Happiness: Something to pursue?

By Maren Johnson

Staff Writer

The ultimate drive for all humans is the pursuit of happiness, and as it turns out, it is possible to take deliberate action to become happier. Katherine Nelson, Ph.D, an assistant professor of psychology here at Sewanee, gave a presentation titled, “Cultivating Psychological Well-Being: Using Psychological Science to Inform the Pursuit of Happiness” at the Women’s Center on November 19. This presentation addressed the questions of both how happiness affects our lives and how naturally happy people manage to feel this way so consistently. For many people, they feel most satisfied when they are happy, as they consistently feel that their lives have purpose. Sometimes people get the sense that being happy about their lives is selfish, but Nelson argues that it’s not. Because people who are happier contribute more to those around them, they benefit the rest of society by being in better physical health and having more insight into their communities.

However, happiness is subjective, so each person has a unique and circumstantial set of things that make them happy. As Ismael M. Fernández Sánchez (C’16) pointed out, this talk “shows how our conception of happiness is so wrong and how we focus on happiness from an individualistic perspective, but actually helping other people is the best way to feel good with ourselves.” Humans are a very diverse group, and pinpointing a methodology for being happy is clearly not effective across the board. This does not mean that people are doomed to be unhappy. One of the things that Nelson and her colleagues did was look for certain personality traits that naturally happy people possess. Altogether, these people had a more expansive outlook on life, exhibiting prosocial behaviors, optimism, and gratitude. One of the best ways to experience all of these traits is through kindness. Being kind to other people and appreciating the kindnesses other people show are great ways to increase happiness.

Another attribute these people tend to have is an accurate self-image. This concept doesn’t refer to body image; it’s how one sees oneself as a reflection of one’s own values. According to this research, one of the most effective ways to maintain this is to identify the values that matter most to yourself. Even with this research and these tips, it is important for everyone to find their own path to happiness and to realize that a constant search for happiness can actually detract from it. Although many good points were made, some listeners found the message of the talk too limited, since not enough time was spent recognizing that part of human nature is to experience happiness and sadness; as Sam Howick (C’16) put it, “I just think people are so afraid of being sad that they’re always in the ‘pursuit” of happiness’. If you’re sad, recognize that you’re sad, spend some time alone, have a good cry, whatever. Just don’t dwell on your sadness. And recognize when you’re happy, too. If you spend too much time focusing on how to get there, you might not realize it when you’re actually there.”