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Aren't we really happier than we think? 

By Paul Susic M.A. Licensed Psychologist

Judging by all the negative news and the onslaught of self-help books, you might think that happiness is just a fantasy for most people.  Even psychologists seem much more interested in studying people’s difficulties or what we define as their "psychopathology". 

However, there is very good news.  There's a growing body of research in the United States as well as throughout the rest of the world that finds that most people's lives are much more upbeat than we may think.  In fact, most people throughout the world say that they are happy, including those that are poor, unemployed, elderly and disabled.  One study found that over 90% of people with quadraplegia say that they're happy to be alive, and overall, people with spinal cord injuries report feeling only slightly less happy than other people. This happiness seems to be equally divided among men and women, with them equally declaring themselves to be either satisfied or very happy in a recent research study.  Also, it seems that the old adage that "Money can't buy happiness" is also true.  Wealthy people appear to be only slightly happier than people of a more modest means.  Overall, another study found that only one person in 10 reports being "not too happy". 

Although people don't appear to be happy every day, most seem to rebound quite well from the normal disappointments of life.  Happy people also seem to continue being happy from decade to decade, regardless of job changes, moves and family changes. Some research studies have found that happiness seems to be only briefly affected by life events.  Happy people seem to adjust to negative events and return to their usual cheerful state within a short period of time.  Conversely, unhappy people are frequently not cheered up in the long-term even by positive events. 

 

If this upbeat attitude is not affected by life events, gender, race, or income, what makes people happy?  Some research has found that happiness is dependent on personality characteristics and interpretive styles.  Happy people are usually more optimistic and extroverted and tend to have several close friends and relationships.  Happy people also seem to have higher self-esteem and believe that they are in control of their lives. 

Some researchers believe that people may even have a "happiness set point" to which they consistently return, despite the ups and downs of life.  Some researchers have also found by studying twins that as much as half of one’s sense of happiness may be related to genetic factors. 

A better understanding of the roots of happiness may come in the near future, perhaps providing useful solutions to people who are not happy, as well as those who are clinically depressed.  In the meantime, we have the comfort of knowing that the human condition isn't quite as unhappy as news stories may make it seem.

Some information from Abnormal Psychology by Ronald J. Comer

Additional Information and webpage by Paul Susic  MA Licensed Psychologist   Ph.D. Candidate  (Health and Geriatric Psychologist)  

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