Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Who Is Happy And Why

February 2, 1998

Taking all things together, how would you say things are for you these days? A) very happy, B) somewhat happy, C) not too happy.

A psychologist, David G. Myers of Hope College, Holland, Michigan reviewed hundreds of studies on well being, happiness and satisfaction with life in the research literature of the past several years. He had some interesting conclusions.

What predicts happiness?

- Old or young? No variation or correlation with age. There was no support whatsoever for mid-life crisis problems among the general population. Not did the data describe an unhappy empty nest syndrome. Teenagers had more fluctuating moods but their general level of satisfaction with their lives compared well with the other age groups.

- Male or female? No difference in subjective report of well-being.

- Urban, suburbs or rural? No difference.

- Highly educated, less educated? Education and race account for about 2 percent of the variation of subjective report of well-being. This gives a slight advantage to being white and well educated.

- Rich or poor? At best, there is only a moderate relationship between having enough money to meet basic needs and happiness. Surprisingly, being affluent or wealthy adds very little to one's feelings of well-being. This is despite the fact that Americans believe that additional income would solve a lot of problems and make life more fun. It doesn't.

- Normal or disabled? The disabled are just as happy as others in society. Human beings have an amazing capacity to adapt to life's circumstances.

- Rich country or poor country? Differences in life satisfaction varied with nationality regardless or the wealth of the country. The data are inconsistent. Some nationalities were happier than their more well off neighbors. However, a striking link was found in countries with histories of stable democracy and a feeling of well-being.

If none of these things predict happiness to any great extent, what does? Dr. Myers found these eight factors as making significant contributions to happiness.

1. Positive self-esteem. Happy people like and accept themselves. Satisfaction with self is a powerful predictor of satisfaction with life.

2. Personal control. Happy people believe they can control their own destiny.

3. Optimism. A certain amount of optimism contributes to risk-taking and hope. Optimism contributes to health and happiness. This optimism should be couched with sensible precautions and grounded in reality.

4. Spiritual commitment and beliefs. Religion offers a buffer to stress, a network of supportive friends, meaning and skills for coping with crisis. Being a regular church attender also protects people from destructive lifestyle problems (drinking, smoking, divorce, delinquency, suicide, mental illness and other problems). People with active religious commitments rate themselves as happier than those who are passive or not involved.

5. Extraversion. Being outgoing and expressive has a positive relationship to happiness.

6. Friendships and intimacy. Belonging, being connected, sharing, disclosing oneself and giving of oneself to a larger cause meet basic human needs.

7. Happy marriages. People in loving marriages are the happiest people in this life. The level of sharing and commitment make this relationship a tremendous contributor to happiness. The key work is "happy" marriages. Unhappy marriages contribute to stress and emotional turmoil.

8. Meaningful work. We need work that gives an appropriate level of challenge and stretches human talent and capacity. The work should be involving to the point where we get lost in the flow of time and work.

What does this list suggest? Possibly that too many of us are chasing after happiness through materialism and individual pursuits when in fact these things are marginally related to happiness. Relationships, attitude, and a sense of personal growth and control make the difference.