Life, liberty and the pursuit of…

By John Langhorne/Tree Full of Owls

Happiness is an interesting topic. Last week, a colleague sent me an article written by a foreign exchange student in Orlando. She noted that all Americans seem to care about is money and stated that the people of Denmark are much happier because their government pays for everything so they can dedicate themselves to their families. This article did not make me happy, but it did focus on the issue of happiness. I would like to share what psychologists have learned about happiness.

First, it turns out that happiness is correlated with many positive outcomes. Among them are longer life, ability to recover from emotional and physical trauma and greater marital, occupational and life satisfaction.

So, are you happy? If so, how happy are you? Psychologists, who prefer the term life satisfaction or subjective well being, as it doesn’t come with the “Pollyanna” baggage, have developed an empirically validated scale that measures your life satisfaction with five simple questions on a strongly agree – strongly disagree scale. If you are interested go to and check on your happiness. This self-test takes less than a minute. This is a terrific site with an interesting link to a discussion on the power of gratitude. Quite provocative.

If life satisfaction is so highly related to the quality and duration of our lives, what are the aspects of our lives we can work on to improve our satisfaction with living? Powerful, positive emotional relationships with other people are a predictor of happiness. I once heard a wise person say it is possible to measure the quality of a person’s life by assessing the quality of their relationships.

Relationships are important because there is evidence that emotion is contagious. Consider the friend or coworker who is habitually cheerful versus the chronic complainer, you know the one where you want to say, “Do you want cheese with your whine?” One brings you up, the other takes you down.

A second predictor is having goal(s) in your life. There is compelling evidence that peoples’ behavior is highly purposive. Hence the aphorism, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take your there.” There is an ancient Yiddish aphorism: “Work makes life sweet.” Clearly, having a satisfying occupation and/or avocation can contribute to the quality of our existence.

Another element is the presence of some deep spiritual, philosophical or existential meaning. I have known many people for more than 40 years, and those who appear the most comfortable in their skins have a well thought-out, practiced set of principles, morals or values that guide their lives.

Reading autobiography and biography can give deep insight into the minds of prominent people. In this year that marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the greatest conflict in our history, I recommend to you the best of the presidential autobiographies, that of Ulysses S. Grant. You will need an overall understanding of how the war unfolded and some good maps. Reading this book, almost entirely about the war, is like peering into a brilliant strategic mind.

Income and wealth seem not to have much of a relationship to happiness. One researcher notes that income is extremely important until people attain a certain level, and then shows no relationship. There is evidence this level varies across countries.

I often comment the most important “decision” in your life is to choose your parents with some care. Parents provide us with DNA and with our childhood environment. Getting off to a good beginning in life can give you a big boost. However, research shows that children are amazingly resilient and can overcome enormous adversity.

Another important “decision” of this type is to choose your country with some care. We can easily see the better countries to live in by simply looking at international immigration patterns. Although there is some controversy about which national characteristics produce happiness, these seem to be prevalent: A democratic government, a productive economy, a healthy environment and anchoring in a positive culture or religion. Turns out the U.S. constitution got it about right.

Gallup actually has, among other polling data, a daily index of mood. Check it out at

This brings us back to the beginning. Just how happy are the Danes? It turns out they are the happiest in Europe and perhaps in the world. For an interesting visual of world happiness go to:

Have a happy life!

John Langhorne is with Langhorne Associates. He can be reached at His new book, Beyond Luck: Practical Steps to Navigate the Path from Manager to Leader, is available at