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The search for happiness is elusive

September 08, 2007|By ALLAN POWELL

The search for happiness, it turns out, is elusive. According to Robert J. Samuelson, an economist who contributes regularly to The Washington Post, happiness is "The Bliss We Can't Buy" (July 11). The study of happiness is very popular and the recommendations about how to find this much valued state of being are varied.

Two studies in happiness distribution in the U.S., separated by nearly three decades, show a virtual similarity. In 1977, 35.7 percent of Americans rated themselves as "very happy" while 53.2 percent ranked themselves as "pretty happy." Only 11 percent considered their lives to be "not too happy." In 2006, the figures for these three categories were 32.4 percent, 55.9 percent and 11.7 percent respectively.

These statistics seem higher than one would expect considering the string of foreign and domestic crises that impinge on our tranquility. Scholars, casting about for the underlying causes for the lack of happiness, list the usual suspects: ceaseless social mobility, conspicuous consumption, increased job insecurity, unrealized ambitions and fractured personal relationships. A good family support system in which affection is given and received is credited as being a most important source of happiness.

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Samuelson avers that "Happiness depends heavily on individual character and national culture." Certainly, individual temperament, geographical setting and social origin have a huge role to play in setting the context for the possibility of happiness. Place and class load the dice favorably or unfavorably as chance would have it.

What was of most interest to me in this essay was the conclusion presented by Samuelson. "It is novelists and philosophers, not social scientists, who provide a deeper understanding of happiness. For better or worse, there are limits to re-engineering the human spirit." Both sentences require considerable amplification to be useful to anyone who seeks to follow the suggestion.

This is because there are and have been many different novelists and philosophers; finding one that speaks to you or your situation is not as easy as it might seem. Yet there is little doubt that certain novels are laden with insight which might enlighten, inspire and encourage those who need help in securing some happiness.

Finding a suitable philosopher with an accompanying philosophy having a bearing on happiness is an even greater challenge. The word "philosophy" literally means a lover of wisdom (philos = lover + sophia = wisdom). A philosopher, therefore, is primarily interested in gaining wisdom and understanding. Do they aspire to knowledge? Yes! Is methodology important? Yes! But the foregoing are a means to an end - understanding and wisdom. Happiness is a byproduct of wise living, therefore, not the direct goal of philosophical thought.

In case someone raises the question of utilitarianism and the "greatest happiness to the greatest number" it should be remembered that the concern was to establish an ethical standard. Accordingly, one who wishes to live an exemplary life will always consider how much pleasure or pain their intended behavior will generate. The truly ethical person will always pursue a course of action which results in more pleasure than pain for themselves and others.

It is possible to glean important insights that might lead directly to wisdom and indirectly to happiness from one who is trained in a special field. Their special interest may equip them to give great philosophical insight that points the way to happiness. An example that comes to mind is that of a psychiatrist by the name of Victor Frankl, who survived the horrors of a Nazi prison camp. He, through experience, created a new style of therapy that he called logotherapy or meaning therapy.

Frankl was convinced that each person has a "will to meaning" - the desire and need to find a meaning or purpose in life. When found, the misfortunes and tribulations we are bound to experience become bearable. A focus on an important vision, whether it is as a Scout leader or a Red Cross volunteer, brings a measure of happiness to our lives because we are pursuing a purposeful vision.

In the end, each of us is in charge of whatever actions we initiate to foster happiness. An inherited temperament and environment not of our choice and a plethora of unique and fateful circumstances are inescapable consequences of sheer existence. The application of intelligence to the management of the three forgoing life conditions will provide the best chance for happiness that we can hope for.

Here's to your happiness.

Allan Powell is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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