Are you happy? Do you know why or how you came to be that way? Is it temporary, or have you been happy for a long period of time?

These and many other questions regarding happiness and sadness have been asked by research psychologists since the mid-1990s, and they now seem to be locked onto the answer: The happiest people spend the least time alone, pursue continuous personal growth and intimacy, and, possibly most important, judge themselves by their own standards rather than considering rating systems imposed by others, implying the “keeping up with the Joneses” is discarded.

Psychologists now embrace the study of happiness and have turned it into an emergent, lucrative “positive psychology” revolution emphasizing peoples’ attributes instead of focusing on ways for fixing their shortcomings. Clinical therapists and other mental health experts focusing on this issue are now beginning to recognize why some people are happy, while others aren’t.

Another interesting and significant finding is that materialism is toxic for happiness. Rich materialists aren’t as happy as those who care less about acquiring things and money and buying items for immediate but fleeting gratification.

Interesting as well is the supposition that some people manage to look on the bright side regardless of the circumstances, while others with seeming abundance and perceived gratification live in a quiet darkness much of the time for no obvious reason.

Research is showing that a person’s happiness level is also somewhat genetic, maybe as much as 50 percent of it. It seems everyone has a genetic happiness setting, same goes for our weight. We can improve or degrade these settings, but not much, and they require sustained vigilance. Physical health, once assumed to be a key happiness indicator and maintainer, has limited impact for those who are chronically ill. Therefore, health measures don’t automatically equate to satisfaction and happiness, but subjective feelings do.

Life satisfaction occurs most often when people are engaged in absorbing activities that cause them to forget themselves, lose track of time and stop worrying. “Flow” is the term used to describe this phenomenon. People in flow may be playing bridge, building a model airplane, using their computer or doing a daily crossword puzzle. The outcome is the same: A life filled with multiple activities in flow is likely to be satisfactory, even rewarding, and anyone can accomplish this feat.

One of my happiest friends is a high school classmate who never stepped foot on a college campus, began working for his dad as a teenager in the family business, eventually inherited it and works there today with no thought of retirement. Flow stretches someone in a pleasurable way, but within a comfortable range. Researchers report that we tend to feel our best when we’re doing what we do best. Everyone, regardless of age, has strengths and weaknesses; the happiest use and continue developing their strengths or interests. This practice often leads to a variety of other activity options.

Psychologists suggest that gratitude has a positive impact on life satisfaction, and often advise patients to use journaling or writing about what they’re grateful for to strengthen their happiness. Related research has found that learning to savor life’s smallest pleasures has a comparable effect, with forgiveness being the trait most strongly linked to happiness. It’s also one of the most difficult to grasp, internalize, initiate and sustain.

It seems that having more fun equates to having less stuff, or adult toys. This tracks with evidence indicating that altruistic acts tend to boost happiness in the giver. That “Do for others” line we heard from our parents may have been more worthwhile than we imagined as teenagers. I’ve noticed that since retiring there’s less I need, but there are others who can use a hand now and again. As retirees, it’s comforting to know that we have enough, and helping other people in need provides them comfort as well.

As current research has shown, we humans aren’t particularly adept at predicting what makes us happy. According to many leading research psychologists, none of us knows for sure what makes us happy until we find it for ourselves. People presume that tangible things and actual daily events will have a larger and more enduring impact on them, both good and bad, than they have proven to do. In particular, we rationalize bad things most hurriedly and formulate inappropriate, non-viable realities. We also envision future events in great detail in our subconscious, but most of these forethoughts rarely come to pass or have any impact on us.

I suppose this infers that winning the lottery doesn’t guarantee a happy life, and we typically recover from medical and relationship related events easier and faster than anticipated. The bottom line seems to be that knowing exactly what was in our future doesn’t ensure we’ll like it when we get there. I suppose my parents and grandparents were correct, “We should have more trust in gut instincts than in farfetched predictions about the way something may turn out and cause us to feel.” In other words, happiness resides in each of us, so we can quit searching for it on store shelves and Internet sites and simply tap into it today.

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