Happiness — 06 June 2008
Happiness is an acquired perception

How happy are you in your life? Are you happier now than you were in earlier years? Do you expect to become happier later in life? What are the circumstances under which you assume your happiness will occur? Who or what is endowed with the power of enabling or preventing you from feeling happiness right now?

Recent research by Yang Yang, a University of Chicago sociologist, found older Americans are happier than their younger counterparts. Dr. Yang’s results were based on periodic face-to-face interviews with 28,000 people ages 18-88, spanning 32 years. He also found that most Americans reported being very happy or pretty happy, with less than one fifth feeling not too happy in their lives. Though there were fluctuations in levels of happiness during economic changes, older Americans were the happiest at every stage.

Perhaps the most meaningful quote from Dr. Yang is, ” life gets better in one’s perception as one ages.” It highlights that it may not be the reality of the situation that actually improves, but the perceptions of the seniors enabled them to stay contented despite the challenges of older age. We may all be heartened by this notion that it is not necessarily the reality of one’s situation, but rather the view one chooses to adopt that determines one’s level of satisfaction and joy in life. Perhaps the youthful quest for perfection, attribution of the power to others or things to make them happy, or the short sightedness about the preciousness of every experience, may delay the state of happiness for the young.

Living in the moment and cherishing the joys as well as the hardships is perhaps the wisdom of slightly older people with a longer hindsight. Though it seems counter-intuitive, it may be that younger people tend to be more future oriented, anticipating life to unfold for them than are older people who are more present oriented.

Other explanations for these findings center around the freedom older people have in creating social, religious and volunteering activities that contribute to their connection to others. Well lived retirement offers older people the latitude to engage in activities that please them and help them feel worthy. Parents may feel complete with having raised their children and can now focus on pleasing themselves.

Whatever the explanations for these finding may be, the findings that older age brings greater happiness, is reassuring. Since it is also associated with one’s mental attitude, people of all ages can choose to improve their perceptions to gain greater happiness.

Please consider,

• Life is a roller coaster: going up is thrilling, going down is unnerving, leveling off is quieting, all of it is enriching.
• You can become happier by altering your perception about your life situation.
• When challenges emerge, ask yourself not only what may be the best choice for you to take, but also what outcome may increase your happiness.
• Start and end each day with identifying some of your blessings. Sprinkle your day with these thoughts and you are likely to be happier with your lot in life.
• Avoid doing one thing and thinking of another. Allow yourself to be fully present for every activity or connection with others. Being attuned with it or them creates the happiness of being a part of a greater whole.
• Abstain from comparing yourself to anyone else. Your sense of contentment is not relative to others, and you are the creator and evaluator of it.
• When you encounter disappointments, defeats, errors or misfortune, challenge yourself to find the worthwhile lessons within them that can also be sources of happiness. As Shakespeare said: “There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
• Life does not do you in- you may do yourself in with your own thinking and poorly modulated emotions.
• Determine what gives joy and meaning to your life and what pleases you – make these your life’s passions.
• Never hold another person responsible for your unhappiness or contentment. Others do not give or withhold your happiness. They can support you with their love as you undertake the responsibility for your own joy.
• Money, possessions, objects do not create happiness. The meaning you assign to them may help or harm you in gaining the contentment and pleasure you seek.
• Chasing eternal ecstatic happiness is futile, becoming contented is achievable.

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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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