The Edmond Sun

December 15, 2010

Deciphering the meaning of happiness

Mike Hinkle
Special to The Sun

EDMOND — If I ask you whether you’re happy, what would you say? There are, of course, a number of ways to answer that question. You might say “Yes;” you might say “No;” you might equivocate and say something like, “Sometimes I’m happy and sometimes not;” or you might get cerebral and ask, “What do you mean by ‘happy?’”

Putting your own condition aside for a minute, suppose I ask, in the abstract “Is happiness a good thing?” In a world where so much is relative, it might be tempting to say “It’s impossible for anyone to say whether he or she is happy and no one can say conclusively whether happiness is a good thing — it all depends.”

Going a step further, suppose I ask whether it’s possible for someone to be happy and not know it or is it possible for someone to think he or she is happy when they’re really not? To these you might say “Yes,” “No,” or “What the heck’s the point of questions like these?”

As this year draws to a close and we spend some time reflecting on the highs and lows of 2010 and endeavor to chart our course for 2011, it might not be a bad exercise to address some “first principles.”

I’m guessing that most of the people reading this column agree that “the pursuit of happiness” is one of life’s core objectives. If that’s so, it might be productive to take a minute to determine how the “pursuit” is going. Have we overtaken it? Is there hope we might overtake it in the future? Or is happiness, as an ideal, forever out of reach?

In the Dec. 23 issue of “The New York Review of Books,” Thomas Nagel of New York University presents an article posing the question “Who Is Happy and When?” Nagel reviews two books, one written by Sissela Bok and the other by Derek Bok, her husband, exploring the philosophy, science and politics of happiness. Evidently, science can now “objectify” the concept of happiness by devising questionnaires that invite people to answer standardized questions about their happiness levels.

These questionnaires produced some interesting statistics. For example, the average happiness level in the United States has not increased in the past 50 years despite the fact we have made monumental strides in the per capita standard of living. This contrasts with the fact that people dwelling in the slums of Calcutta describe themselves as “reasonably happy.”

These and other statistics underscore a truth drilled into us from childhood: money can’t buy happiness. So what does make us happy? Nagel draws on a 1974 book by Robert Nozick to present us with a hypothetical. Suppose a team of the world’s premier neuropsychologists devise the ultimate experience machine. Once hooked up to this contraption, you can enjoy any experience you can imagine; you can be the world’s most celebrated author, the most glamorous movie star, the heavyweight champ, Super Bowl MVP, world’s top runway model-take your pick of any or all. Indulge your wildest fantasies while your body floats lazily in a tank of warm water (shades of “The Matrix” and “Inception”). Are you happy? If you float there until you die, did you live a happy life?

About now we start getting frustrated by statistics and theories and embrace the idea that each of us is unique and the complex recipe that combines to make a happy life is a function of each individual mind.

But there does seem to be one ingredient that allows the others to gel. Gratitude. If we have the opportunity and willingness to appreciate the pleasures, large and small, life hands us we can all be happier people. In 2007, Robert Emmons published a book called “Thanks! How The New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier.” According to the studies Mr. Emmons documents, the simple act of adopting a grateful attitude can enhance not only one’s sense of well-being, but one’s health as well.

Here’s an odd irony. The origin of the word “happy” actually meant “lucky.” In many respects, practically everyone born in this country is lucky. By celebrating the fact that we’re lucky — by being grateful — we are, in very real terms, happy; all of us.

OK, you want to know something that makes me happy? A happy ending, like the redemptive ending of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” which, by the way, was published on Dec. 17, 1843. So here’s hoping you all take some time this Christmas season to be grateful and, thus, to be happy. I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.

MIKE HINKLE is an Edmond resident and retired attorney.