quest of all that is new and different and exciting. All this more, better, bigger, faster, sooner, now, now, NOOOWWW is driving us to the edge. The constant strain of our modern lives leads to anxiety, depression, insomnia, obesity and a host of other illnesses."
As one scientists puts it, technology and social media have "led to a net decrease in well-being." So much digital data is "hijacking people's behavior and making them responsive to their devices in a way that prevents them from implementing their own willed intentions."
The prescription, Stambler notes after interviewing various psychiatrists, authors and mindfulness practitioners, is to take a deep breath, turn off the cell phone and slow the hell down. And if you're afraid you'll fall behind, don't. Believe whoever said "slow and steady wins the race," because it does. Admit it, as kids we all rooted for the tortoise over the hare. There, now that we crossed leisure off the list, let's get back to work!
What about good humor? Also at a premium in this harried century? Of course there is no shortage of potty jokes if you binge watch Will Ferrell (that blowjob scene in the movie Get Hard is hilarious), and Comedy Central runs some great shows. I can't believe the Diceman is still at it, and staying hard!
But turn on Fox News or visit a discussion board or chat room or comment thread on any video or article and pretty much everyone takes themselves and current events so seriously! Lighten up, bras! Must all comedy be staged? Not if we learn to laugh at ourselves. But fret not, it seems that with age we begin to take ourselves less seriously, if you believe the polls.
The consumer insights company CivicScience polled over 250,000 Americans and found the happiness is somewhat within your control. Being gleeful is a function of health, having a job you enjoy, and enough money to buy yourself a nice piece of jewelry should the urge visit you. And oh, yes, age. Beginning at 30, every age group gets progressively happier. Overall, the general population is six times more likely to say they are happy versus unhappy.
So why all the haters? Personally, I think those polled are full of it. Prove it, I say. Show me your glee. I can tell a fake smile when I see one. But even those who are genuinely content, could being asked what makes you happy actually make you sad? Could considering your level of contentment diminish it?
If you listen to our man Mill, then yes. His view was that the mind should be fixed on something other than one's own happiness. This could be the happiness of others, the improvement of mankind, or some artistic or creative pursuit, followed not as a means for making you happy, but as an end in itself. A life thus spent encounters happiness effortlessly, as a sort of by-product. Whereas dwelling on happiness or over-thinking it "puts it to flight by fatal questioning." Rather, keep busy doing what you enjoy doing and you will "inhale happiness with the air you breathe."
Sounds like good advice. So in order to be happy, stop thinking about it. Go have fun, and forget you ever read this!