Reading the news — the real, not fake news — and watching it on TV can make many of us unhappy. Famine, wars, innocent children separated from their parents, global warming with its worsening effects on the rise, people hurling insults at one another on a daily basis, a lack of respect toward respectable people; sadly, the list goes on and on and on.
Thus, it is no wonder that many of the most popular books today are on finding happiness, on learning how to be happy. Specifically, there are 209 books on happiness reviewed on Goodreads.com, with “The Art of Happiness” by the Dalai Lama XIV ranked No. 1 and “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin ranked No. 2.
When I first read in New York Magazine this spring that the most popular course at Yale — indeed the most talked-about college course in America — is called “Psychology and the Good Life” and is simply about being happy, I knew this was no joke.
Not only are college students not happy, but “neither is anyone else,” according to Adam Sternbergh, who wrote and researched the article, titled: The Cure for New York Face.
Not surprisingly, the U.S. ranks 18th in a recent U.N. World Happiness Report, behind Finland (No. 1), Canada (No. 7) and Australia (No. 10).
Many people have always believed, myself included, that success — usually professional — equals happiness. Sadly, however, over several days in June, we discovered that two highly successful people, famous designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, had committed suicide.
Spade was 55; Bourdain, 61. The average life span in the U.S. is now in the 80s; if they had lived, both could have made many more contributions to society.
Nearly 45,000 people committed suicide in 2016; suicide now is considered a leading cause of death along with diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. Not happy news.
So back to Yale’s happiness course, which, incidentally, has duplications in other colleges as well, including the University of Pennsylvania. The Yale course lasts four months, with guest lecturers appearing throughout, imparting all sorts of wise words of wisdom. For example, Yale Professor Hedy Kober claims that happiness “doesn’t look like winning the lottery.” Rather, Ms. Kober explains, happiness “looks much more like sitting quietly and noticing that your life is actually wonderful.”
Students are asked to keep a “daily gratitude journal,” not a bad assignment. Even something like getting a good parking space, especially when I am in a hurry, makes me grateful. Or, the other night, about to buy a ticket to take the Light Rail to the BSO, a stranger had left a 24-hour ticket on the machine, saving me train fare — a small, but pleasant, surprise.
Certainly, we should be happy — and grateful — when we have worked hard to accomplish something, or, even more importantly, when we’ve helped someone else accomplish something.
And yet both Spade and Bourdain weren’t happy, despite their skills and accomplishments — not everyone can prepare a mouth-watering meal and not everyone can design a distinctively attractive handbag.
Speaking of designer clothes and accessories, I know a woman who shops daily, buying only designer clothes. She has even ordered logo sweatshirts and jackets from Harvard and Yale, even though she herself is not a college graduate. But wearing designer clothes and college shirts still doesn’t make her happy as she always seems to be frowning.
Perhaps I should reach out to her. After all, Dr. Alex Lickerman, author of “The Ten Worlds: The New Psychology of Happiness” wrote in a recent article in Psychology Today that the key to happiness is having true friends.
I surely can agree with that.
Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of "The Feminine Irony" and "Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing." Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.