Don’t worry, be happy


The keys to happiness are simple — grow up, get married, have children, go to church and try to forget about the wilder days of youth.

Only 52 percent of Americans say they are "very happy" with their lives, according to a Scripps Howard/Ohio University survey of 1,007 adult residents of the United States. Forty-three percent said they are "fairly happy," 3 percent said they are "not too happy" and 2 percent are undecided.

That might not seem sufficiently ebullient for a nation that embraces the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right. But the survey found Americans with particular lifestyles — especially those having a family and planting roots in a community — are much more likely to say they have found contentment.

While wealth has a modest impact on well-being, other social factors appear to have greater influence.

"It’s a lot of fun to see what the correlations are for happiness," said Glenn Van Ekeren, an elder care executive in Omaha, Neb., who has published three books on the secrets to happiness. "There are some real affirmations of life in this poll."

One of the most important things Americans can do to improve the odds of being happy, the survey found, is to get married. Sixty percent of married people are very happy, compared to 41 percent of singles.

"Of course, it’s unclear whether happy people are more prone to marriage or whether marriage makes people happy," Florida State historian Darrin McMahon, author of "Happiness, A History," said after reviewing the poll results. "But, certainly, it’s an old idea that community and close friendships have a bearing on our happiness. It stands to reason. We are social beings."

The survey found that young adults, 18 to 24, are especially likely to be unhappy. Only 37 percent of this age group said they are happy. A clear majority of all other age groups report contentment.

McMahon said he takes "a great deal of comfort" from the statistics.

"Here at Florida State I can assure you that, for these kids anyway, happiness is essentially a hedonistic search for intense pleasure. It’s ‘Girls Gone Wild’ and Spring Break madness," McMahon said. "But from everything we’ve learned about life, the pursuit of hedonism and pleasure for pleasure’s sake won’t make us happy."

Most people who have children say they are very happy in life, while most people who have never been parents say they are only "fairly happy" or "not too happy." Even among single people, having children in their lives increases the odds they will be happy.

An even stronger factor is the power of organized religion _ any religion _ on a sense of well-being.

Although their numbers were small, Jewish participants in the poll were the most likely of any group to say they are very happy. Protestants _ especially self-identified "born again" evangelicals _ also report a high rate of contentment.

Sixty percent of people who have recently attended worship services at a church, synagogue or mosque say they are very happy, compared to 46 percent of people who have not publicly worshiped and 44 percent who have no religious preferences.

"Look at the Book of Ecclesiastes which says, ‘Go eat your bread with enjoyment and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God long ago approved of what you do,’ " McMahon said. "Taking pleasure in the gifts of God whenever you can, that is the Jewish tradition and in the Christian tradition as well."

The survey found that people of different races, regions and urban settings are about equally likely to be happy.

There was a link between wealth and joy, with the happiest group in the middle brackets of $60,000 to $80,000 annual household income. People in disadvantaged homes were less likely to report contentment, but the level of joy does not steadily increase with rising income.

"If you are not happy with what you have, you never will be happy with what you will get," said Van Ekeren. "The core things that are really important are not influenced by dollars. When my wife and I first got married, we were so poor we couldn’t even pay attention. But we were happy."

The survey was conducted by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University from Feb. 19 to March 3. The study was sponsored by a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation.

The poll generally has a margin of error of 4 percentage points, although the margin rises considerably among subgroups.


(Thomas Hargrove is a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service. Guido H. Stempel III is director of the Scripps Survey Research Center.)