Happiness is Our Unalienable Right

Originally posted at Writeindependent.org on October 29, 2011

Yes, but what is happiness and how do I get some?

If happiness is mentioned right in our Declaration of Independence, you had best believe it was important to our forefathers. Yet, so many people in this country suffer from depression. Jefferson knew that happiness played a huge role in the fundamental reason for their claim of independence from the United Kingdom and yet, I feel we have lost our way in the pursuit of it. That is why I have been a scholar of happiness. To wit:

“In the late nineteenth century, one of the founders of sociology, Emile Durkheim, performed a scholarly miracle. He gathered data from across Europe to study the factors that affect the suicide rate. His finding can be summarized in one word: constraints. No matter how he parsed the data, people who had fewer social constraints, bonds and obligations were more likely to kill themselves. Durkheim looked at the ‘degree of integration of religious society’ and found that Protestant, who lived the least demanding religious lives at the time, had higher suicide rates than did Catholics; Jews, with the densest network of social and religious obligations, had the lowest. He examined the ‘degree of integration of domestic society’—the family—and found the same thing: People living alone were most likely to kill themselves; married people, less; married people with children, still less. Durkheim concluded that people need obligations and constraints to provide structure and meaning to their lives: ‘The more weakened the groups to which {a man} belongs, the less he depends on them, the more he consequently depends only on himself and recognizes no other rules of conduct than what are founded on his private interests.’

“A hundred years of further studies have confirmed Durkheim’s diagnosis. If you want to predict how happy someone is, or how long she will live (and if you are not allowed to ask about her genes or personality), you should find out about her social relationships. Having strong social relationships strengthens the immune system, extends life (more than does quitting smoking), speeds recovery from surgery, and reduces the risks of depression and anxiety disorders. It’s not just that extroverts are naturally happier and healthier; when introverts are forced to be more outgoing, they usually enjoy it and find that it boosts their mood. Even people who think they don’t want a lot of social contact still benefit from it. And it’s not just that ‘we all need somebody to lean on’; recent work on giving support shows that caring for others is often more beneficial than is receiving help. We need to interact and intertwine with others; we need the give and the take; we need to belong. An ideology of extreme personal freedom can be dangerous {if} it encourages people to leave homes, jobs, cities, and marriages in search of personal and professional fulfillment, thereby breaking the relationships that were probably their best hope for such fulfillment.

“Seneca was right: ‘No one can live happily who has to regard himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility.’”

"Copyright © 2006 Jonathan Haidt. Reprinted by permission of Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group."
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