Is there an easy way to happiness?

Sit back, relax, and become happy!  Is this nothing more than just a ‘lazy’ way to be happy? According to James Hamblin, A Lazy Person’s Guide to Happiness, The Atlantic, “Happiness is an active process, not something you get by sitting back and waiting.  It’s something to be grabbed by the horns or more vulnerable areas and then conquered.”

Happiness is quite elusive, in that everyone’s “idea” of happiness is somewhat different.  My happiness would come from an abundance of time for me to delve into all my hobbies, time to read, reflect, and just “be”.   An abundance of time, alone, may be your nightmare, so in this example everyone’s definition varies exclusively to him or her.  Age is a factor, experience, “emotional intelligence” or lack of, and many other variables, change what you may determine “what” or “if” you feel a sense of happiness.

What is happiness?  If you have a lot of money, is that happiness?  For 15 years, Dan Buettner, of National Geographic fame, has searched the globe in his quest for the healthiest people and “distills their lessons” as he puts it, by understanding their ways and describing them, in simple terms, to the average ‘patience and attention challenged’ American reader. “The result has been a mix of journalism, academic epidemiology, advocacy, and entrepreneurship delivered in easy to implement bullet points”. Buettner has compiled all of the research and has condensed into easily understandable language. He published a book in 2008, Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. In the book he describes his pursuit, interviewing, and understanding the ways of the healthiest people in the world.  After the book was published, he began working with Gallup on finding the “happiest” people in the world.  He has since written the series, The Blue Zone of Happiness.

An excerpt from an interview between Dan Buettner and James Hamblin, went something like this:

James Hamblin: Define Happiness…

  Dan Buettner:  Right away there is a problem because, academically speaking, happiness is a meaningless term. You can’t measure happiness. It’s really a composite of things: health, emotions, the way you evaluate your life, and the extent to which you’re living out your values.

Hamblin: It sounds like you are arguing for a reframing of the idea of “happiness” toward something bigger-an aggregate of purpose and joy and satisfaction and meaning.  We run pieces in the past that touch on, for example, Viktor Frankel and others who have said that life is really about pursuing meaning, and if you pursue happiness as we Americans tend to think about it, you end up going to amusement parks and shopping malls and trying to do things that are supposed to be making you happy but are sucking life out of you.

Buettner: Yes, exactly. So this was our challenge. Even though you can’t measure happiness, you can measure life satisfaction, partly by asking people, and partly by discrete questions about how much you smile or laugh or feel joy. You can also measure people’s sense of purpose, with questions like, “Do you learn new and interesting things every day? Have you used your strength to do what you do best this past week?” So for this book I worked with statisticians to run the numbers on data like this around the world. That pointed us to Singapore, Costa Rica, and Denmark as globally illustrative of facets of happiness. And so I spent a lot of time in those places, as well as a few U.S. cities, and tried to piece together explanations.

Hamblin: Did that change the way you think about happiness?

Buettner: There are two points that I make that you might not have heard elsewhere. Number one, I like the idea of thinking about happiness in the same way you think of your retirement portfolio. You want it balanced—the short term and long term, stocks and bonds. The hell-bent pursuit of purpose kind of loses the point a little bit, because there is value in the sum of positive emotions we experience every day. So if all you’re doing is pursuing your purpose, or if all you’re doing is very goal-oriented, you forgo joy today for a perceived better future. We now know that humans reliably mis-predict what will make them happy in the future. You could work your butt off, pursue your purpose, become financially independent, and get there and realize “Oh, my life sucks.”

Hamblin: I don’t want that.

Buettner: Who does? So I argue that there are a number of things you can do to enjoy your life day to day, and you ought to be putting some of your effort there.

I’m not a big believer in these positive psychology techniques of savoring or appreciation or gratitude, and not because they don’t work. I think they probably do, but for a lot of people they only work in the short run. It’s a little bit like diet. If your approach is just to cut your calories in half, you’ll lose weight. But you know within a matter of months you’ll lose focus or just quit doing it. It’s the same with trying to remember to practice gratitude. So what I argue for are statistically driven things you can do to optimize your environment so you’re more likely to be happy for the long term.

