What Brings Happiness?

Shawn M. McGivern, LMHC


By Shawn M. McGivern, LMHC  |

As Father’s Day approaches, I invariably wrestle with the same question: what to get my daughter’s dad who, regardless of the occasion, insists there’s truly nothing he wants.

This year, stuck in commuter traffic, I rack my brain. Silk tie? He has enough to outfit a small corporation. Sports equipment? Covered. CD? Maybe, but he has an iPod. Wallet? How many wallets can a man panini in a one adulthood? Next come the ridiculously big ticket items: trip up the Amazon, cruise down the Nile, round trip ticket to India for his Peace Corps reunion. Just as the traffic begins to move, however it occurs to me to ask, what does (and doesn’t) bring authentic happiness?



According to Martin Seligman, former President of the American Psychological Association and founder of the relatively recent field of Positive Psychology, most of us would be walking on more sunshine if psychology itself were to focus less on what contributes to emotional and mental suffering and more on what contributes to well-being and improves the overall quality of life.

Therefore, while the following research on happiness factors such as money, age, fame, beauty, marital status, weather, and doing good works may not lead to the perfect gift for loved ones, it may offer some savory food for thought.

While people in their 20s and 70s report the highest level of happiness, folks over the age of 50 report lower levels of stress and anxiety. Whereas seniors have more health problems, they report fewer problems overall. In his long-term “successful living” study of Harvard graduates,, the renowned psychologist George Valliant found that those who enjoy “ the good life “ possess three things in common: good health, close relationships, and the ability to effectively manage their troubles. .

In the Romantic era, people believed enduring bliss would follow from love and intimacy. This, in turn, led to the belief that both were to be found in marriage.

Interestingly, while married folks in the U.S. report greater happiness than non-married people, the two groups reported equal happiness when the same study was conducted in Germany.

When it comes to having a family, parents apparently report decreased happiness while raising children than non-parents but when the two groups were studied at the empty-nester stage, parents reported greater happiness than those who had not had children.

This points less to incongruence than to psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s findings that “the remembered self” tends to recall only the most dramatic elements in any given phenomenon while drawing conclusions from the way things end.

While we may assume the beautiful, famous folks enjoy non-stop happiness,
research shows that we retain the feeling of happiness for only three to four months
after peak experiences and then return to our previous baseline happiness.

Most of us know that money doesn’t buy us love but does it bring happiness? Yes and no. In poor families where basics such as food, shelter, warmth and safety are at issue, there is a strong correlation between money and happiness. . Once people reach middle class status, however, and specifically when they achieve an annual income of $75,000, money has diminishing returns. Similarly, while lottery winners are understandably elated when they hit the jackpot, they too return to their baseline level of happiness.

In general, people get happier as they get older. This may, in part, be due to having a clearer sense of their preferences and adopting more realistic expectations of themselves and others. Whereas in youth death feels faraway, even abstract, knowledge of our finite time on earth can lead to pursuing our goals, realizing our creative potential, learning new things, a desire to help others, work on social skills and forgiveness.

Especially in the dead of winter, we tend to assume sunny skies and warm temps will ensure happiness – and this is sometimes true. In terms of a geographical cure, however, Midwesterners who slog through snow and ice are equally happy as Californians;- and, according to scientists, the silver bullet may lie in getting a minimum of 30 minutes of sunshine per day.

Evolutionary psychology is concerned with how biology impacts this complex state of being and becoming human. It states that the capacity for happiness is 50% genetic. Consistent with the principles that inform cognitive therapy, however, we have far more choice over how we feel than we may think. Studies suggest that a primary contribute to depression in the elderly is inactivity. It stands to reason, then, that any age, exercise including walking, dancing, and yoga will increase levels of a the body’s good mood neurotransmitter, dopamine.

As positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky points out in her 2008 book, The How of Happiness, t two key factors impact mood: how we think about our lives – specifically, whether we feel we are moving towards realization of our goals; and , how often we experience positive vs. negative emotions. She identifies 12 activities including practicing kindness and saying positive things that lead to increased bursts of happiness. In the long run, however, because people vary, her book includes an illuminating “Personal-Person-Activity Fit Diagnostic.”

At the end of the day, philosophers, neuroscientists, soft scientists, marketing gurus and others are likely to remain fascinated by what brings authentic happiness. Ultimately, however, it strikes me that most of us sense on an intuitive level, the ethical truth and beauty contained in the words of H.H. the Dalai Lama:

“We are visitors on this planet. We are here for ninety or one hundred years at the very most. During that period, we must try to do something good, something useful, with our lives. If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life.”

Shawn M. McGivern LMHC is a clinical supervisor and psychotherapist in private practice in Cambridge, MA and an adjunct psychology professor at Lesley University. She is a former freelance writer for The Boston Globe and creator of a journal entitled, My Living Legacy: 44 Creative Cues for Unfolding Your Story in Words and/or Images. E-mail: shawnmcgivern@yahoo.com.


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