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Monday, March 2, 2015

The Happiness Problem Paradox Perspective

The Happy Face was the appetizer served to us at a vegetarian restaurant in Salta, Argentina. We had gone there searching for a meal that wasn't rooted in, centred on or consisting solely of butchered animal. As cutesy as the appetizer was the whole experience made me happy in ways that wouldn't have been possible 20, 15 or even ten years ago.

A recent issue of Maclean's Magazine, a blog on the Zoomer website and more studies than I can count all suggest that the pursuit of happiness is perhaps the most enduring of puzzles, problems and paradoxes that human beings ever invented. The key may be in the use of the word "pursuit.' Happiness can seem so personal, so difficult to quantify, that even the founding fathers of America thought safeguarding the 'pursuit of happiness' was the most any one could actually wish for. Being happy was going to be up to the individual in question. Maybe, but, then again, maybe not.

I have a confession to make. I am happy. Not crazy, smiley happy in a creepy, bizarre way, but happy. Life's good, my health is ok, my finances are not a disaster and I have a family that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside and I am in the third phase of my life. Strangely all of this makes me fit a statistical model in a way that both challenges and pleases me.

Having money, health and a decent relationship are all life long markers of happiness. Being poor, ill and alone are not a guarantee of misery and sadness but are often connected to unhappiness. It is the growing older and its link to happiness that most surprises. As with all scientific research, there are wrinkles and quirks but the bottom line seems to be: if you make it through the middle years intact, odds are that as you age you will be increasingly more happy. In fact, some of the research indicates that people in their 80s can often be nigh on ecstatic, or at least much happier than they were in their 30s and 40s.

But why?

Part of the answer seems to be that we grow up. Petty quarrels and arguments that enraged us in our twenties and thirties don't seem to matter as much. Arguments and scrambling over status, position and rewards lose their lustre and their weight. We seem to age into a sense of equanimity and acceptance that make life a marvel and source of wonder. We seem to become literally more mature.

I am challenged by this simply because I want to claim some responsibility for my emerging happiness, and the idea that it is simply the passage of time seems to deny the importance and need for growth and the cultivation of perspective. At the same time, I am pleased because it means that all things being equal over the years as society ages, we will become a happier country, a happier world.

I may be happy but I haven't become a pollyanna. I do understand and deeply appreciate that the qualifiers on health, finances and relationships are key and critical and that the absence of these vitally important elements of the 'good life' can render the most mature pleasant individual  a psychological basket-case. I am also cognizant of the fact that some researchers believe happiness is a con, a self-help delusion that distracts us from real social and personal problems.

But here is the key tricky part of this self awareness: I am comfortable with wrestling with these dilemmas largely because I am happy. The happiness I have discovered, developed, encountered or stumbled upon gives me the psychological and spiritual space to wrestle even deeper with the crazy-making answer to that most ubiquitous of questions...How are you doing?  I am happy even while wrestling with what that even means. P

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