Merry Christmas to everyone! May this special day bring you happiness, peace, serenity, time with family and friends, a moment or two for reflection, and a visit from Santa Paws carrying the present of your dreams on his back.
Scientists have been analyzing happiness for a long time–probably for as long as “science” has existed as a discipline separate from philosophy or religion. The basic questions being explored are straightforward: Why do some people seem to be happier than others? How much personal happiness is genetic, and how much is the product of environment or intentional activity? These age-old questions have taken on added urgency recently, with so many people in the modern world struggling with depression, stress, and anxiety–and COVID isn’t exactly helping, either.
A recent article summarized the current scientific landscape on the analysis of happiness. It notes that the modern framework for the analysis was set by a 2005 article in General Psychology called “Pursuing Happiness: The Structure of Sustainable Change.” The summary of that article describes its analysis as follows: “surprisingly little scientific research has focused on the question of how happiness can be increased and then sustained, probably because of pessimism engendered by the concepts of genetic determinism and hedonic adaptation. Nevertheless, emerging sources of optimism exist regarding the possibility of permanent increases in happiness. Drawing on the past well-being literature, the authors propose that a person’s chronic happiness level is governed by 3 major factors: a genetically determined set point for happiness, happiness-relevant circumstantial factors, and happiness-relevant activities and practices.”
Only scientists would use a phrase like “chronic happiness level.” But stripped of the scientific verbiage, the article posited that some element of individual happiness is determined by genetics and therefore beyond your control, another element is based on your environment, and yet another element is based on activities and practices that affect your happiness–activities and practices that you can control. The 2005 article even attributed percentages to each of the three elements, with 50 percent of the variance in happiness attributed to genetics, 10 percent to environment, and 40 percent to activities and practices. This 50-10-40 hypothesis was seen by some as a “happiness pie.”
As with any scientific hypothesis, the “happiness pie” analysis has been criticized, primarily on the ground that it is pretty hard to distinguish genetic factors from environmental factors. One 2019 article in the Journal of Happiness Studies (yes, there evidently is such a publication) noted: “We conclude that there is little empirical evidence for the variance decomposition suggested by the “happiness pie,” and that even if it were valid, it is not necessarily informative with respect to the question of whether individuals can truly exert substantial infuence over their own chronic happiness level.”
It’s the scientific equivalent of the theological argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But there does seem to be consensus on three basic propositions: (1) genetics play a role, and some people are genetically disposed to be in a happier frame of mind than others; (2) your environment has an impact on happiness; and (3) what you are doing at a particular point in time–such as running through a sprinkler on a hot summer day, like the happy kid in the photo above–can affect your happiness.
In view of that, what’s the point of arguing about what percentage of happiness should be assigned to each of those three factors? You can’t control your genes, and you can’t control how your environment shaped you when you were growing up. But you can identify what you enjoy–whether it is exercising, listening to your favorite music, spending time with friends and loved ones, volunteering, or some other activity–and try to work those activities into your day. And, in big-picture terms, you might be able to change your environment going forward to a place or setting that is more likely to make you happy, too. And part of changing your environment is identifying what makes you unhappy–like jerky behavior on social media, for example–and trying to change or avoid it.
So why debate percentages? If trying to structure your day to maximize the conduct and activities that you really like can make you happier–even if it is only an incremental increase–why not do it? What have you got to lose?
I needed some new walking shoes, so I went to the shoe store looking for something suitable. I’ve bought shoes on-line in the past, but I figured that in Columbus—unlike Stonington—actual brick and mortar shoe stores with sweeping selections are close at hand. And, when it comes to footwear, there’s a lot to be said for looking around at different options in person, grabbing a few boxes to make sure of sizing, sitting down on one of those communal padded stools, and trying shoes on. On-line shopping is convenient, but you’re never really sure about shoes until you’ve removed the paper wadding, laced them up, and taken those first few tentative steps.
My feet have taken a beating after 64 years of hard daily use, and I was aiming exclusively for comfort, rather than style. I opted for these Vans Deluxe Comfort Ortholite sneakers. it was an easy call, because when I put them on my feet immediately communicated to my brain: “Hey, these are comfortable. I mean, really comfortable!” So I bought them, and it turns out my feet were right.
A few days of morning walks hasn’t changed that opinion. The shoes have lots of padding on the sole, and it feels like walking on a cloud. I always enjoy my walks, but these new shoes just make the walks that much better.
At some point in your life, a family member probably told you that “money can’t buy happiness.” And another family member might have added: “Yeah, but it sure can rent it for a while.” The relationship between money and happiness is a topic that people just can’t resist discussing — and one that researchers can’t resist studying.
