“On a scale of 1 to 10 what is your happiness score,” my boss demanded. My boss was a German engineer who drank far too much coffee. Some mornings when he was highly caffeinated, he would barge in my office and demand to know my happiness score. His sentiment was well intended even though his delivery was abrasive. On the day I resigned, I began the conversation by saying, “My happiness score is a 2.”
Americans are obsessed with the concept of happiness. The only part of the Declaration of Independence that most Americans can recite is the part about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. American school children are taught at a very young age that our goal in life and our duty as Americans is to vigorously pursue happiness. Commencement addresses are filled with exhortations for graduates to pursue their passions, which is just a fancy way of saying go and do what makes you happy. Despite all of this, Americans are failing miserably in our pursuit of happiness. Rates of depression have skyrocketed. Rates of suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol related deaths (often called deaths of despair) have also increased. Why are Americans so unhappy? Pause for a moment and think to yourself, “What is my happiness score?”
I have spent an enormous amount of time studying the science of happiness. Why? Well, studying things I don’t understand is what I do. Also, my dogs don’t like it when I watch TV, and I need to fill the time. I read books, listened to hours of podcasts, and watched lectures by psychologists and academics. I even turned to my friends on social media and asked them to finish the sentence, “Happiness is __________.” The answers my friends provided illustrated some important points about happiness.
- Happiness is specific to the individual – One of my friends said, “Happiness is dogs.” I totally agree. My dogs make me happy. Another friend chimed in to make sure cats received equal billing as dogs. I have no doubt that cats make people happy, but I am not one of those people. For me, a cat means large doses of antihistamines and hydrocortisone cream.
- Happiness has a lot to do with our expectations. – When reality exceeds our expectations, we tend to be happy. When we have high expectations that don’t match reality, we tend to be unhappy. One of my friends wrote, “Happiness is pushing 50 and having the wisdom to lower expectations.”
- Happiness is a temporary condition. – Most of the time a bag of Doritos is going to improve my happiness score by several points. If I eat too many Doritos, my happiness score goes down because I feel sick. (I don’t have the self-control to handle the large bags. I only allow the small bags into the house.) If my husband brings home a bag of Doritos for me unexpectedly as a kind gesture, my happiness score goes way up. It’s the same bag of Doritos in each scenario, but how I feel about the Doritos is temporary. One friend wrote, “Happiness is a temporal emotion based on one’s situation or circumstances.”
I think Americans have some very flawed thinking when it comes to happiness. The first flaw is that happiness should be our normal state. Americans have embraced what is sometimes referred to as toxic positivity. In toxic positivity, every adverse event in life is viewed as a growth opportunity to be embraced, celebrated, and overcome. The expression of fears, doubts or concerns is labeled as being negative. In toxic positivity, happiness is considered the only acceptable state of feeling. If you are not happy then you are either not working at it hard enough, you have a bad attitude, or you have a mental condition that needs to be medically treated. Unhappiness is just as much a part of life as happiness. Bad things happen. People get sick. Family members die. Pandemics occur. To be fully human, you need to be just as comfortable sitting with sorrow as you are walking with joy. Encouraging others to maintain a perpetual happy state is equivalent to asking people to suppress parts of themselves.
The second flaw in American thinking comes from our Declaration of Independence. The founding fathers were wrong. Happiness is not something that can be pursued. Happiness is like Big Foot. Do you remember Big Foot? He is the mythical, hair covered giant that supposedly roams the Pacific Northwest. In 1958, a newspaper reported that loggers were seeing large footprints around their logging camp. Big Foot fever soon began to take hold. The footprints were later found to be a hoax, but that didn’t stop the legend of Big Foot that continues to persist today. People go into the woods and use high tech surveillance equipment to try to find Big Foot, but they won’t find Big Foot because he is a myth. Happiness is the same way. Happiness is not a destination to reach or a goal to pursue. If you specifically chase after it, you will not find it. The concept that happiness is the end goal is a myth, just like Big Foot. One of my friends responded to my happiness question by writing, “Happiness is not the point.” I agree.
Last week I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts called The Minimalists. There I heard a definition for happiness that finally resonated with me. They said, “Happiness is the byproduct of living a life that is true to your values.” Happiness is the byproduct, not the end goal. If you consistently feel unhappy, maybe you should stop pursuing happiness. Instead, maybe you should sit down and examine your values to see if you are living a life that aligns with those values.
When I resigned from my job in 2016, that was part of a broader re-alignment in the life of my husband and me. In the process, we were able to build a new life that was more in line with our values. Now our daily happiness scores are usually high. (I’m just assuming Doug’s happiness scores are high. I don’t ask him to give me a number every day. He smiles more now, which is good enough for me.) Rarely do I have a happiness score as low as 2 anymore. (I’m excluding happiness scores during the pandemic. Seriously, those scores shouldn’t count.)
What’s your happiness score? If it is high, maybe you should celebrate with a bag of Doritos. If your score is low, maybe you should think about that while eating a bag of Doritos. Either way, I guarantee the Doritos will bump up your score at least 2 points.