The hard work of happy

Swerve, January 15, 2016: I had one of my first revelations about adult happiness as a kid sitting with my friend’s mom in her tidy kitchen—an ashtray on the table and a magazine on her lap. I was complaining about my mom, who was having a rough time, when my friend’s mom turned to me and said with a scowl: “You don’t get to be happy all the time. You have to work at it.”

I don’t know which shocked me more: that she was ever happy—I rarely saw her smile—or the notion that I wouldn’t be. As I struggled with the thought, my friend emerged from the basement, grabbed the toast and bacon waiting for her on a piece of paper towel and we set off for school. As we walked down the alley, she gave me the cold bacon and I was happy.

I was a simple kid. And my mom hardly ever bought bacon.

As an adult I know better. Most of us need more than bacon to be happy. But bringing some of it home is definitely part of the equation. “Money makes certain things in life easier to have or to do, but money itself may not make people happy,” says Robbie Babins-Wagner, a researcher and social worker who also serves as CEO of the Calgary Counselling Centre. “I’ve had the experience of seeing how people aspire to have the money they thought would make them happy and then they find that they’re not.”

We all need some money, but more money does not equal more happiness. In fact, last year, when ATB Financial asked Albertans what was important to their happiness, money landed in “the middle of the pack,” says Rob Roach, ATB’s senior analyst, economics and research.

The company asked 999 people across the province a few dozen questions about their happiness. About 70 per cent of those with household incomes below $30,000 reported being happy, compared to 88 per cent of people with incomes of $150,000 or more. As for “a high level of life satisfaction,” those making below $30,000 come in at 41 per cent. Those making more than $150,000 report 78 per cent.

Do the math: Five times the income does not equal five times the happy. Or, as my mom used to say: “There can be a lot of misery in those big houses.” If it was as simple as money equals happiness then one gajillionaire I know wouldn’t have bailed on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook: “Everyone is having such a good time,” he told me. “It made me feel lousy about my life.”

There’s more to being happy than money.

 Along with the endless stream of pictures of prettier people eating better food, going better places and having more fun than you, social media deliver a steady stream of advice on how to be happy. Follow the memes to find your bliss and turn that frown upside down.

“Happiness is . . . the dog park.” “Happiness is … not having to set your alarm clock.” “Happiness is … growing old together with the love of your life.” “Happiness is getting your hands dirty in the garden.” There are almost as many pithy quotes about happiness online as there are pictures of naked people. Which Sigmund Freud, that old horndog, might have found an interesting coincidence.

We want to “become happy and to remain so,” the father of psychoanalysis wrote.  On the one hand, we strive for “an absence of pain and unpleasure….” On the other hand, we strive to experience “strong feelings of pleasure.” If we were to boil that down to a Freud meme it might be “Happiness is … sex.”

That’s all well and good, but I also need cream for my morning coffee. And you might need time to cycle every day, in pursuit of that meme that goes “happiness is … beating 2hr30 in an Olympic triathlon.”  Someone else may need more cowbell. “You don’t need a lot of things to make yourself happy,” says Babins-Wagner. “But all of us are different. You and I may need only two or three things. Other people may need six. Some people may need one.”

But most of us need people. “Virtually everybody—a high percentage of the people—said strong relationships with their family and friends are very important to their happiness,” says Roach of the ATB survey. “After strong relationships, Albertans rank their health as important to their happiness, followed by time to do things they enjoy.” The results also indicated that Albertans are “quite bullish” on being physically active and spending time in the great outdoors.


In fact, in the summer of 2014 when Calgarians were asked to draw their happy places on a map of the city, they wore down the green pencil crayons. “The No. 1 thing that came out was prominence of green space and nature,” says John Lewis, president of Intelligent Futures, the firm that explored the links between happiness and urban design with the happyyyc project. “That is a real strong suit in Calgary; whether it’s river pathways or big-ass parks like Nose Hill or Fish Creek, it was surprising how much that came out.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, not one of the 124 people who scribbled down the places that give them joy drew the Deerfoot or Crowchild. Only one map showed Chinook Centre and only one person mentioned one of the city’s hundreds of big chain stores (it was a Tim Hortons).

Instead, people sketched their favourite restaurants in neighbourhoods like Kensington, Mission and Inglewood. “The second most referred-to category was urban neighbourhoods, that inner ring around downtown,” says Lewis. “The Peace Bridge came up a few times, but we don’t seem to have a lot of those specific singular places; it’s the neighbourhoods (that come up).”

