Yesterday, while running errands, I tuned into a segment on NPR where Marci Shimoff, author of Happy for No Reason, was giving an interview based on her research into happiness. I only caught a brief snippet of the interview, but what stood out to me was that she said everybody has a happiness quotient. This is the baseline ratio or number of how happy a person is, regardless of circumstance. You could win the lottery and within a year, you’d return to this baseline number.
This happiness quotient is about 50% genetic, but the rest of it is largely up to individual choice: how one chooses to view the world and respond to it. True happiness has nothing to do with what happens to you, what things you have in your life or what things you don’t have. That happiness is superficial and fleeting. True happiness comes from what you give out. So for example, one of the things she said is that being loved is not a cause for true happiness. But giving out love, in gratitude, forgiveness, doing for others, caring for others…that’s what brings true happiness. She quoted a Chinese proverb:
“If there is light in the soul, there will be beauty in the person. If there is beauty in the person, there will be harmony in the house. If there is harmony in the house, there will be order in the nation. If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.”
It seemed from what I caught in the interview that much of what she said was based on scientific research, though when I went to her website, it seemed very commercialized, with very little mention of data or credentials. So that makes me a little skeptical. But what she says has a lot of face validity to me – it sounds logical and true on it’s face. It certainly reflects my own particular perspective and experience in the world.
What really struck me was the notion that people have a baseline happiness quotient regardless of circumstance-and that that happiness level has an affect on the people around you. I have known people whose mere presence in a room can either brighten it, or suck all the energy out of it.
There is a very remarkable difference between happy people who fall on hard times, and truly sad or angry people. Even if the hard times are lasting for happy people, and they turn to others for support, it is never an encumbrance to help them and be there for them. But people who are naturally more negative can be intensely draining to be around, even when they are in a decent mood. With them, there is always a problem, always a drama, and in my experience, they always find passive aggressive ways to let you know they’re upset. And while I have been known to be passive aggressive when I was younger, once I got old enough to really see what I was doing, I worked hard to recognize and change that about myself because I can’t stand passive aggressiveness. It’s weak and ultimately harmful because: 1) it makes solving the problem infinitely more difficult because you’re never dealing with the real issue, only smoke and mirrors and symptoms of the issue, 2) the passive-aggressor is only punishing everybody else for the unhappiness they feel, instead of ponying up to their own responsibility, and 3) the passive-aggressor gets to pretend they’re the victim, they’re misunderstood or unappreciated. They’re so good at pretending this, they can’t see past their own bullshit. They martyr themselves for others and resent it all the while.
But I digress. You can see this is a pet peeve of mine.
I don’t know if Shimoff’s argument is appealing because it contains both an ability to blame unhappiness on something over which we have no control, and an element where we can tell ourselves we can change how we feel-that we do have choice and control. We can tell ourselves, “I’m not to blame, but I have the freedom to change if I want.” It’s the epitome of American dogma, isn’t it? I have long believed that happiness comes from how you choose to respond to the hand life deals you, but maybe we are predisposed-whether through nature or nurture-to be more optimistic or pessimistic. But I do know, of the unhappy people I’ve known, some could benefit from a healthy dose of gratitude for what others do for them and the others could do with a little bit of forgiveness.
But then, perhaps, they don’t want to be happy. This is something else I have observed: some people are actually genuinely and perfectly content to wallow in a cocoon of self-pity.