Happiness — 04 January 2007
Happiness is… cherishing the people you love the most

Happiness is an emotional state desired by all and understood by few. People want to feel happy, have happy relationships and a happy life. But what exactly does happiness mean and how can we help create it?

Most people see their attained happiness as dependent upon one missing element in their lives. I would be happy “if I found a good life partner, or had more money, or had a better job, or less hassles, or finished college, or had more time or more fun.” They imply that their happiness will be greater upon attaining the missing element.

Dr. Diener, the founding father of happiness research has been studying this topic for over twenty-five years. He found that once our basic needs are met, money did not improve our contentment, nor did education, youth, or sunny days. Marriage did improve our mood though he questioned whether these people had a happier disposition to begin with. He also found that strong ties to friends and family was the strongest determinant in students’ elevated mood and reduced rates of depression.

A time magazine poll reported in January of 2005 concurred that “Americans are overwhelmingly happy and optimistic people, regardless of income” and that “most people find happiness in family connections and friendships.”

Dr. David Lykken, a University of Minnesota researcher who studied identical twins concluded that 50% of one’s positive disposition is determined by genetics, 8% by other factors such as income, education, religion and marital status and 42% is influenced by life circumstances.

Despite the strong impact of genes on our level of contentment, Dr. Seligman and other researchers found that there are three components of happiness that are within our power to improve: getting more pleasure out of life, being more involved with what we do, and finding greater meaning in our lives.

Other research on the health benefits of intimate relationships found that having close relationships with women friends was a significant factor in women’s health and longevity. Married men did better health wise than single men of the same medical status. Happily married women were also found to be healthier than their unhappily married sisters.

These research findings confirm my bias that the most important interpersonal factor in our lives is our intimacy with others.

It appears that the salient psychological factor in all these research findings is that being in connection with others affirms our significance and positively impacts our health and wellbeing. Mattering to someone else validates our importance and our value as worthy beings. This helps us feel desirable, happy and healthy.

Based on this premise, fostering good relationships with mates, family and friends is wise for everyone. Happiness also increases when we act with kindness towards other people. Being helpful causes physiological changes that promote joy. Doing something to enrich another’s life enriches ours. At holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas a great emphasis is placed on sharing, caring and giving to others. However, these acts that make us happy can create ongoing happiness if we practice them year round.

You can increase your happiness by:

• Counting your blessings today-rather than thinking that your happiness is a future state determined by factors out of your control.
• Finding what gives you a state of “flow”, being one with your activity to the exclusion of all else, and increasing the time spent in this state.
• Identifying the small pleasures of every day’s life and savoring them. Such as: marveling at a beautiful flower, piece of music, a child’s giggle or nature’s beauty.
• Enjoying many aspects of your daily work and delving deeper to satisfy your curiosity and sense of wonderment at your accomplishments.
• Finding and improving what brings meaning to your life such as: being a great parent, learning, reading and studying, being creative, relating to animals or gardening.
• Being more lighthearted and joyous by not expecting life to be perfect and taking hardships as challenges- not as defeating events or punishments.
• Being playful, using humor, laughter and joy. Sharing jokes with others, attending comedy shows, noticing life’s lighter side.
• Making your intimate relationship with your mate as your primary focus. Being active in bettering your mate’s life.
• Being kind, helpful and loving to your friends, family and others.
• Helping improve the lot of others will make you experience your higher self, gain respect and purpose in life and become a happier being.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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