Some days, I’m happier than any human should be allowed. I sing to myself in a high falsetto. I laugh so hard I snort stuff out my nose and I generally annoy the populace with my exuberance.

I’m a ray of sunshine, aren’t I?

Other days, not so much. The world doesn’t sparkle the way it did the day before. The things within it seem shabby and the future looks bleak. No inner song, no belly-laughing at things that are only vaguely funny. I’m a downer with no song upon my lips.

I always view this variation as a purely physical thing – some mysterious chemical process going on deep within my mind. Today things like serotonin and dopamine are working overtime, tomorrow they might take the day off. Who knows, right? Happiness is a phantom, as elusive as fireflies flitting in the backyard. You want it. You feel you deserve it. You wonder why others have so much of it while you wallow without.

You poor, poor thing.

“Is happiness an entitlement?” asks Caroline Bright, a woman so chipper her friends call her Tookie. “If we struggle, is there something innately wrong with us? Maybe. Maybe not.”


When I prepared to write an article about something so vague and mystical as happiness, I went searching for an expert. But how can anyone be deemed an expert in such a thing?

Enter Bright, a woman I’d guess knows as much about happiness as anyone. She knows the other side, too – the dark side, where misery lives. As Children’s Program coordinator for The Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer, Hope & Healing, Bright’s job is to lead people out of that darkness.

Naturally, I somewhat attacked her with a slew of questions.

What is happiness? Is it the same as contentment and peace? Can you fake it? Force it? Buy it?

“In reflecting, I automatically went to the Declaration of Independence,” Bright said. “One of the most famous and highly respected documents in our history. Our country was founded on the collective belief that the pursuit of happiness is a basic right. I believe it is generally understood, that the achievement of happiness is a very personal and unique experience. One that is difficult to measure, quantify, bottle up and manufacture (albeit, many synthetic attempts have been made).

“As a mental health professional who works with youth impacted by a serious illness, and often death, I have experience with unique forms of happiness that grow out of – or despite – immense hardship and suffering. Additionally, I assist people of all ages when they struggle to find contentment, satisfaction, and happiness in their lives.”


Turn that frown upside down

Some people experience nothing but misery and yet they achieve happiness. Others seem to have everything the world can offer and yet they’re sullen and dissatisfied. Who can explain it?

Mike Boucher is willing to try. A faculty member at the Central Maine Medical Center College of Nursing and Health Professions, Boucher is somewhat famed for his sunny disposition. Some might even call him bubbly. In fact, a few people used that very word.

To Boucher, the concept of happiness is simple. You need look no further than the furry beast rolling around in the back yard.

“Dogs, of course,” he says. “Dogs find the simple pleasures of life are associated with walking, eating and sniffing butts.”

Which explains why they’re always smiling. But of course, dogs have an advantage when it comes to happiness. They don’t expect much at all. A few scraps of food from the table, a warm place to sleep and victory in the war on fleas. A dog doesn’t crave – nay, demand – a second car, a better job or a bigger house.


Which is a valid point, according to Boucher. Would we be happier if our expectations were lower?

“Point to ponder,” he says. “Were people depressed/unhappy when they were hunter/gatherers, focused on survival rather than American Idol and shopping online? I think unhappiness is related to too much time on one’s hands.”

The easier we have it, in other worlds, the more elusive happiness becomes.

And yet Boucher seems happy all the time, according to the people who know him well. Maybe he’s naturally jolly, the kind of guy who wakes up with a song on his lips and a bounce in his step. Or maybe he just puts in the right amount of work. Not to mention the right amount of play.

“A hard hike, motorcycle ride, kayaking, mountain biking all make me happy,” Boucher says. “I think it revolves around working out, extreme focus and movement. I believe working out and playing is the best antidepressant out there.”

Bright can give you the scientific rationale behind the concept of happiness. She can cite studies and refer to different schools of thought on the matter. She’s a professional who perhaps understands the complexities of contentment better than most. But she’s also a regular human, like the rest of us, and she does have her own personal ideas about what it takes to make a person happy.