The latest study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used a technique called experience sampling to determine whether money influences feelings of well-being. The sampling asked people to repeatedly complete short surveys about their emotions, their feelings, and their satisfaction with life at random points during their days, through an app called “Track Your Happiness.” The study sought to measure overall satisfaction with life and how people feel in the moment, and assembled 1.7 million data points from more than 33,000 participants. The study then determined average levels of well-being for participants and compared them to income.
A well-known 2010 study of happiness and money determined that happiness does increase with earnings, but that money-related happiness plateaus at the $75,000 income level. The most recent study, in contrast, found no cut-off point. Instead, it concluded that all forms of well-being continue to increase as income rises. And, according to the lead researcher, the reason for the connection between money and happiness is that money gives people a sense of more control over their own lives and better choices about their lives. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. And it also shouldn’t come as a surprise that the study found that people who earn more work longer hours and feel stress about their work.
I’m confident this won’t be the last study of money and happiness, although I really wonder whether such an elusive connection can really be studied and quantified in a meaningful way. It makes sense that people with more money feel more control over their lives and have a sense of well-being simply because they know they can eat and have a roof over their heads and aren’t always lurching from one financial crisis to another, buffeted by forces beyond their control. But I also know people with lots of money who aren’t very happy, and people with modest incomes who lead rich, fulfilled lives. There doesn’t seem to be a cosmic formula, with money and happiness being two elements in the equation, that applies to everyone.
Today is Kish’s and my 38th wedding anniversary. We were supposed to be in Austin, Texas to celebrate with Richard and Julianne and watch a performance of the Austin Symphony Orchestra, but of course COVID-19 quashed those plans. It will be our first anniversary since the kids were little that we haven’t celebrated by going out to dinner or to some musical performance.
38 is one of those random numbers that wouldn’t seem very special by itself. It’s not a prime number, or a multiple of 10, or even a multiple of 5. It’s not one of those anniversary years that’s supposed to be marked by a gift of silver or china or some other substance. And yet, I’m quite sure we’ll always view number 38 as very special — the year we celebrated our anniversary at home in German Village by direct order of Ohio’s Governor as part of the effort to flatten the coronavirus curve. In fact, I’d wager that we’ll carry around more vivid memories of this anniversary, and the days directly surrounding it, than any other.
I’m very thankful and grateful that I’ve got such a wonderful person to share our snug little shelter in place during this terrible global pandemic. We’ve developed new routines during this shut-in period, and I’ve really enjoyed our lunchtime walks together to get our daily allotment of permitted exercise while maintaining social distance from everyone else.
We never could have imagined, when we got married during the early years of the Reagan Administration amidst snow flurried in Vermilion, Ohio, that 38 years later we’d be dealing with such issues. But that’s life’s unpredictability for you — and also a good reason to find that right, special someone to face the fates with you.
When you’ve been around the block a few times, the experience gives you perspective. Whether it’s a useful perspective or not is really up to you — but, inevitably, you draw upon your own life to inform your decisions going forward. For most of us, at least, the so-called “wisdom of the aged” isn’t really wisdom at all — it’s just being able to learn from past mistakes.
I thought about this when I ran across this article about one person’s thoughts about the biggest wastes of time in their lives. They are good ones — like trying to make bad relationships work, or dwelling on your mistakes and shortcomings — but all of the time-wasters, by definition, are drawn from the writer’s own personal experience. The key is having the self-awareness to identify something that you’ve done as a waste of time in the first place, and the ability to learn from it and adapt your practices going forward, rather than stubbornly repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
And often the lesson isn’t something you can learn by reading or hearing about it — you’ve got to experience it yourself to really have the lesson sink in and leave a mark. How many people is the history of humankind have heard an older person counsel them about ending a job or relationship that just isn’t working and then rationalized away the advice by concluding that they and their circumstances were different? The best life lessons are those you learn yourself.
What would be the biggest time-wasters for me? To the extent anyone cares, there are two I would put on my list. One would be trying to follow the crowd and do what other people thought people in my circumstances should be doing — whether it is consciously trying to like music or TV shows or movies that just aren’t clicking for me, or “getting involved” in a bunch of activities because general “involvement” is good. Once I decided to just trust myself and go with what I liked, I eliminated a lot of waste motion.
And the other would be worrying — really worrying — about things you can’t control, either because they are far beyond your pay grade or because they are in someone else’s hands. Focusing on things that you can actually affect dramatically shortens the to-do list to things that matter, where you can personally make a difference and move the needle. That’s a life lesson, incidentally, that I’m drawing on right now.
Over the years I’ve always used some kind of coin container. When I was in college, I used a large glass jar as the repository for pocket change — until one day the glass broke from the accumulated weight of the coins, and I switched to a smaller jar. I’ve also used metal cans. Now I use a nice wooden box that Kish got me long ago.
