Chuck, no matter what I seem to do in life, real happiness evades me. How can I be happier despite my circumstances? – Tom C., Anchorage, Alaska
In “C-Force” last week, I discussed the now “shared secrets” of areas around the world called “Blue Zones,” where people poles apart and unconnected enjoy markedly longer and healthier lives. They do so, studies reveal, not through magic pills, surgery or medication, but through the food they eat, the people with whom they choose to congregate and the fruits of sustained activity and a shared perspective on life.
These zones seem worlds apart from the places most of us live in today. A world where the impacts of recessions, market crashes and high unemployment are causing record levels of stress in our daily lives.
A recent nationwide poll conducted by the American Psychological Association reveals that more than half of Americans say they are living with “moderate” stress. Nearly a quarter of Americans admit to feeling “severely” stressed. According to the 2010 Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development survey on absence management, chronic pain and depression account for two-thirds of long-term absences, with stress-related ailments accounting for many of the rest. And the stress from deepening debt is becoming a major health issue for millions of Americans; not just minor aches and pains but ulcers, severe depression and even heart attacks are common.
Most parents believe that their stress doesn’t affect their children, but their kids are not of the same mind. According to a 2008 report by Sue Shellenbarger in The Wall Street Journal, 91 percent of 8- to-17-year-olds said they can tell when their parents are stressed out, and many “feel sad, worried, and frustrated as a result.” Children have become silent carriers of family financial stress. And the consequences are severe.
For the first time in American history, kids are likely to have shorter life spans than their parents. Overweight children are far more susceptible to developing chronic deadly diseases than those with healthy weights, and childhood obesity may be running as high as 1 in 3.
As a parent and grandparent, I find that such reports shake my sense of purpose. Wanting and working toward a better life for your child is a primal drive that has sustained parents for ages. Yet we as a nation have allowed the signs of a growing concern for our children’s health to escalate into a health epidemic. How could we be so distracted or fixed on issues of the moment that we would fail in fulfilling a sacred promise of a better life for our children? How did our behavior become so out of sync with our thinking?
It seems that the distracting nature of contemporary life in general is keeping us from connecting, living out our values, and thriving.
We “work too much, eat too quickly, socialize too little, drive and sit in traffic for too many hours, don’t get enough sleep and feel harried too much of the time,” sociologist Judith Schor was quoted as saying in a recent Los Angeles Times opinion piece.
It is not a new phenomenon. During the past 35 years, Americans have worked to increase income by 20 percent. The size of houses has more than doubled during that time. Yet we’re not a bit happier as a nation, according to recent studies on happiness.
For Americans, the pursuit of happiness is not only a God-given right but also a constitutional right, an inalienable right. Because it is a personal right, it has been for us to define it and to find our way to achieving it.
As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Te Constitution only guarantees … the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.”
Fortunately for us, there is a good deal of science now being applied to the process of defining what happiness is. Some things to consider in finding your personal road map:
- Your chances for a happy and satisfying life are not overwhelmingly determined by genetics; they’re based more on the choices you make in life. Researchers have found that choices relating to one’s partner, the balance between work and leisure time, participation in social activities, and a healthy lifestyle are key factors in determining life satisfaction.
- People who prioritize family goals are happier than those who prioritize career and material success.
- Long relationships (not just marriage) are a key to good health.
- Laughter, even the anticipation of a good laugh, can lower stress hormones significantly.
- A study has found that the happiest people are those who are able to avoid constant arguments, let go of resentments and therefore build close relationships.
- Helping others actually helps you, a study from York University in Canada found. Performing a few simple good deeds per day raised happiness and lowered depression among the study’s participants.
- Attending religious services regularly and having close friends in the congregation are keys to a happier and more satisfying life, a University of Wisconsin-Madison study found.
While you consider the items above, don’t forget that it’s the time to create policies, as well as practices, that can stack the deck in favor of health and happiness. It is long overdue and would be “change” for the good.