Being happy

Abraham Lincoln said it succinctly. “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” The research bears him out.

Money? Above a certain level of grinding poverty, the rich are no happier than those of us with more modest means. The suddenly rich often find the euphoria wears off fast. Then badgered and bothered from without, and tempted by power and money from within, they sometimes find the lottery they won or the business or stock that propelled them to wealth much more a curse than a blessing.

People seem to have a happiness set point. We are attached to this mark by elastic bands. Good fortune or bad may swing us above or below our happy point, but we soon return to it.

Apparently it is true, “Money can’t buy happiness.” (Although my father used to say, “It can sure buy you the kind of misery you enjoy most.”)

Freedom? It depends. I talked with a young man in prison a while back. He was almost schizophrenic in his feelings. He was happy that he was five weeks from walking through the prison door a free man. He had paid his serious debt to society. But he was at least as frightened and nervous as he was joyful. He had spent twenty years of his adulthood behind bars. He was not at all sure he could make a life for himself in the outside world. Statistically he had cause for concern. A high percentage of ex-prisoners return. One reason is that life as a free person is fraught with challenges, dangers, and chances to fail as well as succeed.

We as a people in America have given away much of our freedom voluntarily. Apparently we feel we are happier with less freedom and with more assumed security.

Even those who have gone from total bondage to instant freedom sometimes find amazingly that the euphoria wears off after a while. Charlie Plummer was locked in a North Vietnam cage for seven years as a prisoner of war. I heard him say later in a speech, that when they finally swung open that door at the end of the Vietnam conflict and set him free, he vowed he would never have another down day in his life. He said, “I have never forgotten how wonderful it is to be a free American. But I have to say despite my best intentions I still find myself getting irritated if I have to stand in an airport line too long. I have days when I get down. I’m not totally happy all the time like I vowed I would be if I ever got out of that bamboo cage.”

Environment? Obviously our outward conditions have an effect on how happy or unhappy we may be. But the real regulator is within us. We analyze and evaluate how good our lives are, and then we peg our happiness quotient based on that.

Blessed are those optimistic souls who can pull emotional nourishment out of thinnest soup of human satisfactions. Most of us do not have that heart set naturally. We have to work at it.

Internal happiness set point? Conscious mental sets can help. Remember that most of the things we worry about never come to pass, and that those that do happen are usually not as serious as we anticipated.

Resolve to live joyfully in the present. Repeat often, “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalms 118:24)

And don’t beat up on yourself if your smile slips now and then. This profound observation is probably true. “No one is happy all the time. If we were, we would be miserable.”