But whether the container is glass, or metal, or wood, the concept is the same: when you come home, you empty your pockets. in my case, the house keys go on the top of the dresser, the cell phone gets set down on the cordless charger contraption, and any loose change goes into the coin box. It’s one of the little organizing principles that many of us use to order our lives and establish our small, personal routines. Those little routines can add comforting structure to your day, and also mean you don’t have to go tearing the house apart looking for your keys and phone and glasses every morning.
Years ago, the change containers used to fill up a lot more quickly, because I would always pay for my lunches and small purchases with cash, and bringing home change was a nightly occurrence. Now that using a payment card has become my most common form of payment, I often end the work day with no change at all — but habit makes me check my pockets for change, just the same. The reduction of change in our lives is another simple sign that the economy is changing, and our personal practices are changing along with it.
But I still pay for some things with cash, and even if it takes longer than before, the change box gets filled. Last night I noticed that the box is filled, again, so it’s time to empty it out, fill up the old-fashioned paper coin sleeves, and take them to the bank to add another $34 to the account and feel the satisfaction of saving. That’s what will be on the schedule for tonight, and I’m kind of looking forward to it.
Socks are, for the most part, the article of clothing that is most likely to be taken for granted. Although a few Beau Brummells have tried to turn the sock into a colorful fashion accessory, for most men, and women too, the humble sock is a purely functional item. Socks are donned, then immediately covered by shoes, and after that happens we forget about them, They warm the foot, serve as an essential layer between foot and shoe so you don’t get a blister, soak up the smells feet are prone to produce, and are promptly tossed into the laundry basket at the end of the day without a second thought.
But when a sock fails of its essential purpose and acts in a way that demands attention, you’ve got a problem. And that’s what has happened with these “anklet” socks Kish got me to wear on my morning walks.
They go on just fine. But as soon as I start walking, the top of the sock inevitably departs the ankle region and starts inching down to the heel. I detect its progress, and suddenly I’m focused on my sock movement and not on my walk. A few more steps and the sock successfully rounds the heel and heads down to its preferred destination around the ball of the foot. By the the of my walk the Achilles tendon and heel are left wholly unprotected and the sock is bunched up and wadded around the tip of the foot, slides off when I remove my shoe, and then has to be fished out from deep within the shoe.
I don’t know if there is something weird about my walking gait or foot movement that causes this problem, but I do know that socks aren’t supposed to behave in this fashion. At least, my other socks don’t. And when a sock acts out, it’s really annoying. So these socks are going to be donated to Goodwill, where hopefully someone will have better luck with them.
Because life is too short to have socks that suck.
The Third Street Secret Signer has struck again, but this time the resulting message is a bit more cryptic — thanks to some bad luck.
For the first time, the TSSS has used both sides of the bridge, east and west. (The east side, which has no sidewalk, was previously functionally inaccessible because of the constant flow of traffic speeding onto the 70/71 on ramp, but that ramp is now closed.) The east side sign reads “You Are Enough,” which is apparently the title of a recent book for women. On the west side, which is the TSSS’ previously preferred sign-posting location, the TSSS had put a sign reading “You Are Valuable,” but by the time I walked home last night that sign had fallen down and lay crumpled on the sidewalk. I’m hoping the sign was just blown down, rather than being pulled down by some Grinchy jerk who is messing with the public positivity campaign of a Good Samaritan.
Even with the west side sign fall, I’m sure I’m not alone in appreciating another nice gesture by the TSSS. Hopefully s/he will take the remaining sign to heart and realize that their single sign effort is “enough” to give us a holiday boost heading into Thanksgiving.
Here’s something to remember the next time you are planning a vacation or an extended holiday: being near the water is good for you. In fact, it’s really good for you. Whether it’s ocean, lake, pond, river, or stream, proximity to water has measurable benefits for people — physically, mentally, and emotionally.
An increasing body of scientific and medical evidence confirms the therapeutic effects of “blue spaces” and the state of “outdoor wellbeing.” This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s taken a beach vacation or gone on a fishing trip. The presence of the water tends to draw people outside, where they get more sunshine and enjoy the benefits of vitamin D. They get more exercise because they are in attractive physical locations that motivate them to walk the beach or hike along the lakefront. The sounds of ocean surf or running streams are calming. The combination of exercise, fresh air, and pleasant sounds help visitors to get a good night’s sleep.
But there’s more to it. Water tends to have a curious effect on the human psyche — a kind of positive vibe that is mentally refreshing and restoring. Studies have consistently shown that people who are near water regularly maintain a better mood, feel less stress, and describe themselves as happier than inlanders. Maybe it’s the sights, maybe it’s the sounds, maybe it’s the smells . . . or maybe it’s that it all works in combination to make people near water a bit dreamier, a bit more contemplative, and a bit more reflective. Perhaps when you’re looking out over a vast ocean your problems just seem a lot smaller and therefore more manageable.