Hamblin: Kind of like the lazy person’s approach to happiness? Or maybe just the thinking person’s approach?

Buettner: I wish I would’ve called this book The Lazy Person’s Approach to Happiness.

Hamblin: So tell me about the ideal environment—the one where, if you set your life up right, you never have to try to be healthy or happy.

Buettner: Well, I know you’re kidding, but there are a lot of decisions you can make that will have long-term payoffs.

Buettner goes on to explain that we have many choices that we can make that will affect our happiness.  Examples include where we choose to live, if it’s close to a body of water, close to a park, bike path, big city, more of a small town, all of which has an effect on your level of happiness.

“Money” is a factor in overall happiness, but not how we are used to thinking about it.

Financial security is really what matters, not enough money right now to buy whatever you want! Investing in your future, having a retirement, or savings plan leads to overall happiness.  He said we should be saving or “buying experiences instead of buying things! Buying things does produce some spike in joy or appreciation, but that wears off over time. A good experience actually gains luster.”

Hamblin: Despite knowing that, when I actually go to spend money on traveling or even just tickets to something, I think about how soon that will be over and gone. And if I buy a couch, I have it for years.

Buettner: But the joy from the couch wears out. You’ll still flop down on it, but it won’t provide that bump of joy.

Hamblin: So then, of course, valuing experience requires spending time reflecting and thinking back, which I’m also terrible at because I’m always looking at my phone or worrying about all the things I have to do in the future.

Buettner: In Boulder, which I profile as the “happiest place in America,” there are severe limits on advertising. Boulder has no billboards at all.

Hamblin: So people stop wanting things?

Buettner: The extent to which we spend money is very much a product of our environment. If you’re constantly prompted to buy stuff, if constant marketing messages are rinsing over your psyche, you’re more likely to buy things than to spend that money more wisely on experiences or financial security. So that’s yet another way we can think about our environment shaping our happiness. Or lack thereof.

Hamblin: You spend most of your time in Minneapolis. Has all of this travel and research made you want to move?

Buettner: Minneapolis is a relatively happy place. And I split my time between Minneapolis and Santa Barbara, which is one of the happiest places. I’d live in Costa Rica in a minute. I’d live in Copenhagen. Singapore, not so much.

In the United States, the happiest places tend to be places where enlightened leaders over the past century decided to shift their focus away from just economic development and growth to quality of life. They made policies and emphasized a better life over a better business environment.

A great example of that is San Luis Obispo. In the 1970s, a mayor came in who was an architecture professor from [California Polytechnic State University]. He noticed a forest of signs downtown, and drive-through fast-food restaurants, and the highway coming through. He drove a push for aesthetics, social gathering places, and streets built for humans, not just cars. Today, San Luis Obispo routinely ranks in the top 10 happiest places in the country. It’s not a coincidence. You see the same features in Portland, Santa Cruz, Boulder—happiness is not a coincidence. There’s always an orchestration of common factors that come together to produce it.

Hamblin: Okay, but most people can’t move to San Luis Obispo because of jobs and the aforementioned importance of financial security. Even if they could, they’d have to start a social network all over again, so what can people do in their immediate environments?

Buettner: There are small things. One facet of happiness is sum of positive emotions. So I like the idea of a “pride shrine”—a place in your house that you pass a lot where you put pictures that trigger pleasant memories. Or diplomas or awards that remind you of accomplishments.

Hamblin: So you don’t have to remember to remember.

Buettner: There’s also of course research that shows that having green plants around is good. And getting your house down to one TV seems to be good, and keeping it behind doors so the act of watching is intentional instead of mindless. And a front porch is better than a back deck because the happiest people are socializing six to seven hours a day.

Buettner explains that social media, and the like isn’t really socializing and to be with others is very important.   We are innately social beings, always have been and to be healthy, always will.  We live together, we play together, we work together, and we should be together…to be happy!

James Hamblin, MD, is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk and is the author of a book by the same title.

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