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Justin Wolfers on Happiness

Justin Wolfers is a contributor to the wonderful Freakonomics Blog at the New York Times.  Freakonomics started as a book by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner and has grown into a movement to better understand every day life in terms of economics.  Freakonomics is a powerful force for happiness, because it helps us to better understand our world and to make better decisions on government regulations which may impact our happiness.

Justin has written some excellent articles on happiness for the Freakonomics blog, and I’d like to introduce you to a few of them.

Is Ignorance Really Bliss?

In Is Ignorance Really Bliss? Justin tackles a very old and commonly held misconception regarding happiness.

Wolfers analyzes data from the General Social Suvey to prove that “those with stronger vocabularies or stronger analytic reasoning skills are more likely to be very happy, and less likely to be unhappy.”

The Economics of Happiness

The Economics of Happiness is a four part series documenting the complex relationships between money and happiness.

I highly recommend that you read the entire series, but a quick summary is found in part one:

  • Rich people are happier than poor people.
  • Richer countries are happier than poorer countries.
  • As countries get richer, they tend to get happier.

The next time someone tells you that money can’t buy happiness, you’ll know better.

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Don’t search for happiness, make it!

Far too many people spend their lives searching for happiness when they should be making it instead.

 Happiness is not something that you can find in other people, other places, or other experiences.  Happiness is something that you have to create within yourself.

 Your happiness is your own responsibility and it is one of the most important responsibilities you will have in your life.  Get to it!

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Do the Right Thing

A clear conscience is one prerequisite for happiness. You can have more money than you could ever spend, live in a beautiful mansion, own a sports car collection rivaling Jay Leno’s — and if your conscience is burdened, you will not be happy.

This is a human trait and one which seems fairly universal. Even the meanest of murderers and scoundrels invent ways to place blame upon their victims in order to pacify their own consciences.

How do we keep our consciences clean in the real world? Ronald Reagan had the answer to that question when he said “There are no easy answers’ but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right.”

That’s how you keep your conscience clean — you do the morally right thing every single time. Often, the morally right path is the harder path, the less pleasant path, the more costly path, the more dangerous path — a path with no redeeming qualities other than that it is the right path.

What do we do if we have strayed from the purer path? We must find ways to make peace with our consciences. This is not a religious act, this is a human act. Religion may be able to help some of us find peace with our Gods — but we alone must make peace with ourselves.

We must forgive ourselves for our past mistakes without enabling ourselves to accept future mistakes. For most of us — for the best of us — that forgiveness does not come cheap. There is a show on television now called My Name is Earl, where the main character tries to undo all of the wrongs he has done in his life. Luckily, very few of us have a list of wrongs as long as Earl’s!

My Name is Earl does, however, give us insight into the path towards self-forgiveness and happiness. That path involves making the world a better place. Often, we cannot fix the things we break. We can’t repair every injured feeling. We can’t bring people back to life. However, we can devote our time and energies to making up to the world as a whole for our shortcomings. This is not an easy answer, but it is a simple answer.

As Mark Twain said, “Let us endeavor to live so that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.” That is the path which brings lasting happiness to our lives.

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Alexander Solzhenitsyn on Happiness

“It is not the level of prosperity that makes for happiness but the kinship of heart to heart and the way we look at the world. Both attitudes are within our power . . . a man is happy so long as he chooses to be happy, and no one can stop him.”

 

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Improving Your Quality of Life

Improving your quality of life can improve your happiness, and it doesn’t have to cost a great deal of money to do it.  A good part of happiness results from taking control of your life, regardless of outside influences.  As Henry David Thoreau taught us in Civil Disobedience, a man can be in control of his own life even while being jailed.  How much more should we who are not imprisoned be in charge of our own lives?

Sleep

Sleep is required for both physical and mental health.  Lack of sleep makes it difficult for us to concentrate and it makes it easy for us to be irritable.

Sleep quality can be improved with inexpensive ear plugs and eye covers, with heavy blankets placed over windows to block light and noise, by moving eating times further away from sleeping times, by reducing alcohol and caffeine intake, and sometimes simply with discipline.

Diet

Diet can be very important to happiness, because some foods can actually make us unhappy.  Foods which contain carbohydrates — both sugars and starches — cause our blood glucose levels to rise.  This causes our bodies to produce insulin.  In many people, insulin overproduction causes serious physical and emotional damage.

If you find yourself feeling tired about an hour after eating sweets, see your doctor for a blood glucose test and consider a low-carb diet such at Atkins or the Carnivore Diet.

