Pursuing happiness - can you get there from here?

As recipes for happiness go, it would be hard to improve on the pleasures of a warm Saturday in mid-October.

Dazzling sunshine fills a crisp blue sky. Trees at the peak of their autumn color blaze in brilliant crimsons and golds. Young families, out for a weekend walk, push strollers past a golf course, where players in shirt-sleeves revel in a late-season game. Two swans glide serenely on a suburban pond, creating a camera-perfect moment. At the same time, a Mozart piano concerto floats joyously from a car radio.

As the old Gershwin song puts it, "Who could ask for anything more?"

Well, lots of people, as it turns out.

Happiness, once largely the province of self-help authors peddling well-meaning if sometimes simplistic advice ("Smile!"), is becoming the subject of serious study by academic researchers. From an international Journal of Happiness Studies to a Web site offering a "World Database of Happiness," the question echoing around the world is, How can people become happier?

Some of the answers prove surprising. They run counter to the stereotypical American dream, challenging conventional notions of what it takes to produce feelings of happiness and well-being.

Wealth? Good looks? Social standing? They all count for far less than most people assume, according to researchers. Instead, factors such as marital status and gender play key roles.

Married people, social scientists find, tend to be happier than others. Yet women, who have typically been viewed as happier than men, are becoming less content as their economic situation more closely resembles that of their male counterparts. As for adolescents, upper-middle-class teenagers show signs of being the least happy. The comforts and advantages they enjoy aren't enough to ward off a cynical view of life.

Although per capita income has risen 75 percent in real terms in the past 30 years in the United States, the percentage of Americans describing themselves as "very happy" has declined during that same period. So much for the curative effects of the current long stretch of unparalleled prosperity, where a shop-'til-you-drop attitude is supposedly the quickest way to put on a happy face.

However unhappy they might be, Americans in particular, as residents of the only country in the world where the pursuit of happiness is enshrined as a national right, feel an obligation to look happy in front of the camera. The reigning philosophy is: Flash those pearly whites, smile for the birdie, and say a big "Cheese" for the photographer.

No one denies that higher incomes produce a measure of smile-producing happiness. There's nothing quite like poverty to produce unhappiness. Any revisionist research about the source of real happiness isn't likely to change the runaway success of lotteries and TV game shows. Who wants to be a millionaire? The whole world does.

Yet our parents were right when they told us that money can't buy happiness. Happiness, that ethereal, often elusive goal, comes down to intangibles, sometimes as simple as autumn sunlight.

Happiness, like Carl Sandburg's fog, creeps in on little cat feet.

Or little dog feet. In the opinion of Charles Schulz, "Happiness is a warm puppy." His example suggests an it's-the-little-things-that-count approach.

A dog may or may not be man's best friend. But pet lovers and philosophers agree on one thing: The gift of friendship is an essential element of happiness.

Beyond friendship, one gift remains paramount. Perhaps Victor Hugo sums it up best when he writes, "The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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