Don't worry, be happy

We're a nation with a happiness fetish.

A new book on happiness seems to roll off the presses every day.


Millions of people are training for happiness by wearing "A Complaint Free World" bracelet because, they say, a global moratorium on griping will bring about happiness.

Still others prefer "Complain All You Want" bracelets, saying the emotional release of complaining is its own form of happiness.


And then there are those who seek happiness in the usual things: shopping, sex, food, drugs, alcohol, marriage, divorce, extreme sports, meditation and movies such as The Pursuit of Happyness.

Our founding fathers were certainly sage: It is the pursuit of happiness that's an inalienable right, not the attainment of it. Centuries after they penned these words in the Declaration of Independence, we're still in hot pursuit.

And yet our self-reported levels of happiness have not increased since the 1950s, even though there has been a national increase in wealth.

"Asked the same questions that had been asked Americans in the 1950s, people in the 2000s reported themselves to be no happier," writes Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think Is Right Is Wrong, citing a compilation of these studies in The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, by political scientist Robert E. Lane.

So what's the deal?

We've got more wealth, more education and more time-saving technology since the days of the ancient Stoics and Epicureans, who also wrote tomes on how to be happy.

Experts blame the so-called "hedonic treadmill."

The modern pursuit of happiness, they say, is like running on a treadmill: Work hard and stay in the same spot.


"Once people get to a certain level of material prosperity, they're no longer stressed by the pressure of getting that next dollar," says Stephen Post, co-author of Why Good Things Happen to Good People, which explores the link between happiness and altruism. "The second or third pair of $200 designer jeans doesn't make people happy.

"People are comparative by nature. They compare the state of their material well-being to others, so they're already on the treadmill, never satisfied."

Worse, a 2005 study by Harvard economist Erzo F.P. Luttmer showed that falling behind the Joneses triggers a blast of unhappiness.

"The very famous, and disturbing, results showed that people were less happy if other people in their community were richer," says Jeffrey Zaks, a professor of economics at the University of Colorado.

"The idea that you're happy only if other people are worse off is morally and ethically disturbing."

Authentic happiness takes work. And, like lush lawns, fancy cars and healthy marriages, it requires maintenance. It's easier, experts say, to be unhappy than happy.


"I think we can do things to be happier," says University of Michigan psychologist Stephen Peterson, a happiness expert. "However, it's not five easy steps to lasting fulfillment. That's absolute nonsense. I'm struck by this enormous new self-help genre on how to be happier, and then the crash-diet books. There are no shortcuts to happiness, and there are no shortcuts to weight-loss.

"We do know what makes people happier: It is to have good relationships with other human beings, to do work you like, and to be a contributing member of some community," Peterson says. "All of that is hard work."

For Post, the most pithy summation of happiness was tossed off about 50 years ago by Viktor E. Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and author of Man's Search for Meaning. He wrote that people cannot pursue happiness directly; it is a byproduct of helping others.

"I could be surrounded by millions of people who love me and adore me, but unless I can become a source of giving, I'll never be happy," Post says. "Happiness is something of a paradox."

In short, he says: "It's good to be good."