While Lewis figured they’d see plenty of ragged mountain peaks drawn on the left-hand side of the maps, he wasn’t expecting to see the airport drawn in on so many. Along with drawings of tiny airplanes, some people offered a little more information—that they were off on an adventure, welcoming family home or heading home themselves.

“Two of the places that make people happy are getting the hell out of town,” Lewis says with a laugh. “We expected the mountains to show up because that is part and parcel of this region and the identity, and one of the great things about living here, but I never would have predicted the amount of times the airport showed up.”

When people were busy drawing in their maps, Jim Prentice was our brand-new premier and oil was triple the price it is now. But Lewis doesn’t think the downturn in the oil and gas industry would change what people draw. “I think these kinds of places, particularly the places that are public and are free like, say, Nose Hill Park, may become even more important to folks in times of stress or strain.”     

I have found my happy on Nose Hill more times than I can count. If I arrive pissy or preoccupied, I leave an hour later relaxed and likely to have come up with a game plan to tackle whatever was vexing me. The latest in a long list of studies into why walking in nature is good for our mental health suggests that it helps reduce rumination—“repetitive thought on negative aspects of self.” All I know is while I may not exactly skip back to my car, I am in a better mood leaving the park than when I arrived. And the dog is, too.


Most of us can manage a walk in the park, but none of us can make the price of oil go up—something that would go a long way to put some “happy” into Calgary. As we lurch into a brand-new year of economic uncertainty, rest assured, researchers, writers and meme creators around the world are delving into happiness: What it is, how to get it and how to keep it. It would be a full-time job trying to keep up with all the institutes, projects, studies, books and, of course, snake oils out there dedicated to happiness (see sidebar).   

As neuroscience tries to figure out how our magnificent brains produce happiness, you can always go old-school and just listen to your mom. “Count your blessings,” mine used to say.  Another quick and dirty hack is getting off social media. Quitting Twitter made my wealthy friend happier because it took him away from what he thought should bring him joy, and put him smack dab in his own life with the people, things and activities he loves. That was a smart move, says Babins-Wagner. “People kind of go off track because they’re vulnerable to all the influences around them,” she says. Screen out the ads on TV, forget the neighbours and figure out what makes you happy—from being crazy busy and working hard (at a job or volunteering) to lollygagging with a novel on the couch.

Maybe, then, the meme we seek is “Happiness is . . . minding your own game.” “Build your own happiness plan,” says Babins-Wagner. “I would start with three or four things, and then test them. Does it make you happy to have Sunday- night dinner every week with your kids, or is it really a burden?”

Whether it’s bailing on big dinners, escaping into a book, or bingeing on Netflix, finding your happy is not only good for you, it could help the economy, too.

“Research suggests that happiness may be the emotional egg that comes before the economic chicken,” says ATB’s Roach. “Happiness fuels success, not the other way around.” Positive, happy people are more engaged. They’re more creative, motivated and productive.  And they’re more likely to make stuff happen. Unhappy people, on the other hand, are less likely to get out there and start a business, spur innovation or get anything moving.

Turns out my friend’s mom was bang on at her kitchen table all those years ago: you do have to work at happy. And as Calgary braces for what 2016 may bring to the energy industry, finding your happy may be more important than ever. “Especially in these times,” says Babins-Wagner, “we need to be grounded about what we are going to do to make us happy.”

Sidebar:  The big business of happy

Thousands of researchers in labs around the world are delving into the factors behind happiness, from our relationships with our parents to how neurons in our brains fire when we see photographs of people displaying different emotions.   

There is a Happiness Research Institute, a World Database of Happiness and even the Latin American Network for Wellbeing and Quality of Life Policies.

Bhutan has started measuring Gross National Happiness, a Japanese guy promises “life-changing miracles” with his Happy Science, and authors who write books about finding your happy are often destined for the bestseller lists. Economists, psychologists, neuroscientists and more than a few charlatans have written extensively on the topic.

One of the best known studies into happiness is being conducted by researchers at Harvard. The Grant Study of Adult Development has followed 200 men for 75 years, tracking their physical and emotional health. Dr. George Valliant, who ran the study for decades, summarized the findings in a paper entitled: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”

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