None of this is new — we’ve just forgotten it. In the first chapter of Moby Dick, published in 1851, Herman Melville’s character Ishmael writes: “If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.” But, as Melville notes, it’s not just the ocean that humans find attractive — it’s water, period. He writes:
“Once more. Say you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries—stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.”
So, you want to feel better? Get out your calendar and plan a trip that allows you to answer the call of the water.
Our anonymous Third Street Bridge sign artist has struck again. When I walked by yesterday morning, I saw that the latest hand-lettered sign channels an inner Stuart Smalley, the fictional character played by Al Franken on Saturday Night Live years ago. You may recall that the mild-mannered, sweater-wearing Stuart gave a Daily Affirmation with a positive message that always concluded: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”
I’d say that “You are worthy” falls squarely into the Stuart Smalley mindset. (Those of us who don’t share Stuart Smalley’s hopeful and constructive world view might ask, in response, “Worthy of what?” But never mind that.)
It’s nice to know that some unknown person cares enough about the well-being of their fellow Columbusites to create inspirational messages to help us feel good about ourselves and spur us forward on our days. I’m looking forward to the next sign that helps to put a spring in my step on the way to work.
It’s been more than a quarter century since I quit smoking. I gave up the nasty habit back in in the early ’90s, when the kids were little, and I haven’t had a cigarette since.
Last night, however, I had a very vivid dream about smoking. I was sitting somewhere, among a group of people, lighting a cigarette and taking a deep puff. I felt the familiar leaden sensation in my chest as I did so and the harsh, acrid taste in my mouth and throat. Wherever I was, it was clear that I had been chain-smoking cigarette after cigarette. My dream self was sadly aware that I had previously successfully quit smoking for a long period of time but had started up again for some reason and was now hooked once more. As I puffed away, I felt tremendous feelings of regret and guilt and shame and embarrassment that I had been so weak and stupid to retreat and would now have to try to quit all over again. It was an incredibly realistic, powerful dream that startled me awake in the middle of the night.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a prior dream about smoking — at least, not one that I remember. I have no idea why I would have such a dream now, as I have zero interest in taking up smoking again. It’s pretty amazing that a habit I ditched more than 25 years could still call up such vivid images. I suppose it shows that the smoking memories and my prior smoking self are still in my consciousness somewhere, lurking deep below the surface, ready to be tapped during an unconscious moment.
I was very grateful when I awoke and realized it was all a dream and that I remained contentedly smoke-free. In fact, I can’t think of a recent dream where I’ve been happier and more relieved to find it was only a dream. If my subconscious, just to be on the safe side, was trying to send me a message that there should be no backsliding, the message was received.
For all I know, swans are inwardly tormented creatures. They could be wound tighter than a coil, churning on the inside with deep-seated angst and concern. But if that is in fact the case, swans are masters of concealment — for no other animal or bird projects a more placid demeanor than a swan gliding gracefully and calmly across the surface of a lake.
When you can start the day with a few laps around a peaceful lake on a crisp, bright morning, with a swan for company, it’s sure to put you in a serene frame of mind.
American homes are a lot roomier than they used to be. In 1973, the Census Bureau determined that the median size of a new house was about 1,500 square feet. As of 2015, that number had shot up to about 2,500 square feet. And with Americans having fewer children on average, the increase in house size translated into a lot more square footage per resident — from 507 square feet per resident for new houses in 1973 to 971 square feet per resident for a new house built in 2015.
So, are Americans a lot happier with their larger, roomier homes? A researcher tried to figure that out and determined that the answer is: not really. Although American homes have grown significantly in terms of their square footage, overall house satisfaction hasn’t changed. According to the research, the apparent reason is that some Americans are trapped in an endless cycle of house one-upsmanship.
The researcher concluded that Americans whose houses are among the largest in the neighborhood tend to be most prone to house unhappiness. These homeowners build the biggest house around and are satisfied with it, but when somebody builds an even bigger McMansion on a nearby lot, knocking them out of the “biggest house in the neighborhood” slot, suddenly their satisfaction with their home drops. The research also indicates that there’s been a kind of nuclear arms race at the top end of the American housing market, with the size of the largest 10 percent of houses increasing 1.4 times as fast as the size of the median house. Evidently “keeping up with the Joneses” now means adding on to your house to maintain your status as king of the block.
I’m not sure about the statistical analysis used in the research and how you can determine with certainty whether people are dissatisfied with their already big house because it now isn’t the biggest house in the ‘hood, as opposed to other reasons for house dissatisfaction. But I do know this: I feel sorry for people who measure their own happiness and satisfaction by comparing their possessions, whether it is houses or cars or something else, to what is owned by others. It’s a rat race that isn’t really winnable, because there’s always going to be someone with a bigger house and fancier car.
Such people are never really going to be happy — at least not for long. Better to find a house that you and your family like, forget about participating in the pointless big house derby, and be amused as you watch the Joneses and their McMansions endlessly duke it out for top dog status.