How meaning makes you happy

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It also turns out that people who have religious or spiritual beliefs are happier than those who dont. Picture: Nigel Sibanda

Washington - I keep thinking that if only I had a private plane, I would be really happy.

Seriously, I can’t think of any greater luxury. You decide when you want to go. Your chauffeur pulls up to the plane on the tarmac, the stewards and pilots welcome you and carry your bags in. You settle into deep, wide leather seats. You are served anything you want, when you want it. If the weather is really bad, you can tell the pilot not to take off or to land. If you’re travelling to a foreign country, customs officials get on the plane to check your passport.

We all want to be happy. I certainly do. We are all looking for answers. We read self-help books and philosophy and psychology books. We try meditation and yoga and exercise. We think that if only we had more money, a higher IQ, a better marriage, more friends, more successful children, lived in a warmer climate or believed in God, we would be a lot happier. We compare ourselves to others who seem to have more, to determine if they are happier than we are.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Well, at least some of this is wrong.

Catherine Sanderson, a psychology professor at Amherst College, recently gave a talk, “Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness” in which she described things that we think will make us happy but don’t, and things that really do. It turns out that a private plane would not make me happier. It also turns out that people who have religious or spiritual beliefs are happier than those who don’t, no matter what their beliefs.

Religious beliefs, she says, “give people a sense of meaning”. It also gives them a social network. “It gives a sense of well-being or comfort.”

Despite the notion that suffering makes us better people, the fact is that happiness is good for you and others. “It matters,” Sanderson says, “as members of our society.”

Happy people are more helpful, more productive and more loyal. Happy people are in better physical shape, healthier and heal faster.

Perplexingly, the things we believe will make us happy, don’t have any effect on our sense of well-being, according to Sanderson.

A high IQ doesn’t make you happier. I know some really smart people who are miserable.

Money? Forget it. Sanderson quotes Benjamin Franklin: “The more one has, the more one wants.”

Good weather doesn’t matter either. She quotes John Steinbeck: “I’ve lived in good weather and it bores the hell out of me.”

The joy of major and minor life events, Sanderson says, like a new job or house, are great but don’t last. Children? They’re cute in the abstract, but having children doesn’t make you happier.

Religion and nature make us happy. Shopping, but not for ourselves, eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising and sex make us happy. High self esteem and optimism make us happy. Being able to take a bad event and make it into a good event.

One often-asked question is, why are religious people happier? Sanderson thinks it’s less about what you believe than the fact that you have a community, a church, a synagogue, a Bible study group. It’s the social support network that is fulfilling. You could well be working in a soup kitchen, joining a book club or belonging to a neighbourhood watch. It’s the sense that we are looking after one another that matters.

She also says that people who are believers have a certain mind-set; the power of prayer, the belief in an afterlife, the sense that someone is looking after you, that there is a higher power, that things happen for a reason. This mind-set, she says, helps people make sense of tragedy, struggles and loss. One can believe, “I’ll see this person later,” or “God only gives you what you can handle”, or “There is a silver lining in the suffering”.

“Religion,” she says, “is about helping other people and having others looking after you.”

Sanderson says she is what I call SBNR, spiritual but not religious. She says she is generally happy but even happier when she is giving her speech about happiness.

I will be taking a week in the Caribbean this month. I will go to the airport, wait in endless security lines, pay overweight for baggage, learn the flight is delayed and sit in the middle seat of the cramped economy. This time, though, I will be thinking of all the unhappy rich people in their private jets worrying about their richer friends in bigger jets. Not me. I will choose to be happy

. – The Washington Post

* Quinn anchors The Washington Post's On Faith online discussion and writes a religion column.

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