Upon arriving at KNPR-FM radio studio, all I knew about Carol Graham is that she’d written a book about happiness. But, in the first six minutes of the live radio show, Graham used two words I’d never heard before, which is always a whiz for me. When it comes to words, I’m like The Blob from that ’50s horror movie: I’ll shamelessly envelope you, absorbing your glossary into my own. I gave myself high marks for not interrupting her right there in the interview, instead waiting until the break to lean over, remove my headphones and pester her to share the wealth of sapiency. Which is to say I said, “Wow” (like someone starry-eyed to meet a celebrity), “what does that word mean?”
And to think, when KNPR called to invite me to join a panel discussing “happiness” I had wondered to myself whether the topic might be shallow. Not even close.
Carol Graham was born in Lima, Peru. Her academic credentials are legion. Princeton. Oxford. The Brookings Institution. She is currently on loan from the University of Maryland to teach at UNLV. Her passion? She is a pioneer in the economic study of happiness and its weight for economic policy. I don’t know how she would describe herself, but she’s either a sociological economist or an economic sociologist. And a philosopher. And no newcomer to modern psychology. She mesmerized me.
In 2010, Graham published “Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires.” Just recently, she published “The Pursuit of Happiness: An Economy of Well-being.” Graham has conceived scales and measures of happiness, beyond the mere subjective reporting of same.
Until this radio show, for example, I had no idea there was such a thing as a “happiness metric.” Wow. According to these measures, the Scandinavians are really happy. We Americans are happier-than-not, but we by no means lead the planet in collective happiness.
Graham made me think about happiness. How would I measure it? My first thought is a paradox. I think happiness is at once overrated and underrated.
Happiness is overrated in the sense that, at least how I use the word, it describes a passing subjective experience. Enjoyable? Yes. At the heart of how we know our lives to be meaningful and valuable? Probably not.
I’m saying that, at 55, I’m less invested in the question (in any given moment) “Am I happy?” As a definitive measure of much of anything, I would consider that question in myself to lie somewhere between childish and narcissistic. For me, there are tons of questions more important than “Am I happy?”
For example: Does it have meaning? Value? Is it authentic? Am I being authentic? Is it true? Is it beautiful? Is it satisfying?
These treasures can thrive in my life even (and often) in the absence of happiness. Happiness is an independent variable.
With all respect for the Declaration of Independence, I respect life, I enjoy liberty, but I no longer pursue, as such, happiness. I have come to expect happiness to orbit across my path from time to time, as is its wont. With pretty much a mind of its own.
However, I no longer underrate happiness. I think happiness comes from …
Contentment: making peace with “enough-ness.” I have a bed. A roof. Food in the cupboard. Underwear in my dresser and shoes in my closet. A vocation. I love and I am loved. Seriously? What else do I need?
Peace: those moments when I have nothing to explain, defend or justify; therefore, I am free to be present to my own life, and the lives of those around me.
Gratitude: When I remember that I am not entitled to happiness, I have more capacity to enjoy it as a gift.
So, whether lost in my work or just being with loved ones, when I notice my contentment, peace and gratitude, that’s when I notice I am happy. And I smile somewhere in my soul, nod and say, “Nice of you to drop by.”
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.