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“If you are so smart, why aren’t you happy?” is an intriguing question posted in a new book by Raj Raghunathan with the same title. Raghunathan is a Professor at the University of Texas and his course “A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment” is wildly popular. His question is arguably a more important one than the other commonly asked question: “If you are so smart, why aren’t you rich?” As we know, wealthy folks are not necessarily the happiest people on earth. My fabulously rich former boss (now the presumptive Republican presidential nominee) once conceded that money can’t buy happiness (“but it helps,” he quipped).

FLZ - happiness

Happiness is a somewhat fuzzy concept with varying definitions. It is generally related to a sense or feeling of well-being, contentment, and joy. A number of large scale research studies in the US, Europe, and Australia have charted the pattern of life satisfaction and psychological well-being across gender, life stages, and countries. A common conclusion of these studies is that happiness follows a U-shaped path through life for industrialized nations. The lowest point of satisfaction generally occurs in and around mid-life (hence the crisis for some!). The Blanchflower and Oswald study1 which surveyed data for half a million Americans and Europeans, observed that happiness among American men and women reaches its estimated low at approximately ages 49 and 45, respectively. Thereafter, aging can come with rising contentment. A 65 year old might have a similar level of happiness as a 25 year old. The Brooking Institute published the following charts showing similar relationships between happiness and age in different countries.

FLZ graph

An explanation for this U-shape pattern could be that individuals realize over time that the aspirations of their youth may not be attainable. Meanwhile, the demands of work and a young family often cause significant strains during midlife. Life satisfaction tends to improve thereafter as assets and financial security increase, social and professional status rise and leisure time becomes more available (unless you live in Russia where life never seems to become happier based on the chart above). It could also be that cheerful people simply live longer.

Recognizing these prevalent patterns, is it possible to improve the shape of the happiness curve – making the valleys more shallow and the heights more dramatic? Encouragingly, the answer is yes. Gretchen Rubin pointed out in her book “The Happiness Project” that happiness is determined 50% by genetics, 10-20% by exogenous factors such as age, gender, income, and health, and the remaining 30-40% by one’s actions. A quick Google search produces over 155 million results on “How to be Happy” and there is no shortage of self-help books on the subject. Below are three of my favorite lessons and action plans.

• Good Relationships = Good Life
Call your mother or the friend with whom you have not talked for a while, have a date night with your spouse, or spend time and money on creating memorable experiences with loved ones…

Emotional well-being is heavily influenced by the quality of our relationships with the people around us. In fact, a remarkable 75-year research study by Harvard University concluded that the single most important ingredient of a happy life is having good, close relationships and not fame or wealth. This study tracked the lives of 724 men from different social-economic classes from teenage to old age; about 60 of them are still alive and participating in the study. The participants are interviewed annually regarding their health, work and family, etc. The research also found that social connections and having good, close relationships protects our bodies and brains. Memories stay sharper longer if one is in a secure and dependable relationship; physical pains from illness may also lessen. Loneliness, on the other hand, kills.2

• Mind-Body Connection
Take care of your body. Feelings follow actions.

Simple things such as getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising regularly can have a significant (and often instant) impact on one’s mood. A 10-minute walk during an otherwise stressful workday can be an immediate mood and energy booster. Gretchen Rubin also recommends “Fake it ‘til you feel it.” Deliberately acting happy when one is down can actually chase away the blues. A good friend of mine wears a pendant engraved with the words “Choose Joy.” She is one of the sunniest and most generous persons I know.

• Practice Gratitude
Spend a few minutes each day or week to recall those things for which you are thankful in life.

French novelist Colette lamented “What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” Don’t let that happen to you. Count your blessings often, not just at Thanksgiving. Another fascinating research study proved this point. Subjects were asked to write down five things for which they were thankful or grateful in the past week, once a week for nine weeks. Another group was asked to write down hassles in life. The “gratitude” group reported less stress, better health and more positive emotions than the “hassle” group. The gratitude group also reported being more trusting of and generous toward others.3

Abraham Lincoln said: “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Make up your mind and dedicate the time and space to pursue happiness and lasting joy.

Freda Zietlow Author

1Blanchflower, David G. & Oswald, Andrew J., 2008. “Is well-being U-shaped over the life cycle?,” Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 66(8), pages 1733-1749, April

2More about this research can be found at Tedtalk:
Robert Waldinger: What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness

3R.A. Emmons and Michael McCulllugh, “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: and Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84, no. 2 (2003): 377-86

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