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The Pursuit of Happiness: Who is Happy--And Why

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The Pursuit of Happiness

by David G. Myers, Ph.D.

 

While this book, which came out in 1992, is not as up to date as recent texts like Seligman's "Authentic Happiness," it is still an excellent primer on the question it asks in its subtitle: "Who is happy--and why?" It is well-written, and definitely a good read, especially for its section on religion and happiness. The author is a devout Christian, and makes a very personal but well-written argument for the importance of faith in happiness.

 

Myers also does a great job of summarizing his book in the Epilogue, excerpts of which follow:

 

Popular, But Mistaken Myths About Happiness

  • Few people are genuinely happy (untrue--more than 80% of Americans rate themselves as more satisfied than dissatisfied with their lives)
  • Wealth buys well-being (untrue--while poverty brings unhappiness, wealth beyond middle-class comfort has only a weak impact on happiness)
  • Tragedies such as disabling accidents permanently erode happiness (untrue--the disabled report, to within 1%, the same levels of satisfaction as the able)
  • Happiness springs from the memories of intense, if rare, positive experiences such as idyllic vacations, ecstatic romances, joy-filled victories (adaptation means that we quickly become acclimated to any good event; better to have a continuing stream of happy experiences)
  • Teens and the elderly are the unhappiest people (untrue--average happiness is fairly constant throughout life. However, variance gradually decreases over time, so that the happiest and saddest teens are happier and sadder than their senior counterparts)
  • Men experience a midlife crisis in their early forties (untrue--no change in satisfaction can be detected)
  • When children leave home, women typically suffer an empty nest syndrome (untrue--if anything, happiness increases)
  • One sex is happier than the other (untrue, although women are more likely to report both depression and great joy)
  • Women's employment erodes the happiness of their marriage (untrue--neither working women or their spouses are less happy with their marriages)
  • Subliminal tapes can make you happy (untrue)
  • African-Americans, women, and the disabled have lower self-esteem (untrue--if anything, studies have shown that African-Americans have a higher sense of self-esteem than whites. Discriminated against groups maintain self-esteem in three ways: 1) Value the things at which they excel 2) Attribute problems to prejudice 3) Compare themselves to their own group
  • People more often feel inferior than superior (untrue--90% of managers and college professors rate their performance as above average; 80% of Americans consider themselves above average drivers)
  • Because miserable marriages can end in divorce, today's surviving marriages are happier (untrue--while marriage still boosts happiness, the average marriages is less happy than it was before divorce became common)
  • Cohabitation lowers the risk of divorce (untrue--couples who cohabitate before marriage are more likely to divorce)
  • Opposites attract (untrue--we tend to prefer those who are similar to us)
  • More than half of married people have an affair (untrue--90% of spouses report being completely faithful; in any given year, only 1.5% of spouses are unfaithful)
  • Religious faith suppresses happiness (untrue--faith is correlated with happiness; 77% of those who never attend church report being satisfied, versus 82% of occasional churchgoers and 86% of weekly churchgoers. The religious are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, to divorce or be unhappily married, to commit suicide, or to become depressed or be diagnosed with a psychological disorder. The religious do tend to feel less in control of their lives.

 

Things That Do Enable Happiness

  • Fit and healthy bodies
  • Realistic goals and expectations
  • Positive self-esteem
  • Feelings of control
  • Optimism
  • Outgoingness
  • Supportive friendships that enable companionship and confiding (which allows for acceptance of who you are)
  • A socially intimate, sexually warm, and equitable marriage
  • Challenging work and active leisure, punctuated by adequate rest and retreat
  • Some kind of faith (religious or otherwise) which entails communal support, purpose, acceptance, outward focus, and hope

 

"You and I can decide to exercise, to allow enough hours for sleep, to make comparisons that remind us of our blessings, to manage our time in ways that boost our sense of control, to begin acting as if we had the traits we'd like to develop, to initiate relationships, to devote effort to maintaining love rather than taking it for granted, to plain involving rather than passive leisure activities, to take the leap into an active faith--and even to begin working at reshaping our culture in ways that will promote the well-being that fame and fortune can't buy.

 

Depression, drugs, sexual assault, child and spouse abuse, bigotry, marital disintegration, and other forms of violence to self and others expose deficiencies in our contemporary life. Totalitarianism, materialism, and self-reliant individualism have deluded us with promises of well-being for all.

 

The message of this book is therefore both radical, as it challenges certain Western cultural assumptions, and conservative, as it reaffirms an older wisdom. Well-being is found in the renewal of disciplined lifestyles, committed relationships, and the receiving and giving of acceptance. To experience deep well-being is to be self-confident yet unself-conscious, self-giving yet self-respecting, realistic yet hope-filled."

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