“To me,” Bright says, “happiness is multifaceted, and comes in many diluted forms. It is cultivated in relationships and yet it is uniquely individual. It is accepting yourself and others with compassion. It is forgiveness, tolerance and a commitment to do good. It is a spectrum of authentic emotions and a zeal for the little things that breathe life into our daily experiences. Some of the most resilient, healthy and truly happy people I have met have blossomed into whole-hearted individuals because they have experienced a broad perspective of life . . . and celebrate all of it.”

Which kind of brings you back to that dog thing. If you’re a dog – or even a cat, for crying out loud – happiness is everywhere you turn. Here’s an old slipper to chew. Here’s a leg to hump or a moth to chase. Here’s an old piece of popcorn found beneath the sofa or an apron string to attack with abandoned. What fun! What bliss!

Kids too, to some extent. We’ve all seen kids finding absolute joy in the empty box leftover on Christmas morning. A kid doesn’t care how much a gift costs. If he can transform it into a fort or use it to make his sister squeal, by God, he’s happy.

Happiness R us

Garelick Farms recently held a Pure Happiness Contest in which Maine kids were invited to describe and draw whatever it is that makes them happy. In their answers can be found the very ingredients of happiness – ingredients you tend to forget about when you get older and your demands become loftier.

“Happiness to me is being outside with animals,” says a second-grader at Fairview School in Auburn. “These are two of my favorite things.” Her sketch is of a smiling girl with cats and dogs and rabbits.


“Toasting marshmallows around a campfire is pure happiness to me,” says a fifth-grader. “Marshmallows are delicious and having a campfire is fun.”

“Running is pure happiness to me. Just the feeling of it makes me smile.”

“A day at the beach watching sailboats.”

“Sitting in solitude in the forest with my headphones, a book and a delicious ice cream cone, enjoying nature at its fullest – that’s pure happiness.”

And now come the adults. When we put out a query on the matter of happiness, I expected the worst. I expected demands for more money, hotter girlfriends, more toys in the yard. I expected a few people to declare liquor the source of joy and maybe a few more that I’d never be able to put in print.

The results surprised me.


For many who responded to our query, friends and family are all it takes to achieve true happiness. If your peeps are healthy and happy, then you can be happy, too. In its way, this approach to life is very childlike. Very doglike, too.

“Me, my kids and enough money to spend all the time I want with them,” says Nick Graham, who responded to a query. “Anyone who ever said money can’t buy happiness is a liar.”

“Holding my best four-legged friend, Tracker,” says Christine Clavette Gagne of Auburn. “Walking and hiking and doing what he does best.”

“Little arms around my neck with a little voice whispering in my ear ‘I love you Grammie,'” says Judy Richmond of Phillips.

“My grandchildren and my children,” says Gail Philbin LaBelle. “All the happiness I need.”

“Being at the beach,” says Kelly Briggs of Minot, “surrounded by friends and family and a lifetime supply of chocolate and cheese!”


For Sophia Gamache of Sabattus, bliss comes from the earth itself. It sounds deeply philosophical, but it’s hard to argue with her position: How can anyone be happy, really, if the world itself is not?

“My picture of pure happiness would be of a red barn filled with various livestock, garden beds filled with lush greens and various edibles,” writes Gamache. “I used to draw this image in crayon on drawing paper when I was a child. Today the meaning of that farm has drastically changed. Now it signifies self-reliance, harmonizing with one’s environment and community, having respect for the earth and its numerous inhabitants. Whether we like it or not, we will be sharing this planet with others whether they be of human descent or other living entities (i.e. wildlife, forests, ecosystems) until we depart. Let’s make the best of it!”

And for a few, happiness seems to come from anger – political anger, to be precise. The message is that it’s hard to be happy, damn it, when the world is run by morons.

“Right now my picture of pure happiness would be Obama being led out of the White House in handcuffs, along with Holder and Clinton,” wrote Eric Yoder, in response to our query. “Then the arrest of all the (people) that caused our economy to collapse due to their greed and criminal decisions. Then the passing of a law making it a felony crime for politicians and the ‘media’ to lie, intentionally mislead or knowingly omit the truth when addressing the public.”

“Draw a pic,” says William Tim Timmins, “of our governor packing his things in his office.”

Whatever blows wind up your skirt, fellas.


Are you happy?

It’s a question we typically answer right away, without much thought at all. Happy? You betcha. I got a full six-pack and the ball game is on. How could I be anything but ecstatic?

