Dec. 21, 2005 -- An old friend who often had difficulty taking life seriously showed up at work one day with a bumper sticker he had created. It read, "It is better to be rich and healthy than to be sick and poor."
Now a team of researchers has come up with an equally startling finding. It is better to be happy than sad.
And that, they conclude, may put you on the road to success.
That finding may seem a tad obvious, but the fact is a lot of research has pointed in another direction, contending that happiness is the result of a lot of things -- success at work, a good marriage, a fit body, a fat bank account.
But according to psychologists at three universities, that's backward. People aren't happy because they are successful, they conclude. They're successful because they are happy.
The researchers combed through 225 studies involving 275,000 people and found that most researchers put the proverbial cart before the horse. Most investigators, they concluded, "assume that success makes people happy."
It took just a few minutes for me to lay my hands on a batch of research papers that support that premise. People are happy because they are healthy (Carnegie Mellon), are held in high esteem by their peers (Ohio State), consider themselves the "top dog" (University of Warwick), feel they are autonomous and competent (University of Missouri, Columbia), or have a good marriage (too many to list).
All those things probably contribute to happiness, according to a report in the current issue of the Psychological Bulletin, published by the American Psychological Association, but more often than not they are the result of happiness, not the cause. The paper is by Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside; Laura King of the University of Missouri, Columbia; and Ed Diener of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and the Gallup Organization.
They conclude that happy people are easier to work with, more highly motivated and more willing to tackle a difficult project. Thus, they are more likely to be successful. That fits neatly with a study done several years ago that concluded the main reason people get fired isn't incompetence or unreliability or tardiness or any of the other things that distinguish some of our co-workers from ourselves. It's that they can't get along with their colleagues.
And let's face it. It's easier to like someone who's always up than someone who is always down.
Who wants to work with a grump?
But do we really have any control over our own level of happiness? My hunch for years has been that some people are just naturally happy. It doesn't seem to have anything to do with their circumstances. They're happy because they're happy.
Lyubomirsky and her colleagues have a more precise definition, of course.
"What is the hallmark of happiness?" they ask. "Our focus in this article is on happy individuals -- that is, those who experience frequent positive emotions, such as joy, interest and pride, and infrequent (though not absent) negative emotions, such as sadness, anxiety and anger."
The researchers concede there is a potential vulnerability in their conclusions because studies of happiness depend largely on self-reporting. If you want to know if people are happy, ask them. They may lie about it and say they are happy even though they are miserable, but that's not likely to be the case, at least not often.
Most people who are miserable seem eager to share their misery.
So assuming people who claim to be happy are telling the truth, studies show conclusively that that's a good thing.
"Happy people appear to be more successful than their less-happy peers in three primary life domains -- work, relationships and health," the researchers conclude.
And "happy moods appear to lead people to seek out others and to engage with the environment at large, to be more venturesome, more open and more sensitive to other individuals."
But alas, there is a downside to all this happiness. Sometimes, especially when the subject is "chronically happy," the researchers note, co-workers may find all that cheerfulness a bit annoying.
And being happy is not even a "royal road to the perfect life," they add. Sometimes, nothing seems to work out right.
But when the tide turns against a happy person, it's OK to be sad, according to the report. To remain jovial in the face of pathos is a sign of an unhealthy mind.
So if being successful doesn't guarantee happiness, what's a body to do? Can we really do anything about it?
The researchers suggest that happiness doesn't come from someplace else. It comes from within.
By the way, my old friend who came up with that bumper sticker during one of his manic phases was right. It really is better to be rich and healthy than sick and poor, or so I'm told.
And it's nice to be happy, even if it is annoying to the grouches around you.