If you’ve ever been part of a lively youth group that sang that song, you know that just singing it could make you feel happy. Acting happy can actually make us feel happy — our criteria for happiness are not as absolute or rational as we might want to believe. We can be tricked into feeling happy, if we let our guard down. Thank God for that!
A 2008 Gallup survey asked many Americans about their current levels of happiness, enjoyment, stress, worry, sadness and anger. This is according to a report in the Richmond Times Dispatch, written by a reporter from the LA Times, based on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Some broad generalizations come out of the statistical averages: reported happiness and enjoyment decline from young adulthood into middle age, but then grow to lifetime highs at the end of life. Stress also declines after age 50. Worry peaks in middle age. Among the “negative” emotions, only anger was highest among the youngest (late teens). After staying high into the early 40’s, anger declined in later years. At all ages, women report less joy and more sadness than men, and they were just as angry.
I can imagine a broad-brush portrait of the “average” person based on this survey. The youthful anger is probably a reflection of both entitlement and idealism. As the responsibilities of work and family increase through the twenties and thirties, stress rises. Happiness and joy decline in the middle years, as life choices become more constrained and the sense of diminishing options may even lead to depression. The forties can be a time of blow ups and crises — mid-life crises. For better or for worse, most people get past this difficult time. It’s relatively smooth sailing into old age, generally with adjusted expectations.
Therein lies the rub, as Hamlet said — since our expectations are different, our definition of happiness is different, our definition of joy is different. To put it another way, when a 20 year old says he’s happy, it doesn’t mean the same thing as when a 60 year old says she’s happy. When we compare survey averages across different groups, we might be trying the impossible task of comparing apples and oranges. No survey can tell us whether the 50 year old who says she is joyful is as joyful as the 20 year old who makes the same statement. By the same token, is the unhappy 50 year old the one who is still using the high standards of earlier more idealistic years? Some people have midlife crises that are so mind-expanding that they discover a new standard of joy, starkly exposing the poverty of their current life. Perhaps they have been inspired to imagine a new source of happiness, but haven’t yet figured out how to tap into it.
Scientific surveys can affect us just like religion, culture, and politics do. If the surveys are done properly, scientists can tell us what people are thinking or feeling based on their gender, age, occupation, place of residence, economic status and other such characteristics. This can be so impressive that we might hear these descriptions as if they were prescriptions. It’s an easy leap from “people like me feel this way” to “I’m supposed to feel this way”. But people are individuals, and very few of us are exactly like the average person from the surveys. We differ along many dimensions. So we do ourselves violence when we try to convince ourselves and others that we are just like the average person, or that we should be. There isn’t much to be gained from pretending that we are “normal”. The older we get, the higher the price of such a charade becomes. The more urgent it becomes to be exactly who we are.
Sometimes our need for change can be experienced in surprising ways. We may become fixated on changing career, life partner, friends, religion, hobbies, politics or other spheres of life that previously seemed just fine. Or we may feel an impulse to rebel — maybe with sex, drugs, alcohol or just a less responsible attitude. It’s often a bad idea to just completely suspend our better judgment and jump into that latest impulse with both feet. On the other hand, just calling it “bad” or “foolish” and focusing on maintaining our established habits may be equally destructive. Often, dissatisfaction and temptation are trying to tell us something we need to hear. The path to greater happiness and joy often begins by taking that signal seriously.