Somewhere between breakfast and bedtime, work and home, our first breath and our last, we’ll find it.
Hard to describe and elusive at times, happiness is one of our driving forces.
Money can’t buy it, we’re told, and while the pursuit of it is an unalienable right for Americans, “You have to catch it yourself,” Benjamin Franklin observed.
And there lies the challenge – and the subject of countless scholarly studies that bring good news for some, not-so-good news for others and decent odds that as we grow old, happiness will follow.
That doesn’t soften the harsh reality of a floundering economy and the pointed reaction of people such as Willie Nelson of Fort Wayne when asked what has made him happy: “Well,” he said. “I had a job. I was kind of happy then.”
Unemployed when International Harvester left town in the 1980s and suffering from disabilities received in an auto crash, “I ain’t too happy,” Nelson says, then smiles and changes his tone.
“I’m happy, basically, ’cause it could be worse than this, you know,” said Nelson, standing outside Rudisill Center. “I know that someone in the world is doing worse off than I am, and I pray for those type of people.
“I pray for myself and thank God that even though I had to learn to walk all over again and everything, and five years of therapy, I’m up and around, you know. I can come down here to the dollar store, buy cough medicine and orange juice and go back to my house. So, I’m thankful for that.”
As we enter ostensibly one of the happiest, yet most stressful, times of the year, we can take comfort knowing happiness can come from spending our money on others.
Research confirms it.
Still, happiness is in short supply for many. Catching it might be as simple as a walk in the park or, if you’re Nelson, counting your blessings. It’s not, if the research is to be believed, a matter of earning more money.
As we possess more, we desire more. The level of possessions that makes us happy changes at the same rate as income, but happiness is unchanged, according to Richard Easterlin, an economics professor at the University of Southern California.
Events such as marriage, divorce and serious disability affect happiness – positively or negatively – beyond what’s naturally given to us by genetics and personality, Easterlin found. But money and the things it buys don’t bring happiness because our expectations rise as income rises.
So, while spending lavishly on a wedding might not bring happiness, don’t cancel the ceremony.
Married people, even after decades of marriage, are happier than unmarried people, according to Easterlin’s research.
On a recent sunny and warm Friday afternoon, married folks seem attracted to Foster Park’s paved walkways.
Walking their dogs, Bill and Kay Bailey, both 63, point to family, friends and careers as the things that have made them happy – and dogs.
“I just lost my father, so family means a lot right now,” Kay Bailey said. “This (will be) the first Christmas without him.”
Not big spenders, the Baileys say good health is more important to happiness. And sure, they maintain, happiness grows as you get older because there’s less stress and hassle.
But Jerry Carpenter, 72, is of a different mind, as he feeds loaves of bread to the ducks and geese at Fort Wayne’s Franke Park.
Asked whether he’s happy, Carpenter replied, “I’m still alive, but there’s not enough money to go around anymore to do what you want to do.”
Living on Social Security, Carpenter said he was “100 percent” happier when he was younger and making a living.
His advice to young people: “Don’t have no kids; don’t get married,” because it’s too costly.
It might sound harsh, but Carpenter appears right that not having children increases the odds of being happy, according to research by Yang Yang, a sociologist at the University of Chicago. It’s the “two’s-company, three’s-a-crowd” philosophy.
“Having children does not seem to affect happiness significantly,” Easterlin agreed in an e-mail interview. “But surprisingly little research has been done on this topic.”
Still, Carpenter’s view that happiness belongs to the young is a fallacy. The odds are strong that as we get older we grow happier. That’s true for men and women, blacks and whites, the educated and less educated.
While there is a large racial-happiness gap early in life, it decreases with age. Whites are happier than blacks until about age 70 when blacks become slightly happier, according to Yang, who declined an interview.
Events late in life – good and bad – close the gender, race and education gaps in happiness found early in life. For those without health care, happiness rises through access to Medicare and Medicaid.
For others, happiness is diminished by events such as widowhood and the deaths of relatives and friends. It evens out.
For Megan Meeks, 21, an Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne student, upbringing, regardless of race, plays a large role in one’s happiness.
“I know a lot of my friends, maybe they didn’t have a whole lot when they were younger, but they still had a happy home,” she said.
Setting aside findings of race and gender and other research that shows being around happy people makes us happy, baby boomers, generally, are the unhappiest among us, Yang found.
Born between 1946 and 1964, there are 78 million baby boomers, about a quarter of the U.S. population. Two-thirds are married; 20 percent are divorced or separated, more than younger adults or older adults.
Better educated than the adult population as a whole, boomers are less likely to be in poverty than younger or older adults.
While they typically earn higher incomes than their parents, about a quarter have failed to accumulate significant savings for retirement, according to the Congressional Budget Office. As they retire, baby boomers are expected to stress the health care system.
But why are they so unhappy?
The sheer size of the baby-boom generation created competition for schools and jobs and more stress to succeed, Yang maintains.
Those early experiences have lasting effects on happiness.
And sometimes outside influences force some of us to put happiness in the closet to revisit during better times.
Jim Bock, 63, a Fort Wayne used-car salesman, points to family and “just being able to get up in the morning and take a breath” as making him happy. But these are hard times.
“It’s just the way the economy is,” he said. “The way we used to live three years ago, and now the economy has just got us completely upside down.
“It’s nothing to be happy about when you’re losing thousands of dollars a month.”
It’s little comfort that Bock doesn’t suffer alone. Typically, happiness fluctuates with the economy: Down in recession, up in recovery, Easterlin responded through e-mail.
But with lasting happiness coming from family and good health and not from money, Easterlin wonders whether the nation has its priorities straight.
While policies to improve well-being have targeted social and economic concerns and national productivity, Easterlin questions whether policies that improve health and permit more time with family might do more for people’s happiness.
It’s something to ponder as we wait in line at another Black Friday sale and mull the lyrics of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”
But for Easterlin, the happiness expert, the pursuit appears over.
“What makes me happy: Family, good health and research on happiness.”