Gulfport, Miss.: I'm a single female in my 40s and I've struggled with anxiety, especially anxiety about my health, for years. I moved back to Mississippi after more than 15 years in San Francisco, and shortly after moving my mom died suddenly, Hurricane Katrina hit, I broke up with my boyfriend and was jobless.
The job situation is back on track but I feel so stuck. I wonder all the time if I have some dreaded disease. I get weird symptoms—they usually check out as nothing dire—and I can't seem to find a way to make myself feel happy, safe and hopeful.
My mom was my only family member, apart from distant relatives outside the U.S. My therapist and I have identified my abandonment fears but can't figure out what will put me on a more positive track. Is there something you can recommend?
Gretchen Rubin: Wow, you are facing some serious happiness challenges. It sounds as though you are really thinking about how to address this.
I wish I had a terrific answer. Here's something to think about. One of the findings that really interests me is that, although we think we ACT because of the way we FEEL, we often FEEL because of the way we ACT. So an almost uncanny way to change your feelings is to act the way you WISH you felt.
I know, this sounds ridiculous, but it really, really works.
So if you want to feel safe, healthy, and hopeful, try to act as if you did feel that way. "Fake it 'till you feel it." maybe start with health—try to walk energetically, speak energetically, do physical things.
Along the same lines, if you feel like you wish you had more support, give support to someone else. Sign up to be an organ donor. Give blood. Volunteer. Clean out your closets and give things to a thrift shop. Although we think that getting support is a key to happiness, and it is, giving support is just as important. Showing yourself that you are strong enough to help others might reassure you. And doing a good deed for someone else is practically the best way to boost your happiness.
It can be hard when you feel drained to make these kinds of steps, though. Start small and see if it helps.
Albany, N.Y.: Being happy sounds awful. It sounds like it's a lot of work and it sounds like happy people are insufferably smug. Is there an easier, less smug-inducing alternative to happiness?
Gretchen Rubin: Happiness has such a bad reputation! It's interesting, though—although there's a sense that happiness brings complacency and smugness, actually, happier people are more likely to volunteer, to donate money, to be concerned about the problems of others, to help others. They are actually less smug.
If you think being happy sounds awful, maybe you could strive for "subjective well-being." is that more enticing?
Pittsburgh: I have recently settled on the label "ethical nihilist" for my self. Is there anything you can say to me to give me even a glimmer of a hope for happiness?
Gretchen Rubin: Happiness researcher Tal Ben-Shahar describes three "fallacies":
1. the "arrival fallacy"—the belief that when you arrive at a certain place, you'll be happy (get that promotion, etc.)
2. the "floating world fallacy"—the belief that immediate pleasure, cut of from future purpose, can bring happiness (I don't think anyone seriously espouses this, not even advertisers)
3. the "nihilism fallacy"—the belief that it's not possible to be happy.
Sounds like you subscribe to #3—but I'm not sure why.
One thing many people argue is that it's selfish and self-absorbed to worry about your own happiness, in a world so full of suffering. But that's kind of like eating what's on your plate because kids are starving in India. Your unhappiness doesn't help anyone else—and in fact, as I mentioned in another answer, happy people are more altruistically inclined. So happiness is not a selfish goal.
I have Four Splendid Truths (the urge to have numbered truths came out of my research into Buddhism), and the Second Splendid Truth is:
One of the best ways to make YOURSELF happy is to make OTHER PEOPLE happy;
One of the best ways to make OTHER PEOPLE happy is to be happy YOURSELF.
Maybe you're an ethical nihilist because you think that's the most upright position to take. You might think more about whether that's really true.
Evanston, Ill.: What demographic is the most happy? Most sad?
Gretchen Rubin: One demographic that faces a big happiness challenge is people in chronic pain. As you can imagine, this is very hard. The death of a spouse is very tough on happiness, also job loss.
In a finding that surprises some, it seems that people are more likely to rate themselves as "very happy" as their income rises. And vice versa.
One of the findings that interested me most was that in a survey of 45 countries, on average, people put themselves at 7 on a 1-10 scale, and at 75 on a 1-100 scale. I.e., most people are pretty happy. In the United States, specifically, in a 2006 study, 84% said they were "very happy" or "pretty happy."
It will be interesting to see how the recent economic upheaval affects people's happiness across the U.S. and the world. We have a lot of great psychological mechanisms for dealing with bad events, but I think this will show up in the studies as having had a big impact on people.
Gretchen Rubin: I see that my hour is up. Thanks so much, everyone, for this conversation about happiness. An inexhaustibly interesting subject.
Have a very HAPPY 2009, best wishes, Gretchen
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