American forefathers thought the pursuit of happiness was a basic right. And Americans are enthusiastically, if not somewhat desperately, continuing to pursue happiness. In fact, pursuing happiness has become big business, including motivational, "how to do it" speakers who come in many forms and prices.
Do you appreciate being around happy people, or does that bouncy happiness become annoying? Research often finds many conflicting results. So, too, about turning happiness into a negative "too happy." The May 2011 issue of "Perspectives on Psychological Science" has an article by an assistant professor of psychology at Yale that notes a study that followed children from the 1920s into old age. "It found that those who had died younger had been rated by their teachers as highly cheerful." But there are other studies that show that staying optimistic results in less heart disease in old age.
A University of Illinois research team analyzed several studies including data on 16,000 people world-wide. Their finding -- "student-age individuals who rated their satisfaction with life as a five out of five were more likely to drop out of school and had lower incomes than those who weren't so happy and satisfied relatively early in life." A follow-up study at a later age showed that the cheerful group were earning less money. Feeling happy prevents the dissatisfaction that pushes people out of their present circumstances.
And some research indicates creativity is negatively correlated with happiness. A variety of emotions hones a keener mind, and tough times in life add flavor and depth to the work of artists and writers. Certainly many of our greatest artists and writers have been tortured souls.
Dr. Andrew Weil, an integrative doctor who looks at physical and emotional health from a variety of viewpoints, speaks of inner contentment coming from a harmonious balance within us. While he feels happiness is too easily equated in our society with gaining more of something material, he refers to a Swedish word, "lagom," as expressing the concept more exactly. In English, it approximates "just right, enough." It is being in a continuing state of "positive emotionality."
I don't know if the emotion of happiness or contentment itself generally feels the same within humans, but what makes us happy has fascinating variations in our species. While some find it in personal relationships, others must climb mountains to achieve it, or overcome danger in many forms. In the movie, "Chasing Mavericks," surfing through mountainous waves triggered really feeling alive for surfer Jay Moriarty. In real life, he died at the tender age of 22 while doing free diving beyond his endurance. Such people are at an extreme, and perhaps feel happiness at a deeper depth. Or, perhaps they keep searching for more fulfillment because they never quite reach "just enough."
I have not thought of happiness as something that can be purposely pursued or found. Rather, it is a byproduct of what's going on in my life. By being mindful of my personal sense of balance and harmony, I can find myself in a state of "just right."