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Posted: February 21, 2013 7:27 p.m.

Morgan: Interpretations of happiness

Well, we’ve gone and done it again. Our state has turned up on a list that we’d rather not be on. As reported on CBS Morning News this week, researchers surveyed 10 million Twitter messages for words like "sad" or "happy" and ranked each state on scales of happiness or sadness. Sad to say, Georgia is deemed the fifth most unhappy state, behind Louisiana, Mississippi, Maryland and Delaware. The happiest states are, in order, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Utah and Vermont.

This is hardly a credibly scientific poll, but it’s worth considering. I suspect the majority of Twitter users are teens and young adults, so are the findings more about the mental outlook of a younger generation than the population as a whole? Most research I’ve seen says as people age, they get happier and more content with their lives despite any age-induced limitations and physical frailties.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, is both old, 78, and a Twitter user, believe it or not. He declared himself to be "happy — definitely" when interviewed by collaborator Dr. Howard Cutler for their book "The Art of Happiness, A Handbook for Living," published in 1998.

The Dalai Lama said in Chapter One: "I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. So, I think, the very motion of our life is towards happiness..."

Indeed, Thomas Jefferson thought well enough of the concept to include these words in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

Some research cited by Dr. Carter in his book with the Dalai Lama holds that one’s degree of happiness is due in some measure by genetics but its weight in an overall measure of happiness is unknown. However, the Dalai Lama believes one can train one’s mind to achieve true happiness. He is quoted: "When I say ‘training the mind,’ in this context, I’m not referring to ‘mind’ merely as one’s cognitive ability or intellect. Rather I’m using the term in the sense of the Tibetan word Sem, which has a much broader meaning, closer to ‘psyche’ or ‘spirit;’ it includes intellect and feeling, heart and mind. By bringing about a certain inner discipline, we can undergo a transformation of our attitude, our entire outlook and approach to living.

"...generally speaking, one begins by identifying those factors which lead to happiness and those factors which lead to suffering. Having done this, one then sets about gradually eliminating those factors which lead to suffering and cultivating those which lead to happiness. That is the way."

Dr. Carter writes that, in comparison, Western beliefs about happiness tend to focus more on the random nature of happy feelings, here one moment and gone the next. Indeed, the word "happy" comes from an Icelandic word "happ," meaning luck or chance. He writes, "Most of us, it seems, share this view of the mysterious nature of happiness. In those moments of joy that life brings, happiness feels like something that comes out of the blue."

Still, he writes, psychologists share a general belief that there are steps that can increase feelings of happiness. "...whether we are feeling happy or unhappy at any given moment often has very little to do with our absolute conditions but, rather it is a function of how we perceive our situation..." And feelings of contentment, he continues, are influenced by our tendency to compare. I interpret that to mean that if compelled to compare our own situation to what is a much worse situation — say begging on the streets of Mumbai — we would find plenty of reasons to be happy.

British librarians and a nonprofit called Reading Agency (readingagency.org.uk) have decided that happiness can be affected by what we are reading, as the AJC told us earlier this week. They’ve come up with a list of 27 books described as mood-boosting. "It is hoped those with mild to moderate mental health conditions will try out the idea before turning to prescription drugs," wrote London’s Daily Mail about the project.

They aren’t all self-help books, per the AJC, but works of fiction and nonfiction, a number of which can be found at the Newton County Library. Among them are: "The Secret Garden" by Frances Hodgson Burnett; "Tales of the City" by Armistead Maupin; "The Pursuit of Love" by Nancy Mitford; "Prodigal Summer" by Barbara Kingsolver; "Notes from a Small Island" by Bill Bryson; and "A Little History of the World" by E.H Gombrich and Clifford Harper. So quit your Twittering and pick up a book!

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. She can be reached at barbm2158@gmail.com.

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