Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.
Are you happy? That question seems to be everywhere these days.
An entire industry — check out the self-help section at the bookstore — has sprouted around the idea that we deserve to be, at the very least, content. We write about happiness, quantify it in bar graphs, rank it by state, even set up support groups to promote it. We are, in one word, a society obsessed. We take the pursuit of happiness very seriously.
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Truthfully, it’s been a good long while since I’ve pondered my state of happiness. Don’t seem to have the time or the inclination. But this I do know: Some days I slog around as if I were dragging a wagonload of bricks. Other days … well, other days I soar, a kite without string. Most of the time, however, I regress to the mean, steady, even-keeled.
That smooth ride must be a sign of maturity, or perhaps a surrender to the inevitable. The younger members of my family, on the other hand, lurch from elation to despondency then back again with whiplash speed.
“I am NOT happy!” shrieked one of my twin granddaughters the other day, just minutes after a happy trot around the block. Then just as quickly she forgot all about whatever was bothering her. And that, in the end, may be its own lesson. Sometimes you just have to wait out (and wade through) the sadness or the anger.
I got to thinking about happiness after reading that Alaska is the happiest state in America. It has placed in the top 10 four times in the past seven years. Next up in the most recent Gallup-Healthways Well-Being index were Hawaii, South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. Florida muscled in at 26. My reaction, having lived in Miami for most of my life, was predictable: Go figure. Then again, this may be proof that happiness is more about our outlook and less about our surroundings (endless snow, brutal cold and long, long nights.)
The Gallup-Healthways index is, by no means, the only attempt to measure our collective state of bliss. There’s also the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index. Both attempt to do the same thing, compute the answer to what is surely a very complex equation. For example, the 2014 Gallup list, released last week, was based on more than 176,000 phone interviews. It rated each state on five elements of well-being, including motivation to achieve goals, having positive relationships, economic satisfaction, feeling pride in your community and taking care of your health. The GNH uses nine broad domains.
Can we truly gauge a feeling that is both varied and volatile? I’ve not thought of happiness as something you can appraise, like a house, or as a goal unto itself, like losing five pounds. For me it’s been more of a byproduct of doing what I like and hanging out with the people I love. Besides, happiness is a prickly thing. Like pain, so much of happiness, how we process it, is in our heads. And like success, it can prove elusive even as we chase it down doing all the wrong things. Some of the happiest people I’ve met are the ones you would least expect to be. They’re happy in spite of, not because. Which may explain all that frigid Alaskan joy.
So maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Forget Are you happy? Ask instead: How happy have you chosen to be?
Follow Ana on Twitter @AnaVeciana.