If finding happiness were as simple as Bobby McFerrin makes it sound in his song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, we could all rest easy knowing that no matter what happens, we can simply choose not to worry. And while the definition of happiness can be slippery, what defines "a good life" can be found all around us.
The World Health Organization reported in 2011 that many places in the world are using a new measure of societal well-being called the Gross National Happiness (GNH) or "emotional prosperity" indicator. Social scientists have actually measured the life satisfaction of people in many countries. Emotional prosperity measures the strength of a society by means other than financial indicators. In fact, one finding about wealth as we age might surprise us: more money does not result in a parallel increase in life satisfaction. Once basic needs of safety, food, shelter, (and I will add a good internet connection) are met, our satisfaction with our lives depends on other factors. What are they?
The Harvard Study of Adult DevelopmentOne famous study that has tried to find answers to what makes a good life is the 1938 Harvard Study. Following over 700 men (apparently women were invisible in the 1930s!) of widely different backgrounds throughout their lives, the study is now in its second generation. It tells us what we suspected all along: our connections to other people matter. Robert Waldinger, the Study's current director, spoke about their findings: "It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they're physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected. And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely." It takes a strong resilience to see that even if we find ourselves without family, spouse, or many remaining lifelong friends, we are surrounded by others like us who wish to connect.
Not all supportive connections come from other people. Finding solace in nature is nothing new. You don't have to be a Romantic poet to recognize the companionship to be found in animals, plants, and all of nature. Gardening is an enjoyable activity for many residents on Beatitudes Campus, whether in the Community garden or on their own balconies or patios. The physical and emotional benefits of gardening have been proven to lower stress and decrease blood pressure and anxiety.
So while finding happiness might look a little different for each of us, as a community we recognize the value we bring to one another’s lives as we make connections that sustain us, large and small.