Weight

Carrying around extra weight makes it difficult to live an active lifestyle.  It makes every activity more tiring, which means that you get less out of every day of your life.

Obesity can also cause blood sugar problems, which in turn will cause unhappiness.  In addition, being overweight can also cause sleep apnea, which leads to poor sleep effectiveness and further unhappiness.

Exercise

Strenuous exercise causes our bodies to release naturally occurring chemicals which cause a feeling of happiness that lasts after the exercise period is over.  Exercise also raises the bodies metabolism, which increases the amount of energy available during the day.  People with more energy feel happier because they are able to apply more energy towards meeting their goals.

Attitude

Ninety percent of happiness is attitude.  We have all seen physically healthy people with wonderful families and beautiful homes — people who want for nothing — kill themselves quickly or slowly due to unhappiness.  We have also seen people who remain happy while they struggle to survive every day.

Attitude isn’t a magical abstraction, it is merely a series of choices.  You decide to take control and responsibility for your actions and your life — and you do that every moment of every day.  This is positive mental attitude and it is the #1 factor for improving your quality of life and your happiness.  Happiness is a choice, a decision to lead your own life.  Make that choice.

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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs is an extremely valuable tool in understanding how happiness is achieved and maintained.

Maslow’s hierarchy is usually envisioned as a pyramid, with the most basic and immediate physical needs at the base of the pyramid and the more esoteric emotional needs at the top.

As each of our levels of needs are met, we start to worry about the next level of the pyramid. A person who cannot breathe does not spend a lot of effort worrying about self-esteem issues. But, when his physiological needs are met, he does begin to worry about his safety needs.

People at one level of the pyramid often mistakenly believe that they will be happy if only they can get to the next level. Then, when they achieve the next level they are surprised to discover that they are not happy.

One incredibly important key to happiness is to enjoy the process of moving up the pyramid. As each new level is achieved, there will be a temporary rush of joyful celebration — but it will soon subside as you acclimate to the new level and see the challenges presented by the level still above you.

Achieving stable and lasting happiness requires that you are able to appreciate the progress you have made and the joy that you will receive at each level of the pyramid.  The requires a holistic viewpoint of the struggles of your life, an understanding that these struggles are a gift, and an appreciation of the joy that these struggles can bring.  Happiness in life comes not from achieving a destination, but from appreciating the journey along the way.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs

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You Must Convince Yourself to be Happy

One of the problems with many happiness programs is that they insult your intelligence. You’re not stupid. You can’t fool yourself into being happy. You have to convince yourself to be happy and you have to be believeable when you do so.

It’s easy to think of the things which make us unhappy. Write down a list of things that you have to be happy about. Make each item a real item — something which is important to you.

Here are a few examples:

  • I have a wonderful family.
  • I have a wonderful wife/husband.
  • I am in (generally) good health.
  • I work with some great people.
  • I live in an awesome country.
  • I live in a nice house/apartment.
  • My future looks brighter than my present or my past.
  • My kids will have a better life than I did.
  • I have a job and I do it well.
  • My car is reliable.
  • My conscience is clean.
  • Through hard work and intelligent effort, I am able to affect my future.
  • I can go outside today if I want to and feel the Sun on my shoulders.
  • I can read a good book this week.
  • I possess unrealized potential.

Not all of these will apply to everyone. Make up your own list. Don’t bullshit yourself. Each one must be something which is important to you personally.

Keep the list with you. Review it when you’re feeling discouraged. At times, you will need to strike items from the list. As you do, work hard to replace each item with a new one. Happiness isn’t a static thing. Every new day gives us new ways to be happy.

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Music Can Be a Happiness Drug

Music has an incredible power to alter our moods. Unlike alcohol or drugs, music has almost no negative side effects. A great song can cheer you up more quickly than the most well-reasoned argument. A good set of upbeat tunes can help you keep a good mood going all day long — with no hangover the next day.

