Despite the fact that he is healthy, has a good marriage and makes plenty of money in a good job, John complains he is unhappy. By contrast, Mary is a seventy three year old, unmarried retiree. Although her health is deteriorating and her pension barely covers her bills, she still describes herself as happy.
Why this difference? John has everything which research has shown to be related to happiness - a good marriage, good health and a good job - while Mary has none of these blessings, yet they differ in their levels of expressed happiness.
Simply to have certain advantages will not guarantee our happiness. Something more than these must be accounted for to understand what makes us happy.
To be happy, our physical and psychological needs for self-esteem, friendships and love must be met. Once our basic needs have been met, however, more things or money are not going to make us that much happier. Those who are extremely wealthy are only slightly more happy than those who have enough to get by comfortably.
But meeting our needs may not be enough to make us happy if our expectations are not met also. If we get what we expect to get, or more, we will be content; if our satisfactions are less than our expectations, however, we will be discontent.
John, who has much, may have expected or wanted more and so is unhappy while Mary, who has little, may have more than she ever expected to receive in life.
A sense of humor is helpful in finding happiness. If we cannot laugh at ourselves and our problems, we cannot enjoy ourselves.
We also need variety, challenge and change in our lives if we are to be happy. We tend to become accustomed to a certain manner of living, but then may become bored with it, so we should search for new interests and new tasks to master.
This explains why some people who have everything may be dissatisfied and why others who are successful may be driven to do more. Having adapted to a certain level of success, they may no longer be satisfied with it.
And it also explains why those who believe their lives have meaning and direction describe themselves as happier than those who do not. New goals and new challenges give us a sense of purpose.
This implies that happiness is something we can never find and keep forever, tucked away in a safe place. There are no guarantees we will be always happy since there will always be losses, failures and disappointments in life.
What this means is that perhaps we should make satisfaction our life's goal rather than happiness. I define satisfaction as having more good times than bad, more successes than failures, more pleasure than pain.
What may be more important in life, however, is not happiness but purpose. And perhaps the purpose of life should not be to be happy, but to matter, to strive to make this a better world for everyone.
By rolling up our sleeves and committing ourselves to some worthwhile projects - while not bothering to wonder whether or not we are happy - we may, paradoxically, find the happiness we don't deliberately seek.
L. Richard Lessor put it this way:
Happiness is like a butterfly. The more you chase it, the more it will allude you. But if you turn you attention to other things, it comes and softly sits on your shoulder.
# # # # #