We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. – Thomas Jefferson
If you’re American, you know these words by heart almost from birth. It’s the foundation upon which our country was built. But what do they mean? In particular, what is “the pursuit of happiness?” Pure scientists would have us believe that happiness is simply chemicals floating between neurons in our brain. New agers equate happiness with inner peace. Dictionary.com defines happiness as the state of being happy and then procedes to define happy using synonyms such as joyful, blissful, and exuberant. All well and good, but really, what is happiness?
I watched a few movies recently that got me thinking about this question. One of them (which I truly don’t recommend watching because the movie was pretty terrible)was True Confessions of a Shopaholic. In the opening scene, you see the main character as a little girl talking about how happiness became a shiny pair of shoes for her. The gist of the movie (spoiler alert) is that because she equates new things with happiness she finds herself in massive amounts of debt with plenty of things and having completely destroyed the most important relationships in her life. Which of course, this being Hollywood, leads to an epiphany on her part after which she completely mends her shopaholic ways and finds true love and friendship. Ah, if only life were that easy.
The second movie I watched was Julie and Julia (which actually was pretty good)in which we meet Julie a woman on the brink of turning 30 who decides to find happiness by cooking her way through Julia Child’s cookbook while writing a blog. Along the way (again spoiler coming) she comes to realize that it is not the act of cooking, or the even the food itself that creates happiness but the ability to spend time with friends sharing an experience.
Thirdly, I watched a documentary called This Emotional Life (which was fantastic) that explored what science has found about how to create happiness in our lives. Ironically enough, the findings seem to point to the very premise of the first two movies: it is not things, deeds, adventures, or even money that make us happy – it’s having people to share those things with. I know, Hollywood actually got something right for a change, although in a kind of unrealistic, sugar coated way.
I was amazed to learn that research being done all over the world shows that relationships change our brain chemistry. The smile of your own newborn releases that same chemicals in a mother’s brain that cocaine creates, which creates a euphoric feeling. And hearing laughter almost doubles the amount of chemicals. People who were shown pictures of people they love during a brain scan showed activity in the areas of the brain where positive emotions are regulated. There is also research being done on lottery winners and “the lottery curse.” What this research is finding is that the people who adjust the best to winning large sums of money out of the blue, are those who have close relationships which remain stable after winning. Now, this research also found that people with more money tend to be happier than people with very little money and that lottery winners who actually change their status in life show the largest happiness gains. But again, these results changed if the winners lost their close relationships along the way, leading to very depressed, uber-rich people who made poor decisions about their winnings. It seems good relationships even lead to better decision making!
The moral of this story – happiness is not a new pair of shoes, a journey through cooking, or a huge sum of money. Happiness truly is about who we have to share it with.
“It’s so much more friendly with two.” – Piglet