Measuring Happiness



Prologue: The first year of the Trump Presidency has produced a state of anxiety for a majority of the American people according to recent surveys. Millions of Americans turn on TV each morning to see the first tweets on Donald J.Trump’s Twitter account. His base of about 37 % watching FOX News are usually pleased and supportive of his message. Commentators on CNN and MSNBC reflect the rest of the people who gave Hillary Clinton the popular vote margin of 2.9 million votes.  They provide the news and critical analysis of what the latest Trump tweets mean in our polarized political nation.

Americans have always valued happiness. The Declaration of Independence declared that we all have certain unalienable rights, among them “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  It is also  a given that we Americans live in a youth obsessed culture.  Most films are action thrillers aimed at young men in their late teens to mid 20’s.  Fashions begin with the young and are adopted by older generations. Food and drink products cater to children and teenagers’ tastes.  In every area of life, being young is held up as the model to emulate. Billions of dollars are spent every year on cosmetics, clothes, exercise equipment and the nip-and-tuck path to keep us fit, energetic and looking as young as possible. But does that mean we are happy?

Measuring Happiness: Gallup conducted a comprehensive national survey in 2009 based on phone interviews with over 350,000 people across the country. The questions and answers fell into six “happiness” indexes:  (As you read them, why not consider your own answers.)

*Life Evaluation: Personal assessment of one’s present life and life in five years on a scale of 1 to 10.

*Emotional Health: Measures a composite of respondents’ daily experiences, including laughter, happiness, worry, anger and stress.

*Work Environment:  Measures job satisfaction, ability to use one’s strengths at their workplace and whether one’s supervisor treats him or her more like a boss or a partner.

*Physical Health: Measures chronic diseases, sick days, physical pain, daily energy and other aspects of physical health.

* Healthy Behaviors: Measures smoking, consumption of fruit and vegetables, and exercise.

*Basic Access: Measures basic needs optimal for a healthy life, such as access to food and medicine, having health insurance and feeling safe while walking at night.

The data from the survey was described by Gallup as the largest database with information concerning Americans’ well-being in existence.  There were correlations with location, ranking the 100 cities with the highest Well-Being index.  Boulder, Colorado ranked first with Holland, Michigan known for their tulip festival second, and Honolulu in third place.  The age of the people interviewed was recorded and produced some of the most surprising results of the survey. Starting at 50 years, there was a sharp rise in the level of happiness that respondents reported.  Arthur Stone, the lead author of a study based on the Gallup poll, suggested that changes in brain chemistry as we grow older affect our happiness index.  Neuroscientists have shown that in younger adults, the amygdala,  the emotional core of the brain, is activated when exposed to negative and positive input.  However, adults in their middle and later years appear to have the ability to screen out or lessen negative emotions and “light up” when they see positive images.

The Gallup findings on age matched results from an earlier research study from the Institute on Aging at the University of Wisconsin. The report found that the most anxious years were the 20’s and early 30’s , the time of career development, dating, marriage and raising children.   Adolescence and teen years were also more stressful than midlife.  “From many points of view, midlife permits many of us to feel on top of the world, in control of our lives, and well enough pleased with what we have accomplished to seek new outlets of both self-expression and giving back to society some of what we have earned and learned.”

The psychologist, Erik Erikson created 8 stages in his classic model of psychosocial development.  Stage 7, Middle Adulthood, 35 to 65 years , poses the challenge of Generativity vs. Stagnation. Stage 8, Seniors, 65 years onward face the challenge of Ego Integrity vs. Despair.  The research findings from the Gallup and Wisconsin studies on happiness describe men and women in midlife and beyond who continue to grow and feel a sense of wholeness in their selves and their lives.  Stage 6, Young Adults, 20 to 34 years cope with the challenge of Intimacy vs. Isolation, reflecting the research findings of higher levels of anxiety and unhappiness during those years.

Pew Research Center had conducted a major survey on happiness in 2005, looking at different demographic groups. They found, contrary to the aphorism that money can’t buy happiness, that based on family income, 49% of respondents with an annual family income of more than $100,000 said they were “very happy”.  In contrast, only 24% of those with an annual family income of less than $30,000 said they were “very happy”.  (One should note that although a correlation is established, it does not prove causation.)  Other interesting findings were: Married people , 43% very happy, while unmarried 24% very happy. Married people with children were about as happy as married people without children. Those who worshipped  frequently were happier than those who did not; Blacks (28%) were less likely than whites (38%) or Hispanics (34%) to respond as very happy. Sunbelt residents were happier than those who live in the rest of the country. Suburbanites happier than city dwellers. Certain non-correlations: People who had children were no happier than people who did not; Retirees were no happier than workers; Pet owners were no happier than those without pets. The age data showed that the young were less happy than the middle aged or old, in agreement with the 2009 Gallup findings.

Epilogue: Scientific research can always give us a new perspective on our personal lives. For example, Erik Erikson discussed three stages of adult development.  Where do we fit in? Stage 6 for young adults; Stage 7 for middle adults and Stage 8 for senior adults.  The key to his classic model is that individuals have choices in life dependent on many factors. Happiness becomes a corollary based on the choice and direction we each follow in our lives.

……………………………………………………………………..Joyce S. Anderson

Recommended Reading: “Wisdom and the Senses” by Joan M Erikson

The Way of Creativity













3 thoughts on “Measuring Happiness

  1. Mom, this is an interesting perspective on happiness. I guess we are all responsible for being positive which will lead to happiness, married, unmarried, retired, or working. Health for me is the motivator. Thanks for posting.

  2. I am intrigued about the brain chemistry as we age – as I think so much of our lives are determined by biology. A lot more money should be spent on researching “happiness” and how to help the most people attain it.

    Certainly money doesn’t buy happiness, …. but life is a lot harder without it!

    I recently read what someone else wrote – that money gives one the ability to be generous to others. The good feeling one gets when giving money to a charity is an example. That idea stuck with me.

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