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What is Happiness

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What is happiness?
What is happiness?
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People have been writing about happiness for thousands of years. What is happiness? How do you achieve happiness?

Religious people will tell you to join their religion and you will achieve happiness. Your parents will tell you to work hard and make babies. Philosophers tell you money does not bring happiness. Politicians tell you they are the only ones who can improve your life. Corporations tell you to buy their product and you will become popular and spend your time on beaches or at parties like the beautiful people in their TV ads. Magazine articles tell you how to find love and happiness. Certainly most of these involve some element of happiness. However many are promoting something they want to sell or to benefit the promoter such as a religion. But what is the underlying principle that is the foundation of happiness? This is an important question that affects everyone.

I have traveled to many countries including third world countries. One of the things I learned is that people in these countries seem to be happy even though they have very little of the things we take for granted. We do not realize how fortunate we are to have flush toilets, paved roads, faucets, shopping malls, and closets packed with clothes. There are billions of people that have none of these things and will never have anything like it.

I recall one little boy living with his family in the Andes Mountains. He saw us coming down the trail and started crying. He grabbed his pet Guinea Pig and ran to his mother. We had no ideas of what he was afraid of. Later we were told that he thought we were coming to take his pet away and cook it for dinner. Guinea Pig is a popular food in Peru. The entire small animal is cooked head and all and served standing on a plate as if ready to run away. By our standards, this remote little family had virtually no possessions at all and yet they did not seem to be distressed or suffering in any way. They were simply living life as they knew it without complaining.

It is no secret that many successful and famous people have committed suicide. Here is just a small sample of these famous suicides: Earnest Hemingway, Robin Williams, Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Anthony Bourdain. All of these people, and many more, were enjoying exceptional fame and fortune and yet they decided to end it all. We struggle every day with financial problems or social problems and dream about someday having the a little bit of financial or personal success. We can't understand how someone who seems to have everything could be so depressed to kill himself or herself. How is this possible?

A person raised in a one-room hut on a mountain trail does not expect anything else. He is satisfied with his situation because that is all he ever expected. Likewise a person who has had unlimited material items and enjoyed celebrity popularity assumes this is normal and expects it to continue. But if any of this is lost, the person feels desperate. Two examples are Lindsay Lohan and Gary Coleman. They were successful child stars but their success did not last long. Coleman was nearly broke when he died at 42. Lohan also failed to make it as an adult star.

Money does contribute to happiness but only up to a certain level. A health insurance executive making 15 million dollars per year does not experience more happiness than a business owner making only 1/2 million dollars per year.

It should be noted that a person cannot be happy if he does not have at least the basic necessities of life - food, shelter, and good health. Without these basics, nothing else really matters. Happiness is irrelevant if you are sick and starving. Most people today have these basic needs.

Happiness surveys for all countries are conducted every few years. Although many Americans think the USA is the "best" country, that is far from the reality in terms of happiness. The USA comes in at #18 behind 17 other countries. A big reason the US is not near the top of the Happiness Surveys is the lack of affordable health care. Many Americans live in constant fear of an unexpected health care disaster. No other country has thousands of citizens going bankrupt due to medical costs. No other country has the mass murders of children and adults. No other country has a large segment of the population living in fear that any day they could be murdered for no reason by racist police. Most advanced countries have higher levels of security, equality, and prosperity than the US does.

How can people with very little in their lives be reasonably happy while people who appear to have everything can be depressed? What is the common denominator that is the foundation of happiness or unhappiness? It seems clear that the expectations we have of our life situation are certainly a major factor. When you buy a new car and it does not meet your expectations of performance, reliability or expenses you may be angry, disappointed and just unhappy in general. The same is true for just about everything in our lives.

Unhappiness due to lack of meeting expectations is the same for all of us regardless of our financial or personal situations. Some of us are fortunate to exceed our expectations of life - financially, socially, emotionally, and physically. Few, if any, of those people are unhappy. On the other, hand many people fall short of their expectations. They may have expected more out of their careers, or their marriages, or their accomplishments in general. They are likely to struggle with depression.

Given that our expectations are the basis for happiness, one could assume a person could achieve happiness by just lowering his expectations. In one sense that is what we do when we rationalize an unhappy marriage or job. We tell ourselves our situation is not that bad and could be worse if we tried to make changes. So we struggle on through life hoping something will come along to save us. Holding unrealistic expectations - either too high or too low - is a mistake. Too high and you are setting yourself up for an unhappy sense of failure and depression. Too low and you will forever wonder what could have been. Realistic expectations require a person to be brutally honest with themselves. A person must realize that obstacles and failures are normal and not a deathblow.

It is also important that you never allow others to be in control of your happiness. It is not the end of your life if you get demoted at work or if you get dumped by your partner. Just accept it as another life experience and move on to the next chapter in life.

Realistic expectations are fundamental to happiness. We are unhappy when our reality does not meet our expectations. It may be necessary to adjust expectations as situations and events unfold in life. It is wise to accept your limitations. Likewise it is a mistake to not recognize your potential and give up without ever trying. Aim high but never assume you are a failure if you do not must reach your target. For more information on this read The Liberal Record.

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The author was a Spacecraft Engineer on NASA's Apollo program and a Computer Science instructor at California State University. He holds a Master's degree in Systems Engineering from the University of California and has traveled extensively (more...)

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