Despite the misguided notion that suffering makes us better people, the fact is that happiness is good for you and others. “It matters,” says Sanderson, “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 actually 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. (Tell that to me in the middle of an ice storm.) 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, says Sanderson, like a new job or house is great but doesn’t last. Children? They’re cute in the abstract but having children doesn’t make you happier.
Religion, as we have said, and nature make us happy. Shopping, but not for ourselves, eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising and sex make us happy. Sex makes us very, very 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 neighborhood 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.”
I will be taking a week in the Caribbean in February. I will go to the airport, wait in endless security lines, pay overweight for baggage, learn the flight is delayed, sit in the middle seat of the cramped economy class and buy a $6 snack. 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.