"A dance bandleader who died recently at the age of 97 liked to tell people he was in 'the happiness business.' Aren't we all, in a sense? Everyone wants to be happy, as the Dalai Lama often points out. In our fractious world, this may be the one point on which we all agree. But when it comes to the question What is happiness? there are probably six billion different answers — one for each person on the globe. If we're observant, we may know when other people are happy: the 'Duchenne smile,' produced by involuntary muscle contractions around the eyes and mouth, is a universal, if subtle giveaway as recognizable to a Papua New Guinean tribesman as to a British parliamentarian. What we generally can't tell is why someone's happy. Half the time, we can't even say why for ourselves. The right to pursue happiness is a wonderful opportunity, but it doesn't automatically move us closer to an answer. That may be the work of a lifetime.
"Indeed, for thousands of years philosophers have argued that finding happiness is the purpose of life. The Greeks thought it was our highest moral duty. The Utilitarians, centuries later, said it was our duty to make sure everybody else was happy too. Spiritual leaders have been of mixed mind about happiness: the Christian church never has quite resolved whether it's strictly a reward of the next life or a virtue in the here and now. To the Buddhists happiness is the fruit of awakening — freedom from the agony of desire. By the time Sigmund Freud came along and psychology became our de facto religion, happiness seemed like a loaded gun. Whatever made us happy probably wasn't good for us; the pursuit of happiness was fraught with inner conflict.
"Now, at long last, positive emotions like joy, affection, awe, and humor are in the spotlight. It's not just okay to seek happiness, it's essential. Our best hope of having a good life — and a safe planet — is to develop the kindlier, friendlier, more optimistic side of our nature.
"A green light to pursue happiness is terrific, but where to begin? Do we look to our surroundings — work, family, our social sphere? Or do we look within, at the desires and personality traits that predispose us to be happy, and the genetic or behavioral quirks that prevent us from feeling unalloyed joy? Some happiness mavens have argued that we're only as happy as we choose to be. If we're not happy, it means we've fallen down on the job. Not a very happy prospect. Now, brain science is coming to our rescue, with exciting new findings about neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to adapt and change. Pursuing happiness is not a moral issue but a practical one. Though we inherit a certain potential for happiness, we can enhance it by forming new neural pathways. With practices like meditation and cognitive training, we can reset our brains to experience the world the way naturally happy people take for granted.
"Happy people see life as opportunity. Challenges are blessings in disguise. When we feel happy, our minds are open and expansive. Conversely, when we're open and expansive we feel happy. Happiness is an 'upward spiral,' as one researcher describes it. It makes us not only feel better but be better — better able to forge fulfilling relationships, find meaningful pursuits, and handle the vicissitudes of life. Happiness helps us stay healthy and whole no matter what the circumstances. Best of all, we can pass it on to those around us. . . .
"Happiness, it has been said, is the whole end and aim of life. But it can be elusive. We have to approach it indirectly, and with patience. Even then, we may not be sure what will be required of us. A teenager participating in an experimental program to prevent depression may have said it best: 'People have the idea that being happy means skipping through the flowers. But happy is being happy with who you are.' "