Questing for happiness

Like most people, I’ve spent my life searching for happiness. Often unsuccessfully, though.

Happiness, you see, is different things to different people. It can be the love of a spouse, the respect of your children, a good piece of grilled salmon, a savory cut of filet, a 6% raise, a 3% raise, a low mortgage rate or even passing a kidney stone. Nirvana.

In this vale of tears, who can understand the dimensions of happiness? As part of my personal quest, I’ve accumulated a collection of books written by philosophers, saints, psychologists and social scientists, with titles like The Art of Happiness, Spontaneous Happiness, In the Spirit of Happiness, The Happiness Hypothesis and Happier. It turns out that every one has a different theory.

Despite all this research, inquiry and philosophizing, most of us are miserable. It was the Greek philosopher Aristotle who 2,400 years ago said, “Happiness depends upon ourselves.” And the great American folk philosopher Abraham Lincoln agreed, noting, “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

Sometimes I think that if my coworkers and friends behaved the way I want them to, I’d be happy. And if my daughters, my wife, my boss and Barack Obama listened to reason, I’d be the happiest man alive. If the stock market was bullish and I was independently wealthy — or even dependently wealthy — I’d be happy and rich.

Some people spend their lives searching for happiness, but look in all the wrong places and never find it. Others don’t look and happiness finds them. How is it that people who have the most when it comes to possessions, prestige and power are often the most miserable? How unfair it would be if only a privileged few were happy.

What’s the secret to happiness? Is it giving rather than getting? (You’ve heard that before.) Romance, money, health, respect and all the things we routinely crave? If so, then why are people with none of those things happy? The dalai lama believes happiness comes from compassionate living, and there may be some truth to that theory.

Researchers at the University College London recently developed a mathematical “happiness equation,” which they claim can determine a person’s level of happiness based on mood swings Unfortunately, you need a degree in neuroscience from MIT to understand it. (Let me get my calculator, so I can tell you whether I’m happy.) Their study showed that people get really elated when “things go better than expected.”

No surprise there. For example:

If I get a 2% raise instead of a pay cut, I’m the happiest man alive!

If the tests come back negative, I’m happier than the happiest man alive!!!

If my daughter is accepted to Harvard, she’s out-of-her-mind happy but I’m sick over the tuition payments. How much does Southern Connecticut cost?

These, of course, are nothing more than momentary mood fluctuations, based on life’s ups and downs.

Pope Francis came up with an easier formula. His “secrets to happiness” include enjoying leisure time, especially on Sunday with family; being generous (that “giving” thing again); “live and let live,” which is a traditional 12-step maxim; respecting nature; working for peace and my personal favorite, “stop being negative,” which is easier said than done.

I don’t want to compete with the pope or the dalai lama; however, I’ve developed my own road map to happiness. It’s simple and requires personal effort, as Aristotle suggested.

First, make friends with people who find joy in the little things because they’re powers of example. Then, turn off your cell-phone and TV. Tell a few jokes and laugh with your friends, cultivate the “attitude of gratitude,” love and forgive, live in the moment, talk regularly with your Higher Power, and remember that bad times pass. Accept what life offers you because there will always be people better off and worse off.

I also believe happiness is fleeting, but joy lasts forever.

One last suggestion — think less and live more. Ernest Hemingway once said, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” And look what happened to him.

Joe Pisani may be reached at