It’s not all about joy and feeling good but rather finding a deeper sense of meaning and contentment
If the news reports are accurate, the American people are unhappier and angrier than ever before, for a wide variety of reasons. One might assume that this downward trend would apply to west suburban residents as well. But are we all so unhappy? And if we are, do we have to stay that way?
Recent statistical research refutes the gloomy outlook, indicating instead that we are happier than it might seem. Nevertheless, local experts maintain that we can all benefit from some relatively easy practices that can lead to more satisfying lives.
How happy are we?
Almost 90 percent of Americans classified themselves as either being “very happy” (33 percent) or “pretty happy” (55 percent) according to a 2014 General Social Survey conducted by the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, which measures levels of general happiness, marital happiness, and trends in financial, job and life satisfaction. Those levels of happiness are up considerably from the depths of the recession in 2010 when only 29 percent of Americans said they were very happy and 14 percent said they were “not too happy.” The overall happiness levels in 2014 were near the average for the 42-year period from 1972 to 2014, so perhaps things are not quite as bad as they sometimes might seem.
Paul Mullen, a clinical psychologist with True North Clinical Associates in Glen Ellyn, isn’t surprised. “I haven’t seen a trend in irritability or happiness taking a hit,” he says.
Mullen uses both clinical psychology and positive psychology in his practice and teaches psychology at North Central College in Naperville. Positive psychology, he explains, focuses on helping people find greater fulfillment in their lives by emulating the traits of happy people and building on personal strengths, while clinical psychology helps address deep-seated problems like depression that cannot be resolved by simply changing behavior and thought patterns, although such methods can help.
In his presentation, “The Not-So-Secret Tricks of the Happiest People on Earth,” Mullen maintains that “We pay attention to the happiest people on earth, what they’re thinking, and shout it from the rooftops. We can look at those people in a similar situation as a model.”
What is happiness?
In the pursuit of happiness, it helps to have a definition. While pop culture pushes riches and fame as the ultimate goals, scholars and counselors see happiness from a different perspective.
Edward Diener, professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Illinois — otherwise known as Dr. Happy for his decades of statistical research on happiness — and his son, Robert Biswas-Diener, a positive psychologist, have studied happiness around the globe.
In their book, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, they write, “We refer to ‘happiness’ as ‘subjective well-being’ in scientific parlance, because it is about how people evaluate their lives and what is important to them.” The authors define psychological wealth as “the experience of well-being and a high quality of life. It is more than simple fleeting joy, and more than an absence of depression and anxiety.”
They identify the “essential components of true wealth” as:
• Life satisfaction and happiness;
• Spirituality and meaning in life;
• Positive attitudes and emotions;
• Loving social relationships;
• Engaging activities and work;
• Values and life goals to achieve them;
• Physical and mental health; and
• Material sufficiency to meet our needs.
The concept of happiness as finding meaning in something beyond ourselves is at the core of an interdisciplinary project at the University of Chicago called Virtue, Happiness and the Meaning of Life, which one of their blog posts identifies as “the three constituents of the good life.”
According to the project’s website, “Research in the humanities and social sciences suggest that individuals who feel they belong to something bigger and better than they are on their own — a family with a long history and the prospect of future generations, a spiritual practice, work on behalf of social justice — often feel happier and have better life outcomes than those who do not. Some scholars have labeled this sense of connection to a larger force ‘self-transcendence.’”
Scholars from the realms of philosophy, religion, theology and psychology are focusing on the nature of self-transcendence. For a dive into their deep thinking, visit www.thevirtueblog.com.
The desire to make an impact beyond ourselves moves many of us to volunteer to help others. For attorney Andy Luther of Villa Park, the formation of the Board of Young Professionals by Catholic Charities (Diocese of Joliet) was a call to action. “I had been wanting to be involved in a group that provided opportunities to serve others in our diocese,” Luther says. He and his wife, who attend St. Michael Catholic Church in Wheaton, had been praying about how they might serve, even with their busy lives with two young children, when they saw the notice about the new group in the bulletin.
Luther has been the chair of the group’s executive committee since its inception over two years ago and has seen his fellow Millennials enthusiastically support the group’s efforts. He notes that the group is not exclusively Catholic, but “open to all people of good will.” Some 75 or more members participate as their time permits in regular fundraising and volunteer activities, serving meals at homeless shelters, helping with community projects, and participating in an annual weekend service retreat at Hopkins Park, one of the poorest towns in the Midwest.
“It is a remarkable experience to be able to sit and talk with somebody and to be with them when they are down on their luck,” says Luther. “We can’t solve the world’s problems, but we can do a little.”
Does money make us happier?
One of the questions often posed about happiness is whether money is a big factor. While it is clear that having enough money to meet basic needs and provide a base level of financial stability is important, research is inconclusive on the effects of ever-more money on happiness.
In the western suburbs, it seems that the pursuit of larger and more elaborate homes has slowed, which could be a sign of shifting priorities. “I don’t know that the big houses are as trendy anymore,” acknowledges Heide Hughes, a broker with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in St. Charles. “Higher priced homes seem to be on the market longer.”
