Authentic happiness is within your grasp
"If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands." That's a song-story I use with my two little grandchildren. We sing loudly and clap a lot. After a while, we move to head-bobbing and feet-stomping. All sorts of foolish merriment follows, and we usually end up giggling. If you're giggling, you are definitely happy.
So — are you? Happy, that is. I am on a mission to help you feel that way by the end of this column.
Research has identified characteristics that correlate with happiness. These include "religious involvement, parenthood, marital status, age, income and proximity to other happy people."
That means if you're an older adult and a person of faith, married (with satisfactorily launched children) and some degree of disposable income — you're off to a good start. Hang around with giggling toddlers and you might have it nailed.
For me, "happiness" is that personal feeling of well-being and contentment. "Full of joy" is actually my favorite definition.
Using a "positive psychology" approach, folks at the University of Pennsylvania have developed tools that assess various character strengths to get to a better understanding of "authentic happiness," which on its face, looks like a combination of pleasure, engagement and meaning (www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx).
My vision of what that involves is this: I'm at a social gathering (it's a total pleasure being there), talking with an interesting friend (fully engaged) about, of all things, the definition of happiness (and generating meaningful ideas for this column in the process.)
Direct measures of happiness are difficult. I consider myself a basically happy person on most days. But I took "The Oxford Happiness Inventory" (www.coachingtohappiness.com) and the test concluded I was only 73 percent as happy as I could be. The reasons were a little elusive. Apparently I need to get more restorative rest. If I did, it's possible I'd be able to respond to statements like "I'm constantly in a state of joy and elation" with a higher rating than "3" on a 1-5 scale.
Some people are less than happy because of illness, disability or financial peril. I know this sounds hokey, but if something like that is going on for you, have you ever considered keeping a "gratitude journal," in which you write down (daily) the things you are grateful for in life. It has a positive effect on attitude and emotion. So does "¦ a brisk walk, listening to your favorite music ... and a funny, well-delivered story "¦ and root beer floats (I made that last one up).
University of Minnesota researchers found that 50 percent of happiness is genetically based. If one or both of your parents were cheery souls, you probably already engage in hand-clapping and some mild head-bobbing. If mom and dad weren't all that positive — you have the opportunity to launch new beginnings.
The poet Carl Sandburg was a happy, contented sort of guy. He had a simple reminder for all of us, "Let a joy keep you "¦ reach out your hands and take it as it runs by."
Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at email@example.com or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.