By Saul Levine, MD




What is this feeling called happiness?  We talk about it, aspire to it, and Americans have the concept of happiness enshrined in their Declaration of Independence, where the “pursuit of happiness” is included with “life” and “liberty” as “inalienable rights”.  Thus  the United States officially designates happiness as an overriding right, ingrained in one’s consciousness from an early age as a necessary goal. 


People feel an inherent social pressure to be happy at all times. “Keep smiling”, “put on a happy face”, we are told, and there are myriad how-to-be-happy books on the market.  In her book, Bright-Sided, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about the relentless promotion of positive thinking; one must feel happy, or there is something “wrong”.  But what do we mean by it?  Perpetual elation?  Abject bliss?  Some cynics see this as a sign of immaturity.  Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama have written about happiness as a worthy state of being, but neither posited it as nirvana.


Perhaps satisfaction is a better word.  When we are satisfied, there are actual biological changes we can measure: our levels of immune factors and chemicals like dopamine and endorphins correlate with our feelings, and there are changes seen in imaging studies of the brain.  Actually, a state of extreme happiness is often seen in those with a psychiatric condition, such as bipolar mood disorder, or in a cocaine-induced high.  There is a clear difference between a sustained positive mood, expressed by Simon and Garfunkle as “feelin’ groovy”, and the fleeting ecstasies induced by Guns N’ Roses’ “sex, drugs, ’n’ rock ’n’ roll”.


People who are satisfied tend to have a more generous and grateful view of life.  They are more tolerant and empathetic to others, and that positive mind-set has an appealing and beneficial effect on others.  Satisfied individuals make others feel better and attract those who wish to share the mood.  They enjoy their loved ones and friendships.  People’s moods are enhanced when they have a core value system and sense of meaning in their lives, beyond materialism


Satisfied people have no illusions that life will be easy sailing.  They recognize that just as there are joys and pleasures in life, there will inevitably be upheavals and pain.  They are better able to accept successes and setbacks with equanimity.  This is the natural flow of life: neither is permanent, neither is a predictor of the future.  Satisfied souls appreciate the small pleasures, the hot bath when cold and tired, the sandwich when famished, a touch when lonely, a smile when feeling down, and, of course, the smell of flowers just about anytime.  It is important, and indeed not difficult, for us to savor satisfaction.






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