Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Can People Really Be Happy? Maybe

On May 8th, 2012, award-winning author and illustrator of the children’s book, Where The Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak, died. He was 83. In a postscript written about him in The New Yorker this week, Mariana Cook revisited some of what he had offered in a 2009 interview. In that interview, Sendak shared his feeling that it is hard to be happy and that some people find it easier than others. He ended with the question,

“Do you believe it when people say they are happy?”

In one of the final interviews Maurice Sendak allowed with Terri Gross on NPR in late 2011, he said something different, “I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people.”

In his words, this very creative man underscores the challenge, complexity and possibility of happiness.

Resonating with this, I recently wrote a blog for the final newsletter of “This Emotional Life” entitled “The Pursuit of Happiness: Your Inalienable Right.”  In it I draw upon research that suggests happiness is a “many factored thing.” Often considered a sense of well-being, I add that, as such, happiness is neither a static place, nor one that is incompatible with tears or challenge.

If we define happiness as a sense of well-being, we find that based on genetic twin studies, we all have a happiness “set point” that determines 50% of our happiness – Maurice Sendak is correct. Some people do find it easier to be happy.

But there is something we can do about that. It seems that 10% of our happiness is due to life circumstances which we may not be able to control, but for which we often find ways to adapt. Maurice Sendak reports in the NPR interview that he wrote his final book Bumble-ardy as a way to cope with the dying of his beloved partner.

In addition to coping and adapting to what we face in life, it is very important to know that 40% of our happiness is under our control. There are certain strategies, perspectives and behaviors that have proved valuable in the pursuit of happiness.

Here are a few of those offered in “The Pursuit of Happiness” blog:

Engaging in something that grabs your attention, effort, passion and interest is an indispensable ingredient to happiness. It results in a life of purpose.

Connecting to people, pets and groups that allow you to feel you make a difference as well as affirmed and cared about is crucial. Sometimes it is the family of friends that brings more happiness than the family of origin.

Laughter is not just a by-product of happiness. Laughter enhances happiness. When we laugh, our brain releases endorphins – the feel good hormones of serotonin and dopamine that foster a sense of well-being.

At the height of laughter, the universe is flung into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities. — Jean Houston

Positive Perspective enhances happiness and functioning.  While it may seem unrealistic in the face of life’s unexpected curves, positive perspective actually serves us no matter what we face.

Assume the best and figure you will handle the worst.

Most people have had more practice “surviving” than they credit themselves for. It is worth considering that whereas negativity constricts our thinking and functioning, positive perspective broadens and expands our creativity. It is a far better place to come from when walking though life.

Gratitude is a proven component of positive mood and happiness. We have a tendency as humans to begin to take for granted- the life we have, the people we love, the view we see and the freedom we share. Gratitude shakes up this adaptation. In the very consideration and expression of thanks, we make visible to ourselves the reasons to be happy.

Happiness is a way of living. When we pursue happiness, we find that place in our hearts and lives – Where The Good Things Are!