At different times in our lives, we can get stuck in the monotonous turmoil of daily events. Days, weeks, and months blend together – like in those movie scenes where the main character sits very silently, alone, and the world whizzes by him. I’m talking about a general malaise, and quite frankly, I think too many people fall victim to it.
Recently, dozens of studies have been published about what makes us happy. One year ago, George E. Vaillant’s book Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study was published. It tells the story of one of the most famous and lengthy studies ever conducted about happiness, an experiment that lasted over seventy years and involved 268 sophomores at Harvard University. Outcomes showed that, more often than not, happiness is in our hands rather than determined by our genetic makeup. Another study – this one conducted at the University of Michigan and published last August – found that social media influences happiness: subjects who used Facebook felt less happy afterwards. Other academics have focused on the effect that happiness, in turn, has upon daily life. At the University of Western Sydney, a professor of economics analyzing the effect of happiness upon income inequality found that happier people work better. Cultural interest in happiness has surfaced in the mainstream – Oprah’s “Are You Happy” online quiz promises to “guide you in the right direction for finding your happiness.”
The problem with all of this interest floating around is that it makes choosing a single definition of happiness more difficult. The answer to what constitutes being happy varies across studies and individual experience. For some, being happy means exercising agency, and for others, it means realizing that we never had much agency over our lives at all. A healthy dose of perspective doesn’t hurt; the phrase “you are lucky to be alive” is often used in situations following near-death experiences, but I think it should be used more often. We are actually really lucky to be alive.
According to author and Huffington Post contributor Dr. Ali Binazir, the chances of you being born you were infinitesimally small. The probability of your dad meeting your mom was one in 20,000. The chance that your parents would stay together and produce you was one in 2,000, and the odds that the correct sperm and egg would meet and create you was one in 400 quadrillion. Now, account for the probability that your ancestors would be who they were, and, according to Binazir’s calculations, that means there was only a one in 10^2,685,000 chance that you would ever exist – practically zero. So I’d argue that being alive at all is reason enough to be happy.
Although there are innumerable ways of looking at happiness, they all make one thing clear: humans want to be happy, and we’ll do almost anything to get ourselves there. We buy books on the subject, pay psychiatrists to assess us, and take online self-help quizzes. But at the end of the day, maybe all it takes to be happy is a deep breath and some wise words from a guy who saw his friend Cameron sitting with the world whizzing by him: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.”