Paul Prather

Paul Prather: Unhappy? A look inside may help

Off and on for a few weeks, I've been thinking about an op-ed piece on the causes of happiness and unhappiness that I read in July on the New York Times' website.

Its author was Arthur C. Brooks, chairman of something called the American Enterprise Institute, an organization with which I'm not familiar. I can't say whether it's right-wing, left-wing or wingless, but in any case Brooks' essay intrigued me.

My take-away was that, although our culture extols the joys and fulfillments to be reaped through acquiring fame, money, possessions and freewheeling sex with multiple partners, contemporary academic research belies all those suppositions.

For instance, Brooks wrote, "In 2009, researchers from the University of Rochester conducted a study tracking the success of 147 recent graduates in reaching their stated goals after graduation. Some had 'intrinsic' goals, such as deep, enduring relationships. Others had 'extrinsic' goals, such as achieving reputation or fame. The scholars found that intrinsic goals were associated with happier lives. But the people who pursued extrinsic goals experienced more negative emotions, such as shame and fear. They even suffered more physical maladies."

Ditto with the pitfalls of wealth, luxury cars, promiscuous sex and so forth, according to other research.

A sub-point, as I took it, was that things that reach us from the outside, such as fame or money (or for that matter, poverty, racism or being abandoned), tend disproportionately over time to leave us unhappier.

Happiness, on the other hand, arises largely from within us and flows outward, often in spite of difficult outward circumstances.

Over the course of my life, I've gradually, and painfully, learned a few truths about how to be happy, even when I've proved unable to follow my own best advice. And I'm still learning.

Based on my experiences so far, I agree with much of what Brooks wrote.

I think happiness largely — although not exclusively — comes from the inside.

(I also think that, to an extent, being a happy person may be a conscious choice. Or, as somebody used to say, "Have a nice day, unless you've made other plans.")

To the contrary, it's a fool's mission to try to obtain happiness through outsiders' opinions or from acquiring trinkets. Believe me, I've tried that.

Here are some contributors to happiness:

First, faith. If you don't have faith in God, you can't conjure it up by will. You just can't believe what you don't believe; I realize that.

But if you're lucky enough to possess it, faith can be a source of joy and a reservoir of strength. To believe God loves you, that he's present to help on your worst days, that he's got the cosmos under control — that's to know peace.

Second, family and friends. We can't base our self-worth on any other person's opinion of us, even if it's a trusted spouse or our favorite child or our longest-term friend.

People come and go. They grow up. Or they move away. They prove fickle and untrustworthy. They develop dementia. They die. People and relationships change.

We can't ever live our life in anyone else's head, then. Sad but useful knowledge.

Still, at a given moment we may have one or three or five people with whom we're close and in whose presence we find laughter, affection and understanding. We should treasure those folks while they're here. Love them. Delight in them.

Third, service. Paradoxically, it's more fulfilling to help others, and especially those who can't pay us back, than to expect others to serve us. If we rely for our happiness on how well others meet our needs, we'll remain miserable. To find our life, Jesus said, we first must lose it.

Fourth, self-awareness. I mean this in the broadest sense, from seeking spiritual enlightenment or getting therapy to taking courses in literature, history or art. Understanding ourselves better, understanding the world at large, broadening our minds and our vision, these things bring us satisfaction and long-term perspective.

Fifth, contentment. Brooks mentioned the Dalai Lama, who said it's better to want what you have than to have what you want. A big part of happiness is disciplining ourselves to be content where we are with what we possess.

Do some people have more or better than we do? So what? Many also have less or worse. We're not in either group. We're here, now, with what destiny or circumstances have dealt us. It is what it is; embrace it.

Sixth, grace. We're happiest when we look at ourselves bravely, our failures and strengths alike — and then accept ourselves. And trust that God accepts us. And learn, because we're flawed, brittle humans, to accept others despite their shortcomings.