Thursday, September 10, 2009

Happiness is...

Generally, I'm a happy guy, certainly on the surface and usually inside as well. I'm not sure I'm an optimist; in a given situation, I usually assume the best thing won't happen and I hope the worst thing won't happen, so I aim for mid-range expectations. I certainly spend a fair amount of time in the doldrums and I can get blackly depressed, but these moods tend to last for hours rather than days or weeks. I've always remembered an incident in high school when I woke up pissed off at the world, and I vowed to let everybody know exactly how I felt, but when I got to school and got around people, my mood evaporated. That morning, a friend, apropos of nothing, said to me, "Ritchie, how can you always be so cheery?" I wanted to yell back, "Goddamn it, I'm not cheery, I'm angry and depressed!!" but I didn't; I just smiled and said, "Dunno."

This comes up in light of an article in the June Atlantic about what makes us happy, based on a series of longitudinal studies (groups of people studied over a wide range of years), in particular one begun in the 30's with a group of Harvard students who are still being followed today. Certainly a group of Ivy Leaguers is not necessarily representative of the general population, but some of the findings about happiness are interesting. First, the happiest people are those who use "mature" defenses when faced with challenges; instead of resorting to paranoia or passive-aggressive behavior or turning inward into fantasy, they use humor, altruism, sublimation, and conscious suppression. I'm not sure about the altruistic response, but I'm a master at other three--though I must admit I have been known to indulge in passive-aggressive behavior and I have a rich fantasy life, though I don't think of it as a response to challenges as much as an outlet for, well, fantasizing.

Successful aging and happiness are also dependent on a handful of other factors: education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, and healthy weight. All of those things pretty much apply to me:

1) I'm overeducated.

2) I've been with Don in a committed relationship for 19 years (because we're both men, I can't use the word "marriage" with any real meaning--do I sound bitter? Maybe I need to use a mature defense).

3) I've never smoked--except for three weeks of clove cigarettes in my 20s when I was trying to be a poseur.

4) My intake of alcohol is small, a couple of beers or glasses of wine a week (I can't remember the last time I was truly drunk, a fact I'm not necessarily proud of, because some of the best stories I tell about myself involve being under the influence of one substance or another)

5) I do get exercise, and "some" is a good word to describe how much.

6) I am technically a smidge overweight for my height, I guess, but overall I'm in better physical shape than I was in my 30's.

The director of the study says, somewhat reductively, that "the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people" and that alcoholism is the biggest obstacle in the path of happiness. Though I have never cultivated lots of friendships, I do have people who make me happy and who I can confide in and who I can act silly around, and of course I have Don. My father was an alcoholic--though since it didn't interfere with his work life, he would never have labeled himself that way--and, since I have an addictive streak anyway, I have more or less consciously avoided that trap.

Though I have my regrets, and I'm not quite where I thought I'd be at this point in my life, I'm still generally happy. Traumatic events have happened to me--the break-up of my first live-in relationship in particular sent me into a brief tailspin--but I guess sublimating and suppressing are healthy responses after all, despite the bad rap they get. Now that the Atlantic Monthly has confirmed that I'm happy, I'm *really* happy!

1 comment:

  1. Your line about trying to be a poseur contributed to my happiness today.