Happiness: It’s About Perspective

Happiness keeps popping up in my life.  Not just the feeling, but the topic.  In fact, this morning I woke up to a text asking me how happy I was. That didn’t make me feel happy at all.  More on that in a minute.  Ever since my recent posts on happiness, it feels like relevant conversations and tweets also keep popping up.  I know that this is a result of my reticular activating system cuing me into this omnipresent topic, but it just makes me happy when it happens.


Certainly a big contributor to my awareness of happiness is my participation in a research project that randomly asks me to quantify my level of happiness throughout the day.   I heard of this study on NPR’s Science Friday where Ira Flatow interviewed a Doctoral Candidate from Harvard University upon the publication of his study that found a relationship between mind wandering and lower levels of happiness (Killingsworth, 2010).  The way the data was collected is very interesting, well actually it is very cool (at the risk of sounding too pedestrian).  To a guy who really appreciates technology and has a dendrite tight connection to his iPhone, this is way cool.  So this is how it works.  Once you sign up to participate and give some basic demographic data you start getting texts that ask you to rate your happiness at that moment.  They also ask other questions such as wake and sleep time, quality of sleep, desire and need to do what you are doing at the moment, level of current social interaction, degree of focus on task, what the task is, and where you are.  They ask other questions too, but not too many in any one session.  Each session takes about a minute to complete.  And upon completion, they send you some graphic data about you and your responses over time.  The catch is you need to have an iPhone to participate.  Granted, this skews the data set, but pretty soon they will release it to Android owners, so that wannabes can participate too 😉 .  Yes, I know! The data will still be skewed.


I have found this to be very rewarding on multiple levels.  It is great to contribute to research, yes, but I have also learned some things about myself and about the levels and situations of my happiness.  For one thing, I find that I am happier far more often than I had ever really realized.  I guess I don’t really think about it much, but when asked and put in a position to respond, I assess my mood, and often find it to be good to very good.  The grumpy and pissed off moments really amount to that, just moments, and for the most part, I’m feeling pretty good.


I also found that my inclination to be exercising with my wife or working on a project or being outside or helping someone to be associated with the highest states of happiness. There is one more topic they assess from time to time, which I will not share here: but lets just say that it is associated with the pinnacle of pleasure.  I am drawn to all the above activities perhaps because I am rewarded with a flood of the feeling good neurotransmitter (dopamine) that sweetly caress my nucleus accumbens (NAcc).  These are parts of, and reactions that occur in, the brain.  I felt the need to clarify this for those that may be reading soft porn into my prose.


Granted, the data is limited to three sessions a day (I selected this frequency) so not all activities of my daily life have been sampled sufficiently to draw any firm conclusions, but it is interesting nevertheless.  I suggest that if you have an iPhone, you should go to https://www.trackyourhappiness.org/ and sign up.  You will be contributing to science and learning a bit about yourself.  Really it is non-invasive and actually quite fun, except at 6:00 am, (I gave them permission to send texts at this time), the morning after hosting a large family Thanksgiving Dinner.  I got over it, and really I was quite happy anyways.  I’m very fortunate to have such a great family.


On a different note, I recently received a tweet with a link to an article titled A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder (Bentall, 1992).  This absolutely cracked me up.  The abstract reads as follows:


“It is proposed that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder and be included in future editions of the major diagnostic manuals under the new name: major affective disorder, pleasant type. In a review of the relevant literature it is shown that happiness is statistically abnormal, consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms, is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities, and probably reflects the abnormal functioning of the central nervous system. One possible objection to this proposal remains–that happiness is not negatively valued. However, this objection is dismissed as scientifically irrelevant.”


Obviously, this is a satirical paper, but it says something important about happiness and perhaps more importantly, something about our obsession with it.  This paper was published in the Journal of Medical Ethics back in 1992.  You can see get a free copy at Pub Med.  Its a “fun” read if you get a kick out of reading scholarly papers written tongue in cheek.


Finally, I have to state the obvious, Happiness is in the eye of the beholder.  This weekend I went camping with my brother-in-law.  It was snowing, very windy, and pretty darn cold in Western New York.  At one point my companion checked the Weather Channel on his Android hoping to find that the lake effect snow bands were swinging south to really blast us.  The temperature was 24° and the wind chill made it feel like 12° (Fahrenheit).


Later, in the middle of the night, in my tent, my thermometer read 25 degrees.  And I was HAPPY!  My wife suggests that it is a testosterone thing.  I’m not sure, but I find that there is something greatly fulfilling about enduring adversity such as this.  At one point my brother-in-law blurted out his supreme happiness, as we sat eating a delicious freeze dried beef stew among great rock city quartz conglomerate relics of Devonian Age deposition.  And as we later cooked our dinner over the hot coals of our warmth providing camp fire, amidst bone chilling winds, we again mutually proclaimed deep happiness.  There is something about eating food cooked outside on a fire or even on our tiny camp stoves that makes it taste so much better than it would were we to cook it in the shelter and warmth of a conveniently contrived home.  It’s about getting back to one’s roots: it’s about the struggle for survival, the very capabilities that ultimately brought us here, to this point in time in our evolution.  But it also reminds me how fortunate I am to have such conveniences.  I am aware that what I now have was not available to a vast majority of my fore bearers.  I am also aware that even today, so many of my fellow human beings are far less fortunate.  I am happy because I can appreciate the relative bounty that is my life.  So much of happiness is about perspective.  From my perspective – life is good.




Bentall, R. P. (1992). A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder. Journal of Medical Ethics. 1992 Jun;18(2):94-8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1619629


Killingsworth, M. (2010). Quantifying Happiness.  National Public Radio. Science Friday. http://www.npr.org/2010/11/12/131274191/quantifying-happiness


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