Come Join My Happiness Club

There's a War for Happiness going on, people, and it's time to choose the winning side.

What does it mean to be happy? What does it take? Measuring an abstraction like happiness is difficult, and might make it impossible to determine whether we as a society are happier than ever or a hot mess. Study after study has tried to measure our state of being, with some dwelling on contemporary problems as others point at the ways things are looking up.

Turns out we’re smack in the middle of the War for Happiness.

Just a few days ago, a “Positive Business” conference concluded in Milan. Penn’s Martin Selgiman, true to his positive psychology philosophy, posited that the world is at a “happiness tipping point,” referring to clubs and organizations that all acknowledge and celebrate that happiness is a choice, a conscious decision, and that more and more of us are making that decision.

Happiness Clubs are increasing on college campuses (at Penn State, students don red clown noses and spread happiness by doing things like going out in the rain with giant yellow umbrellas and rescuing the umbrella-less). Colleges have implemented things like “puppy love stations” during finals weeks, as well as passing out lollipops, giving chair massages and, of course, free hugs.

On the other hand, the Sleep Conference, which was held last month in Minneapolis, reached the conclusion that 84 percent of Americans say they consistently don’t get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation leads to weight gain, depression, heart problems, memory loss, lowered immune systems and compromised driving and working abilities. I would make a joke here about the conference in Milan having such a positive perspective while the conference in Minneapolis was downright disturbing — I mean, who wouldn’t have a positive outlook in Milan? — but I’m one of the more than 60 percent of Americans who take sleep medication nightly.

Mental health costs for depression, anxiety and the like have hit $2.5 trillion globally. That’s trillion. Forty-five million Americans have been diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Twenty-five per cent of adolescents have some kind of anxiety disorder. Suicide rates have increased 28 percent in the past decade. More people are killing themselves than during the Great Depression.

So. There’s that.

Happiness, anyone? Maybe we are worrying about the wrong things. Many new studies show that people get more happiness from buying experiences than stuff. Trips, concerts and special nights out are more deeply connected to our sense of self, making us who we are. Also, our experiences increase in value to us over time, unlike our cars and cell phones.

I’ve long felt that the trick to happiness is “simply” recognizing happiness when we see it, instead of only realizing it in retrospect. My brother Jerry died of a brain aneurism, stunning our family. Jerry was a laid-back guy, drifting from job to job in the restaurant industry in Cocoa Beach, Florida, with little ambition, but great appreciation for his lifestyle at the beach, softshell crab sandwiches and riding a bike to work. He was happy, even though “on paper” he did not really meet society’s expectations of career and family. He joked all the time that working in a resort area was like never working.

We stood outside the Unitarian Church where his service was about to be held. My daughter Allison looked up at the bright blue cloudless sky and sang “Twinkle, twinkle little star.” She did this without knowing that our cousin had purchased a star for my parents and named it for my brother, in his attempt to honor Jerry and comfort my family. Something clicked for me that day and I began to allow myself happiness recognition. I say “allow” because our culture seems to be one of self-criticism , always trying to attain something higher, never “relaxing” into happiness, but instead focused on what we “should” do next.

A decade of summers ago, my family and I went to the firework s show at the football stadium at Collingswood High School. While we walked through Knight Park with blankets and a cooler of juiceboxes for kids and um … er … water bottles for the grownups, we spotted an eagle chasing a bunny, swooping down and making near misses as the bunny steamed along. The folks walking into the stadium immediately unified by watching nature play its course, though we were all rooting for the bunny (who got away, by the way).

We watched a ’50s band and heard the mayor make a short speech and announce the winners of the Fourth of July house decorating contest, all of which made me happy with our housing choice.

And then the fireworks began. We were sitting so close to where they were shooting them off, we had to lie flat on our backs to see the fireworks, and from that position, the lights just seems to rain down upon us. The bangs and reports rang, the lights exploded, and the smell of sulfur permeated the air. Bits of ashy paper started floating down on us, landing on our bodies and hands and faces. I started to panic a bit, worry that we were too close, that this was not safe. What about the kids hearing? What was it we were breathing in? We could feel the force reverberate in our bodies — fireworks had become a full sensory experience. I looked at my kids and they were glowing in the colored lights, laughing and squealing when the ash landed on their bodies, sometimes putting a hand on their own chests as they felt the sound through their little bodies. We were all exhausted and sticky and maybe a little shaky from the proximity of the explosions. But my middle daughter reached out her chubby hand to me, with a smile as wide as I’d ever seen, and yelled, “I so happy Mommy.” And I knew she was, and I was, and maybe, the couple of thousand people in the stadium were, too, for just that minute. I’ll never know, but I choose to believe it.