But if you pause a moment and think a little deeper, it’s not so easy. Is happiness a state of mind? Is it pure biology – just a matter of chemicals sloshing around inside your head? Can it be measured? Can it be drunk from a bottle or squeezed out of a syringe?

The religious say happiness is the reward for a life well-lived. Others say it can only be achieved by overcoming cravings in all forms. John Lennon told us happiness is a warm gun, and how about that for irony?

For me, it all goes back to that dog thing. If chasing a sloppy, drool-dripping tennis ball across a field just makes your day, you’re probably going to be happy all the time. But as humans, we’re fickle. As soon as we get what we want, we start wanting something else. Happiness becomes a dangling carrot, something we chase and chase and chase, but never allow ourselves to catch.

In response to our query, we only got one piece of snail mail, but I thought the message contained was quite poignant. In it, Arthur Rubenstein and Denise Hebert suggest that we should embrace the things we have.


“There is no formula for happiness or success,” they wrote, “except, perhaps, an unconditional acceptance of life and what it brings.”

You know: like a dog.

If happiness is so great, why do we watch so many sad movies?

Movies with “happy” in the title:

‘Pursuit of Happyness’

Oh, this one is a flat-out bummer. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but let me put it this way. Will Smith suffers a lot during the course of this movie – he’s homeless, lost his wife, can’t find no job, can’t afford to feed his kid, etc. – and you suffer right along with him. For 90 minutes or so, you’re just a bummed-out mess wandering the sad streets of San Francisco with Will and his kid. Good news! Things turn around at the end! Bad news: The filmmakers don’t let you enjoy more than a few seconds of it. This is 99 percent depressing, 1 percent uplifting. Roll credits.



I haven’t seen this one, but Mike Boucher, one of my happiness experts, recommends it. From IMDB: “Happy takes us on a journey from the swamps of Louisiana to the slums of Kolkata in search of what really makes people happy. Combining real life stories of people from around the world and powerful interviews with the leading scientists in happiness research, Happy explores the secrets behind our most valued emotion.”

‘Happy Gilmore’

It’s Adam Sandler. Does that make you happy? Me, neither. He’s only funny as that tollbooth guy.

‘The Happy House’

A newish horror parody that made a New York Times critic very unhappy. “The film, a sleepy, low-budget affair, merely enacts a series of horror movie cliches, as if that were enough. Its bland actors and wit-free script do nothing with the familiar elements but present them. It’s as if Jon Stewart simply sat there and read the actual news with a slight smirk.”


Simpletons like me wear conical hats and blow party favors. Researchers, on the other hand, like to break happiness down into fine particles and study them through microscopes. If that kind of thing makes you happy, here’s some insights and links, provided by Caroline Bright, Children’s Program coordinator at The Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing:

* “The Locus of Control is a widely accepted tool that has been used in assessing or predicting maladaptive or resilient behavioral patterns in adolescents. People who have a strong internal locus of control tend to believe that their choices and behaviors have a direct impact on their lives and the acquisition of positive outcomes. Those that have a high external locus of control tend to believe that their choices and behavior have little or no impact on their lives and rather, outcomes are a result of external factors or influences.”

For more information on Locus of Control check out this article:

* “Most theories agree that this concept of control is formed through experience rather than genetic predisposition or personality traits. This information may help you to think about happiness from the perspective of resiliency and trauma factors and how they either strengthen or inhibit our ability to adjust to adverse experiences.

“Recently a revolutionary study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, CA, explored how many of our social, economic, and public health crisises are a result of adverse childhood experiences (trauma) as demonstrated by a long-term longitudinal study following individuals from birth to death. Much of this information is not new, but now it is a culmination of theory with strong scientific evidence to support the claims that trauma, chronic stress and early childhood development have significant influence on an individual’s sense of worth, ability to cope, choices they make and, ultimately, their health outcomes.

“Another long-term longitudinal study based in Hawaii looked at youth who had experienced childhood adversity and followed them into young adulthood. The study then looked at the group of participants who continued onto college, careers and healthy relationships to explore what had gone right. This study identified “protective factors” that contributed to the individual’s ability to adjust despite adversity. These included: temperamental attributes, ability to use strengths (skills), strong/healthy attachment relationship to a parent, other healthy adult role models or ‘surrogate parents,’ and opportunities at major life transitions.”

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