Tips for authentic happiness

“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.”

That familiar refrain occurs in a song-story I use with my grandchildren. We sing loudly and clap a lot. After a while, we move to head bobbing and feet stomping. All sorts of foolish merriment follows, and we usually end up giggling.

If you’re giggling, you are definitely happy.

So, are you happy? I am on a mission to help you feel that way by the end of this column. Research has identified characteristics that correlate with happiness, including religious involvement, parenthood, marital status, age, income and proximity to other happy people.

That means if you’re an older adult and a person of faith, married (with satisfactorily launched children) and some degree of disposable income, you’re off to a good start. Hang around with giggling toddlers and you might have it nailed.

For me, “happiness” is that personal feeling of well-being and contentment. “Full of joy” is my favorite definition. Using a “positive psychology” approach, folks at the University of Pennsylvania developed tools that assess various character strengths to get to a better understanding of “authentic happiness,” which on its face looks like a combination of “pleasure,” “engagement” and “meaning.”

My vision of what that involves looks like this is this: I’m at a social gathering (it’s a total pleasure being there) and talking with an interesting friend (fully engaged) about, of all things, the definition of happiness (and generating meaningful ideas for this column in the process.)

Direct measures of happiness are difficult. I consider myself a basically happy person on most days. But I took the “Oxford Happiness Inventory” and concluded I am only 73 percent as happy as I could be. The reasons were a little elusive. Apparently, I need to get more restorative rest. If I did, I’d possibly be able to respond to statements such as “I’m constantly in a state of joy and elation” with a higher rating than “3” on a 1-5 scale.

Some people are less than happy because of illness, disability or financial peril. I know this sounds hokey, but if something like that is going on for you (and I realize that if it is, you’ve got a lot on your mind), consider keeping a “gratitude journal” — writing down (daily) the things you are grateful for in life. It has a positive effect on attitude and emotion. So does a brisk walk, listening to your favorite music, a well-delivered funny story, and root beer floats (I made that last one up).

The poet Carl Sandburg was a happy, contented sort of guy. He had a simple reminder for all of us. “Let a joy keep you reach out your hands and take it as it runs by.”

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray in My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at

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