Revisiting the Pursuit of Happiness

Happy Fourth of July! 

What does that “happy” mean to you? Time with your family? Time away from work? Great food? Fireworks?

It was Thomas Jefferson who added “the pursuit of happiness” to “life and liberty” those 243 years ago, but I don’t think he intended the modern idea of happiness—a temporary dopamine lift that makes us feel good—but rather the classical idea with which he would have been familiar. To our early leaders, Washington and Jefferson among them, happiness meant wellbeing that comes from living a life of purpose. To them, it meant participation in civic life, an active sense of responsibility for the future, and living in a society created for the welfare of all. For those of us in the Medical School, we have the opportunity to ensure our pursuit of happiness joins the ideas of personal wellbeing and civic welfare as we seek to improve the practice of medicine.

In modern life, however, we frequently connect happiness with other things. The annually published Happiness Report (an interesting read), uses markers like GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, and freedom to make life choices to assign a ranking to countries around the world. Where did the US fall this year? Number 19 out of 156. And fall we have, with happiness in the country declining since 2000, despite the overall trend toward economic improvement. The report posits declines in social connectivity, increases in obesity, depression, suicide, and opioid addiction, and “The rise of digital media and the fall of everything else…” as key factors in our unhappiness. We certainly encounter these stressors in our own lives. How do we counteract these influences that reduce our happiness? 

The most popular class in Yale’s history, “Psychology and the Good Life” (available free online as The Science of Well-Being) taught by Dr. Laurie Santos, “reveals misconceptions about happiness, annoying features of the mind that lead us to think the way we do, and the research that can help us change.” In other words, becoming happier can be learned, and she has done the research to back that up. Starting with the idea that what makes up a happy person is 50% genetically fixed, 10% circumstantial, and 40% a product of our own beliefs and attitude, Santos has debunked the idea that happiness comes from success (financial or otherwise). She teaches that we can learn to connect individual wellbeing and public welfare in our 40% by “showing more gratitude, procrastinating less, [and] increasing social connections.” Essentially, the way we think greatly influences our wellbeing and life satisfaction, and this can be under our control. 

One thing to think about is how we are part of something larger than ourselves. This is an excerpt from the 2019 Nature Index Global Top 100, described as a ranking of “the institutions and countries which dominated research in the natural sciences in 2018.” And there we are, at #38, having risen 15.1% since last year. Let’s continue this trajectory.

President Kennedy once defined happiness as “the full use of one’s talents along the lines of excellence.” This is your work, your efforts, your talents, tangibly measured to be positively impacting the world and creating a legacy for future generations. Although I certainly hope you enjoy a dopamine lift over the holiday today, I hope you will also experience the feeling of wellbeing that comes from living this academic life of purpose and of being part of the University of Minnesota as it fulfills its missions of service.