Musical tastes are extremely personal. You must find the songs that help to improve your mood. Here are some songs that work well for me:

  • Alan Jackson – Chattahoochee
  • Alanis Morissette – You Learn
  • Alison Krauss – You Say It Best When You Say Nothing At All
  • Allman Brothers – Ramblin Man
  • Autograph – Turn Up the Radio
  • Bachman Turner Overdrive – Roll On Down the Highway
  • Bad English – When I See You Smile
  • Bette Midler – From A Distance
  • Ben E. King – Stand By Me
  • Bill Medley – (I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life
  • Bill Withers – Lean On Me
  • Billy Joe Royal – Down In the Boondocks
  • Billy Joel – My Life
  • Billy Ocean – When The Going Gets Tough
  • Billy Swan – I Can Help
  • Byrds – To Everything There Is A Season
  • Blondie – The Tide Is High
  • Blues Brothers – Soul Man
  • Bob Seger – Still The Same
  • Bobby McFerrin – Don’t Worry, Be Happy
  • Bryan Adams – Eighteen ’til I Die
  • Carly Simon – Nobody Does It Better
  • Cars – Good Times Roll
  • Champs – Tequila
  • Commodores – Nightshift
  • Corey Hart – Never Surrender
  • Cyndi Lauper – True Colors
  • Damn Yankees – High Enough
  • Dan Seals – I Wanna Bop With You Baby
  • Denise Williams – Lets Hear It For The Boy
  • Desree – You Gotta Be
  • Dexy’s Midnight Runners – Come On Eileen
  • Diana Carter – Strawberry Wine
  • Dionne Warwick – That’s What Friends Are For
  • Dobie Gray – Drift Away
  • Dream Academy – Life In A Northern Town
  • Eagles – Get Over It
  • Eddie Rabbit – Driving My Life Away
  • Edwin Mccain – I’ll Be
  • Eric Carmen – Make Me Lose Control
  • Eric Johnson – Cliffs of Dover
  • Fleetwood Mac – Monday Morning
  • Frank Sinatra – My Way
  • Garth Brooks – Friends In Low Places
  • George Thoroughgood – Bad to the Bone
  • Glass Tiger – Someday
  • Greenday – When I Come Around
  • Hank Williams Jr. – A Country Boy Can Survive
  • Huey Lews and the News – It’s Alright
  • Harold Faltermeyer – Axel F
  • Jay and the Americans – Come a Little Bit Closer
  • Joe Satriani – Always With Me, Always With You
  • John Lennon – Imagine
  • John Mellencamp – Your Life Is Now
  • John Parr – Man in Motion
  • Johnny Nash – I Can See Clearly Now
  • Journey – Dont Stop Believing
  • Katrina and the Waves – Walking on Sunshine
  • Kenny Loggins – I’m Alright
  • Lee Ann Womack – I Hope You Dance
  • Lynn Anderson – Rose Garden
  • Manfred Mann – Quinn the Eskimo
  • Mariah Carey – Hero
  • Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Tropical Vacation
  • Norman Greenbaum – Spirit in The Sky
  • Offspring – Self Esteem
  • Orleans – Still The One
  • Otis Redding – Sitting on the Dock of the Bay
  • Pat Benetar – We Belong
  • Pretenders – I’ll Stand By You
  • Proclaimers – 500 miles
  • Queen – We are the Champions
  • Ray Charles – Georgia On My Mind
  • Refreshments – Banditos
  • R.E.M. – Everybody Hurts
  • Rembrandts – I’ll Be There For Yo
  • REO Speedwagon – Roll With The Changes
  • Ricky Nelson – Garden Party
  • Roger Miller – King of the Road
  • Rolling Stones – You Can’t Always Get What You Want
  • Rupert Holmes – The Pina Colada Song
  • Sammy Hagar – Mas Tequila
  • Sarah McLaughlin – In The Arms of an Angel
  • Savage Garden – The Animal Song
  • Scorpions – Wind Of Change
  • Sheena Easton – My Baby Takes The Morning Train
  • Sheryl Crow – Soak Up The Sun
  • Simon and Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water
  • Sinead O’Connor – Nothing Compares to You
  • Sister Hazel – Change Your Mind
  • Skid Row – I Remember You
  • Smash Mouth – Walking On The Sun
  • Sonny and Cher – I Got You Babe
  • Sophie B. Hawkins – As I Lay Me Down
  • Tears for Fears – Everybody Wants To Rule The World
  • Talking Heads – Burning Down the House
  • Todd Rundgren – Bang on the Drum All Day
  • Tom Cochrane – Life Is A Highway
  • Tommy James – Draggin the Line
  • Timbuk3 – The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades
  • Tonic – If You Could Only See
  • UB40 – Red Red Wine
  • Vanity Fare – Hitchin’ a Ride
  • We Five – You Were On My Mind
  • Wilson Philips – Hold On

For a far more scientific discussion of this phenomena, read Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion by Anne J. Blood and Robert J. Zatorre.

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