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Ali: Attaining Happiness

05/24/10 7:55AM By Saleem Ali
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(HOST) UVM Professor and commentator Saleem Ali has been reflecting on what brings joy to humanity while balancing need and greed.

(ALI) If there was ever a universal aspiration for humanity, it would be to attain what we generically term "happiness".  America's founding fathers enshrined the pursuit of happiness, alongside "life and liberty" as our ultimate quest.  But let's ponder further on this blissful term.  

Eighty years ago, Nobel laureate philosopher Bertrand Russell grappled with this question in his seminal book The Conquest of Happiness. An important premise that Russell stated in his correspondence regarding this work was the intrinsic worth of happiness at the societal level:  To quote Russell: "The good life, as I conceive it, is a happy life. I do not mean that if you are good, you will be happy; I mean if you are happy you will be good."

Let's challenge Russel's premise a bit further and ask if we could also be happy by being good?  There are indeed limits to our quest for happiness. Most psychologists who have studied happiness agree that about 50 percent of our day-to-day happiness is determined by temperamental factors that are beyond our direct control.

An additional 10 percent is determined by social circumstances and perhaps around 40 percent is within our control in terms of behavioral choices.

It is essentially this component which the "happiness industry" has been catering to with remedies ranging from shopping-therapy to yoga.

Usually the most potent question in this regard is: can money "buy happiness?"  A Vermont-based organization called "Gross National Happiness" is hosting a major international conference at Champlain College in early June to consider this matter. International speakers from places as far off as the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan that has called for a metric of "gross national happiness" will be in attendance.

One might wonder what level of wealth is minimal for happiness and can lessons from a remote kingdom be applied to the United States? Economic psychologist Daniel Kahneman has estimated that for our country's average family size and annual expenditure, an income of around $60,000 is needed to attain the monetary component of happiness. Further income is unlikely to contribute to our feeling of "happiness." Around 65% of our population is still under this income bracket.

So what do we do? Most social psychologists will tell you that the answer is clearly - targeted philanthropy. Research suggests that the mere act of helping others contributes most dependably to human happiness. For those of us who have surplus wealth, we can go a long way in helping ourselves and others in attaining collective bliss by showing some generosity.  If money is too hard to part with then we can use our time and volunteer in ways that provide services to those in need who might otherwise have to pay for them.  In this way, we can move towards a more communal view of happiness that is likely to improve our society as a whole rather than trying to find individual happiness in our own very limited lives.

(TAG) You can find more commentaries by Saleem Ali on-line at VPR-dot-net.
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