ENID, Okla. — Editor’s Note: This column was first published March 2, 2003.
“Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” — Helen Keller
“Happiness,” cartoonist and philosopher Charles Schulz once wrote, “is a warm puppy.”
Schulz’ poem of the same name lists other things that made him happy, like a pile of leaves, a climbing tree, a fuzzy sweater, walking in the grass in your bare feet and a night light.
The piece concludes with the line, “one thing to one person and another thing to another person.”
Each of us, then, has our own idea of what makes us happy. Some people may not like warm puppies, or leaves, or trees or sweaters.
Money may make some people happy. If that is the case, Bill Gates is the happiest man in the world.
Forbes magazine’s most recent list of the wealthiest people in the world estimates the Microsoft founder’s personal fortune at $40.7 billion.
But having the most toys won’t necessarily make us happy.
“Materialism is toxic for happiness,” said Ed Diener, a psychologist at the University of Illinois.
People in rich countries are happier than those in poor ones, Diener says, but all it takes is $8,000 a year per capita for money to stop being a factor in personal happiness.
And if having is supposed to make us happy, why does giving feel so darn good?
The aforementioned Mr. Gates, incidentally, has given millions of dollars to various charities and foundations.
So then health is the key to happiness, right?
If you have your health, they say, you have everything. That’s true, but good health won’t always make you a happy person.
Diener, who is known as “Dr. Happiness,” says many healthy people take their health for granted and it doesn’t make them any happier.
Even people suffering from debilitating diseases can be happy, while perfectly healthy hypochondriacs are miserable.
OK, so health and wealth are not the key to happiness.
Well, then, having plenty of time to do absolutely nothing must be the secret to happiness.
Well, maybe not.
Claremont Graduate University psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (happiness may well be the ability to say that three times fast) has come up with a theory he calls “flow.”
Flow occurs when people take part in absorbing activities that cause them to forget themselves, lose track of time and stop worrying. People in flow are happy people, says, ah, Mihaly.
And flow can involve doing anything from brain surgery to planting posies in your flower garden.
So being rich, healthy and idle won’t necessarily make you happy. So maybe the key is family and friends? Perhaps.
Long-term research has proven marriage mostly makes people happier, while kids in a close family are generally shown to be happier than those whose families are not as close.
Diener says happy people generally have one trait unhappy people don’t.
“The happiest people all seem to have good friends,” he said.
Americans aren’t the happiest people in the world. That honor falls to people in Scandinavian countries.
About 80 to 85 percent of Americans say they feel more positive about their lot in life than negative.
The unhappiest people live in Eastern Europe.
With the collapse of communism in the late 1980s, they saw their economies collapse and the structure they had clung to all their lives crumble.
So what things make you happy? With apologies to Charles Schulz, here are some the things that make me smile:
A hot cup of coffee first thing in the morning;
Waking up to sunshine streaming in through the bedroom window;
Putting on clothes just warm from the dryer on a cold winter’s day;
Anything containing chocolate;
Meeting someone you haven’t seen in a long time, and remembering their name;
The crack of a baseball against a bat, and the slap of the ball settling into a fielder’s glove;
A warm smile and a soft kiss after a tough day at work;
Sharing a laugh with a friend;
Remembering the words to that song that’s been in your head all day;
A tap-in for birdie;
A long nap on a lazy Sunday afternoon;
A reason to get up in the morning;
And typing the last word of yet another column.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.