Measuring Happiness

Will smilingI just finished reading “Simple Living: One Couple’s Search for a Better Life.”  It’s about a couple who transition from being  busy young professional writers in Los Angeles to running the family orchard in rural Virginia.  There’s a lot more to the story but the basic gist is about searching for meaning by slowing down and getting out of the rat race.  I found the writing style hard to get into but I really enjoyed their profiles of other couples that were downsizing or had downsized already and some of the comparisons and contrasts.  Do you have to be in a rural area to live simply?  How far should you downsize your life – are you allowed to have electricity?  a car?  a fancy car?  Can you still be a successful professional?  There are lots of ways to simplify life and it’s hard to say that any one is the “best” – I like hearing lots of different versions.

Still, the part of the book that interested me most was the discussion of finding one’s purpose in life.  It’s a topic that always piques my interest.  In fact, it’s probably the subject that I think about the most, generally from a “Why don’t I have a clear purpose in life?” sort of perspective.  The father in the book who had been managing the orchard for 40+ years has a pretty intense sense of purpose that is linked to the Quaker ideal of service to others.  Sam determined that his purpose in life was to promote world peace and so he ran his life in a way to keep expenses low so he could earn enough income at the orchard to support his family and also support his many hours volunteering as a peace activist.

I’m pretty sure that’s not my calling in life but I don’t know what is.  Will says he thinks a good life purpose is to be happy and to promote happiness in others.  I told him I wasn’t even sure what made me happy, at least in terms of working activities.  (I doubt I can support myself soaking in hot tubs, receiving massages, and eating bonbons.)  He has challenged me to start measuring my personal happiness and figure out what makes it increase and decrease.  Being the rational scientific type, he suggested conducting personal tests to see what activities are best or worst.  Do I like working with kids?  Work with kids and find out.  Working with kids wasn’t fun but maybe that was because we were trying to study butterflies in the rain?  Try it again on a sunny day or with older kids or with younger kids.

It all sounds very rational and yet I find myself very resistant.  Can I really measure happiness accurately?  Surely my happiness fluctuates greatly from moment to moment; how can I track what is causing the changes?  Am I ready to turn my life into a giant experiment and spend half my time writing down notes about my feelings?  What if I decide the only things that make me happy are hot tubs and bonbons?  I think that’s what I’m really afraid to discover – that deep down I’m a big slacker who is only happy when I’m being utterly lazy.  I don’t really think that’s true but still I hesitate.  Experimenting with my own personal happiness sounds both daunting and rather selfish.  Do I really deserve to be happy or to spend my waking hours figuring out how to make myself happy?  Shouldn’t I be establishing world peace or something?  But maybe conducting happiness experiments would make me a more productive person, and perhaps help me figure out how to make other people happy (and thus more peaceful).

I suppose I could always the experience as fodder for a lucrative book deal.  I’ve always talked about being  a writer.  Would you buy a copy of “The Happiness Diaries?”

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5 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    suburbanlife said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

    You could consider all of your life as an experiment in attempting to find meaning and marrying personal to social purposes. True contentment comes from a balance in those two means. Why not simply revel in the journey and let the destination be a distant goal toward which you aim the trajectory of your experiences. I have never bought into the self-help, journey to discovery types of publications, because usually the aim is to capitalize on the memes operating within the culture in order to make money and stuff the personal coffers. That is why I disdain the breezy, ad-speak aspects of No Impact Man’s writing in his blogs. In twenty years or so , writers such as these will go down as money-making attemps, while the writings of one, such as Edward Abbey will retain a truthful and honest flavour. Following one’s passions without a weather eye to being recompensed in one’s ideas is far more laudable. G

  2. 2

    Emily said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 3:10 pm

    Interesting topic! I would totally buy your book :)

  3. 3

    Kymberly said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 10:38 am

    Why does happiness need to be measured? You can’t find happiness – just be happy (or not).

  4. 4

    cinco said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

    I’ve seen lots of blogs about happiness–the one that came to mind first was http://www.happinessproject.typepad.com/, but there are lots more where that came from. It’s a very interesting topic and I’d like to read your thoughts on it!

  5. 5

    Maggie said,

    April 15, 2009 @ 9:12 pm

    Lots of interesting thoughts!
    suburbanlife –
    It’s probably just my personality type but I tend to feel really lost without a goal of some sort. I’m not much for striving to make a zillion dollars so I am trying to substitute with something more in line with my values and passions but I’m not very good at just reveling in the journey. I do agree that contentment comes from balancing personal and social purposes although I often struggle to define each of them!
    Emily –
    I’ll keep you posted! :)
    Kymberly –
    Part of our discussion was rooted in a conversation I had with a life coach about being frustrated with my lack of purpose in life. I told her I felt like I wasn’t making any progress in life, that I was just kinda wandering. She said what I needed to do was establish some metrics so that I could tell if I were progressing or not. She said it could be anything as long as it’s measurable. Lots of people use money or status but that didn’t feel very useful to me. Will suggested I start with measuring happiness since he thinks it’s a reasonable goal and I think that one of the big indicators of whether or not I’m on the right path is how happy I am.
    I feel that happiness is not something to be searched for and found but I do believe it’s something a person can work towards in terms of noticing what’s working in life and what’s not working and adjusting accordingly. To me the idea of just being happy or unhappy as life leads me seems a bit too passive.
    Cinco –
    Ooh, nice link! Sounds like she’s already doing some of the things I’m thinking about…

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