While homebuyers care about the home’s architecture and other features, Hughes finds that people are looking for a lifestyle to go with their home, such as the area’s amenities, park districts, access to bike trails and good schools. “I think what makes people happy in their homes are the neighbors and a sense of community.”
What makes us unhappy?
“The main concern in the suburbs is anxiety,” says Neil Wright, licensed clinical professional counselor with Catholic Charities (Diocese of Joliet) in Lombard. He counsels people from all walks of life — from those struggling to keep a roof over their head to wealthy business owners. “Anxiety doesn’t care how much (money) you have, only how much energy is not being used in a pro-you way,” says Wright, who sees anxiety as a precursor to depression and a warning sign that, if addressed proactively, can help preclude a downward spiral.
“Put your body first, your mind second, and surround yourself with people who do the same,” advises Wright. “If you don’t take care of your body, you can’t take care of your mind.”
But while most people are comfortable going to the gym or exercising to take care of their bodies, they are often much more reluctant to go to a counselor to address issues of mental health, says Wright. “People say they would never go to counseling,” he says. “But you would be surprised at how powerful counseling can be if you take it seriously and open yourself up to it. We are just here to help.”
Wright also recommends taking advantage of community services, such as those offered through the Catholic Charities Lombard office, including support groups for survivors of suicide and classes on anger management or family life skills. One simple prescription he gives: “Try to watch at least one TED Talk a week” to “find out ways that your body and your mind work best.”
Good health, of course, is a prerequisite to happiness. Carlene Kellenberger of Elgin saw the effects of poor health first hand as the nurse manager of the Cardiac Care Unit at Sherman Hospital for many years.
“I saw so many patients on the (cardiac catheterization) table who said, ‘Oh, we were just retiring and wanted to travel.’” Kellenberger’s takeaway: “Don’t wait. If you can travel, go.”
She also saw the importance of support networks and keeping in touch with those you love. “People get in the hospital and everyone comes to visit who they haven’t seen in years.”
Kellenberger maintains that happiness comes not from external circumstances but from an internal peace and contentment that can help people rise above difficulties. She also relies on her faith. “I think it’s essential to my happiness,” she says.
Now, as a certified school nurse for Elgin Area School District U-46, Kellenberger sees the effects of poor health on child development and education, yet she also sees the happy outlook that young children bring to the world. She appreciates their wonder at such simple things as rainbows.
How can we cultivate happiness?
True North’s Mullen counsels people who want to be happier to change the way they see their life situations by practicing mindfulness and gratitude.
An important aspect of mindfulness is savoring the moment. For example, “When you have a meal, just think about the meal, what it tastes like, how lucky you are to have it,” explains Mullen, rather than thinking about other things.
“If anxiety has entered into the picture, you can decide how much to allow it to affect you and take control of the situation,” says Mullen. “You can notice things but not get involved.”
If you are dealing with a difficult person, “Mindfulness applies there, too,” he notes. “You don’t have to respond. You can take the good that they have to offer.” If something upsets you, “acknowledge that it is there and decide whether to get involved.”
“Positive thinking is definitely a part of positive psychology,” adds Mullen. “It is a stylistic tendency to interpret the world in a way that creates positive emotions. The problem is if you get to ‘don’t worry, be happy,’ which can almost be off-putting.”
As an example, Mullen says “I’m not asking you to think of cancer as a blessing, but to break it into components, and see elements of the experience for which you can find gratitude. The more you do gratitude, you are crowding out the negative aspects, and shifting the positive versus negative aspects in your mind.”
Mullen recommends being in the “more mode,” by looking at personal strengths and finding ways to build upon them.
Be with uplifting people
In studies of people who are resilient in extremely trying circumstances, “A hallmark is that they are a member of a very specific community,” says Mullen, “whether a religious community or community service. They come together with other people whom they find uplifting. It is through those connections that people are able to endure hardship.” For his own wellbeing, Mullen frequently performs in musical theatre productions in the area. “It’s an example of seeking the company of the right people in a fun environment,” he explains.
Mullen also encourages people to share their stories with others in a “cohesive narrative.” “When they tell the story of how they got where they are — and it is not all positive — the continuous story makes sense. It’s not just a series of disjointed challenges.” The more you can make sense of your circumstances, no matter how difficult, you are “more likely to be able to find a positive way out.”
Taking the long view of a situation can also help put things in perspective. “Where I am today, one day I may be able to look back at this and think about it differently,” says Mullen. “If you know that one day you’ll feel better about this, why not today? Of course, that is easier said than done.”
Happiness is a process
The good news for those of us who aren’t as happy as we would wish comes from “Dr. Happy” himself and his son. Their book maintains that, “Happiness is a process, not a place. For ages, people have assumed that happiness is an emotional end goal, a pleasant state that comes from obtaining favorable life circumstances such as health, a good marriage, and a large paycheck. The logic is that if a person can line up enough desirable circumstances, then happiness will necessarily follow.
“As commonsensical as this notion is,” write the Dieners, “science shows that psychological wealth cannot be produced by circumstances alone. Rather, happiness is an ongoing process that requires a way of experiencing life and the world that includes positive attitudes, meaning and spirituality. Being truly rich is as much about the attitudes within us as the circumstances surrounding us.”Edit Module