French, Russians and Canadians Proved Wrong; You Can Be Happy

Happiness gets a bad rap.

Throughout history, intellectuals have treated our most exultant feeling as if it were the random fry in our emotional onion rings — a rare exception provided by some outside providence. In the words of leading intelligentsia:

“Happiness serves hardly any other purpose than to make unhappiness possible.” — Marcel Proust, French novelist

“Happiness does not await us all. One needn’t be a prophet to say that there will be more grief and pain than serenity and money.” — Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, Russian author, playwright

“Happiness is always a byproduct. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness.” — Robertson Davies, Canadian novelist

Such fatalism is to be expected of citizens from 1.) the surrendering-est country in the surrendering-est part of the world 2.) a nation that seriously thought, “Communism — spectacular idea!” 3.) a people whose habit of ending their sentences with the colloquial “eh?” forever reveals their innermost doubts.

But we in the United States take our happiness seriously. We even wrote the word Happiness — with a capital H no less — into our Declaration of Independence.

“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.”

Where some would lead you to believe that the pursuit of happiness is a waste of time, two American researchers have published data suggesting the same conclusion: even in these uncertain times we live in, it is possible to make yourself happy.

William Fleeson, associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University, has found that acting extroverted makes people happier. Whether a person is shy or outgoing, being more talkative, adventurous, bold or assertive has a positive effect.

College students who tracked their moods for two weeks reported feeling happier when, for example, they sang along with the radio, talked to an attractive girl, or voiced an opinion. They felt less happy when acting reserved.

The study also revealed that the short-term positive effect of acting extroverted carries into the long-term.

“As a society, we tend to think of happiness as something that comes from outside us. It’s kind of a radical idea that we have some control of happiness, that personality is a factor in happiness and that, to some extent, we have control over our personalities,” Fleeson said.

Charles Schaefer agrees. The Fairleigh Dickinson professor recently revealed research that suggests that one minute of laughter — even if forced — can improve your mood.

“Once the brain signals the body to laugh, the body doesn’t care why,” Schaefer told the Washington Post. “It’s going to release endorphins, it’s going to relieve stress as a natural physiological response to the physical act of laughing.

“I believe laughing does at least four things for you. It energizes you. It cheers you up. It relaxes you. It rejuvenates you. For adults, you feel younger. It’s like that Chinese proverb: ‘Every laugh makes you 10 years younger.’ “

Forced laughter — it’s not just for fictitious megalomaniac super-terrorists anymore.

What should we make of Proust, Chekhov, Davies and others who feel happiness is so unattainable they’re compelled to share their failure with the world?

I believe American playground-philosopher Nelson Muntz put it best when he said, “Haw-haw!”

(Originally published 4/7/03.)

Click here to read the previous column “The War on Drugs Starts at Foot Locker.”

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