The surprising truth about happiness

The following article was researched and written by my Mom, Lainie Klein. I urged her to allow me to share its power with you. The stories of my sister in this piece are all true.

by Elaine Klein

From the day she was born, Kerry was a happy girl. At three years of age, she almost drowned at a water-slide park: after two minutes of floundering in the whirlpool, her smiling face re-surfaced and she announced with glee “I touched the bottom!” When she was four, she remained unstirred when a car backed up and drove over her soft, little foot. When she was five, she slipped off a chair lift and her ski instructor caught her by the nape of her hood—dangling fifty feet above the ski run was fun for her (but, not for me). At the start of elementary school, I said to my husband “Kerry is such a happy child, perhaps she isn’t too clever.” But, I was wrong. By the age of 28, she was the chief legal counsel to an international software firm, and a happily married mother of three.

Kerry was still nursing her toddler, when she found the lump.

Studies show that women who have many children and breastfeed for a long time lower their risk of breast cancer. In her doctor’s words, Kerry was struck by a lightning bolt. My 29-year old daughter faced a life-threatening illness from an aggressive form of breast cancer, that had spread to her lymph nodes; two surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation lay ahead. And yet, throughout this medical crisis, Kerry was the leader that rallied our spirits. I hugged her, as she was wheeled into the O.R. for her surgery. She smiled and held up two fingers in a ‘V’ sign. You would think she had won a contest and was going to collect her prize.

What made Kerry behave this way? What is happiness and how do you achieve it? Are you born with it, is it in your upbringing or do you have to go out and get it? And, can you remain happy when life throws you a curveball?

The answers, I discovered, will surprise you.

Oliver Sacks is a professor of neurology at the N.Y.U. School of Medicine: he observes how patients adapt to the challenges of illness and he created a field he calls ‘neuroanthropology’. In his article, “The Mind’s Eye,” he explains that neuroscientists believe the cerebral cortex—the outer layer of the brain, responsible for such things as sensation, learning, memory and voluntary movement—is programmed from birth. Sacks claims there is a school of thought postulating that our reactions are pre-determined because the emotion of happiness is built into our brains. This evidence is substantiated by a professor of psychology at the University of California; Sonja Lyubomirsky— based on her studies of twins, in her book “The How of Happiness”—claims that 50 percent of human happiness is genetic. The human brain is hardwired for happiness.

So, what are the factors that determine happiness in the remaining 50 percent of the pie? Lyubomirsky explains that 10 percent of happiness levels are affected by the situation and circumstances of life: your job, financial security, social life, and health fit this category. Malcolm Gladwell analyzed reactions to life circumstances in ‘The Power of Context’, excerpted from his best-selling book “The Tipping Point.” Gladwell believes that behavior is often a function of social context. He states that our characteristic behavior is dependent on circumstances. Gladwell suggests that we overestimate the importance of basic character and underestimate the importance of the situation and context.

Daniel Gilbert would concur with Gladwell. A professor of psychology at Harvard, Gilbert won the 2007 Royal Society Prize for his scientific book “Stumbling on Happiness.” Gilbert explains the impact of people’s perceptions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ situations, in the film “The Happy Movie.” Gilbert proposes that we think happy situations will make us ecstatic and bad situations will devastate us. But, in fact, Gilbert says this is not the case. In Kerry’s instance, her woeful circumstance could have overridden her happy nature—she might have reacted miserably to her medical crisis— but, Kerry faced her situation with the love, support and comfort of her family, friends, co-workers and a top-notch medical team. Her imagined scenario of tragedy was juxtaposed by reality: Kerry had a loving support system and felt everything would be okay.

In my personal conversations with friends and strangers, I ask for their definition of happiness. The number one response to my question is as follows: ’having love in your life: relationships, attachments, family and children’. The circumstance of emotional security contributes to happiness.

Remember Lyubomirsky and her breakdown of happiness: 50 percent genetic and 10 percent situational? Let’s account for that remaining piece of the pie. Lyubomirsky reports that the final 40 percent of happiness is up to each and every one of us.

Are you shocked to learn that you can self-control and manipulate your own happiness? Robert Thurman, who has his doctorate in Sanskrit studies from Harvard University and is currently a professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University, would not be surprised. Thurman hopes to convey to Western society the same principle of the Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, who said:

The Constitution only guarantees you the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.

Thurman explains his Buddhist philosophy for discovering true happiness in the chapter ‘Wisdom’, taken from his book “Infinite Life.” Thurman interprets happiness as achieving a state of selflessness, yet remaining interconnected. He cites Western psychologists, who understand the harm done by self-centered behavior. Thurman summarizes his claim by explaining that we can become happier if we abandon our self-preoccupation, and become less concerned with “the self.”

Jean Twenge also has a bone to pick with self-centered behavior, in her tasty tidbit of an essay “An Army of One: Me”: Twenge evaluates the outcome of raising children with unwarranted self-esteem, that leads to narcissistic behavior, in today’s generation. Although the quest to raise happy and self-confident children is a noble one, Twenge explains that narcissism focuses on the ‘self’ and can be confused with self-esteem. Self-esteem is based on achievements and relationships; narcissism is based on believing you are special, but more important than others. Twenge’s bestseller “Generation Me: Why Todays Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable than Ever Before,” makes it clear that feeling good sprouts from doing good.

Dr. Oliver Sacks (remember the neurologist who studied the blind?) wondered if we have self-determination in the event of an unlucky accident, and if we can create our own experience. Sacks concluded yes: his subjects suffered blindness, but with the power of their positive attitudes they lived rich, meaningful and happy lives. In my personal survey, asking the ‘what is happiness’ question, the number two answer was: Appreciating and accepting what you have in life.

By accepting the goodness in your life and what you have–instead of focusing on what you don’t have, or on what you’ve lost–you can better deal with adversity…when life throws you that curveball.

When I received the phone call, with the news of my daughter’s cancer diagnosis, I was knocked for a loop. I didn’t react with Kerry’s courage: I fainted flat on my face. But, I recovered immediately—driven by the motivation of a mother’s love, to save her child. Ironically, she saved me. Kerry’s cheerful disposition, her smile, and her ability to face a life-threatening crisis with optimism, raised my spirits. We shopped for new blouses, we tried on wigs, we laughed, we even photographed her beautiful baldness.

And, now for the surprise I promised you in my opening.

It turns out that happiness is contagious.

The ‘social contagion theory’ was proposed in scientific studies conducted at Harvard Medical School and the University of California; in an article published in “Statistics in Medicine,” Nicholas Christakis, a professor of medical sociology at H.M.S., says that just as some diseases are contagious, emotions are as well. Teaming up with James Fowler at U. of C., the two researchers–living on opposite coasts—both found that having a happy neighbor or friend living nearby, apparently increases the chance that you’ll be happy too.

If you persevere for happiness, you can have an earnest effect on the happiness of people around you.

The part of our brain that controls unconscious, automatic responses is the cingulate cortex. When you smile at someone and they smile back, it’s because your brain is wired to mimic facial expressions. So, when Kerry smiled at me on her way to the operating room, her smile was contagious. She profoundly affected the emotional happiness of people around her.

Kerry is a fortunate survivor of calamity. My precious daughter braved her year of misfortune with grace and dignity. Her genetic predisposition, in the context of a loving family and an attitude steeled by the strength of her beliefs, gave her the advantages she needed to retain her happy demeanor. You can never change your genes. You can’t always change your situation. But that final 40 percent—your perspective and outlook on being happy—is in your complete control.

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