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The art of happiness

Are you happy?

Maybe because it's a new year following a year that really sucked, but the media seems consumed with the pursuit of happiness right now.

The cover story in the Dec. 18-31 issue of The Economist is called "The joy of growing old (or why life begins at 46)." It's about economists trying to measure happiness and how they're finding that people get happier as they get older. The research into well-being finds that people are least happy in their 40s and early 50s (which explains why I'm such a grouch), but satisfaction starts to dramatically climb in the mid-50s, surpassing even the happiness people felt before age 18. They're not sure why. (One uplifting theory is that unhappy people die earlier.)

The January issue of Real Simple has the headline "Be happier this year" splayed across a photo of a sunflower, with "9 easy ways to be happier" inside. (Don't dwell on failures, give away money, eat a snack around 2 p.m. are among the suggestions … who knew it could be that easy?!)

From my brief forays into happiness, I can tell you that nobody really realizes they are happy until they are unhappy. Happiness is typically seen through the rear-view mirror, disappearing over the horizon.

Is happiness real? How do you know if you're happy? How do you measure it? Satisfaction with life? A glowing moment that reminds you that you're content to be in that place at that time? A lot of money in the bank?

Scientists have their own measures, but I think Charles Schulz's Peanuts characters had it right when they sang that song about happiness being a series of tangible events that help remind us that inner satisfaction is always within grasp, if only we know how to recognize it. Here's my list. What's on yours?

Happiness is …

A goodnight kiss

Climbing into a bed of clean sheets

The smell of your kids coming out of the bath tub

Coming home & discovering your husband has cooked dinner

Listening to your daughter play with her dolls

Sitting down to a family meal

Getting homework done by 6 p.m.

Holding hands

Sleeping in

Snuggling up with a good book on a cool evening

The sound of children playing outside

Twinkling Christmas lights

Catching your favorite NPR show on a long car ride

And, to quote Charlie Brown: Being alone ev'ry now and then