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Don Cunningham: The Era of Happiness and Well-Being

By Colin McEvoy on May 3, 2018

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on April 11, 2018. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

It was America’s founders that first introduced the concept of pursuing happiness as an inalienable right.

It was revolutionary. No one until them had declared that government should be built upon the rights of the governed. Of course, in establishing that government, the same blokes allowed white people to own black people, creating a structure of misery, sadness and evil in a government that espoused the opposite.

Happiness is clearly a relative term. For ages, scholars, philosophers, legislators and lawyers have debated its meaning and how the pursuit of it fits into the messy reality of a democratic republic.

Today, happiness, and its pursuit, is not just an issue for the academies, courts and legislative halls but also one for individuals, which is now assessed and measured.

We live in an era of happiness — and its cohort, unhappiness — as employers, businesses, and communities strive to meet people’s demand to keep them happy.

Maybe it’s the Founders’ ultimate vindication. They were wise enough to install self-corrective measures that could overcome the flaws and contradictions in a compromise document cast in a much less enlightened era.

I’m sure, however, they never envisioned a Well-Being Index.

Ten years ago, Gallup, the polling organization, in partnership with Sharecare, a health and wellness company, began measuring the well-being or, essentially, the happiness of Americans. Each year, 2.5 million Americans from every state and major metropolitan region in the U.S. are polled based on five elements of “well-being:” purpose, social, financial, community and physical.

Every state and every region gets a score and a ranking on the Index, allowing the reader to find America’s Happy Zones, and, conversely, Unhappy Zones. I reported on the results the last time I wrote in this space.

The Lehigh Valley is now America’s 89th happiest region, jumping up 28 places in one year. Pennsylvania is 34th among the states. According to the Index, Americans in general are much less happy. This year’s Index showed the largest one-year decline in well-being since the survey began. There’s been much media analysis as to why.

Two things strike me.

First, ironically, it seems the underlying condition of life needs to reach a pretty good level of well-being and happiness to start measuring it. No such survey is taking place right now in war-torn Syria or Afghanistan or in the tribal village battlefields of Nigeria, just as it didn’t during America’s Great Depression or the Second World War. Those folks have or had bigger problems.

It’s a measure of how much better things are that we can now measure the degree of happiness in America.

When my immigrant great-grandmother was growing food in her south Bethlehem row house backyard to feed her family during the 1930s, there were no survey calls asking, “Does your location allow you to manage your economic life to reduce stress and increase security?”

The Founders may have established her inalienable right to pursue happiness, but no one was checking on it, nor could they. She didn’t have a phone. She did live to be 98. And, once arriving from Slovenia in the 1920s, she never left Bethlehem.

Happiness is a relative term. Hers was base level. She and her family now had freedom, better economic opportunity, no war outside, shelter and food.

My second point is related. Our happiness and well-being meters today may need some re-gauging.

Not far from my great-grandmother’s old neighborhood, I recently overheard two students complaining that there’s no Starbucks on the south side. On the Well-Being Index, this “problem” could lead to a bad score on the question, “Do you like the neighborhood where you live? “

Some of today’s wants were unimaginable a generation ago.

Nonetheless, one generation has no austerity obligation to live under the same conditions or with the same expectations as their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents. The pursuit of better social conditions, physical improvements and higher standards of living is always the aim of each generation for the next.

But, there should be an equal gratitude and understanding for the progress paid forward.

We now take a pill to kill off an infection that would have killed our great grandfathers. We push a button and have cooled air in the summer and warmed air in the winter.  There are no more outhouses. Machines wash our dishes and food is available on nearly every corner. We carry computer phones in our hands that provide instant communication across the world and access to knowledge the greatest scholar a generation ago couldn’t learn in a lifetime.

Despite the chaos of our politics and our partisan divides, Americans live in a fortunate time in human history. Yet, so many among us don’t feel that way.

It may be because something was lost in all the progress. We have become so connected to everything we don’t feel connected to anything. Technology has made it all easier and more convenient and harder at the same time.

I look back at how my grandparents lived. Entertainment was playing cards with friends and family. They knocked on neighbor’s doors and visited at kitchen tables or in backyards. News came once a day in the paper. It was simple.

There were silent moments to think and read, not text or react.

A more simple focus and a rebooting of the happiness gauge are in order.

Rolf Dobelli writes in the wonderful book, The Art of Thinking Clearly, “Absence is much harder to detect than presence…If we thought more frequently about absence, we might well be happier.”

What Dobelli means is: when we are healthy be grateful we’re not sick, take notice if we go for a walk and nothing hurts, recognize the absence of war and famine and wretched poverty endured by so many when it is not present.

In the end, only we can provide our own well-being and happiness. It doesn’t come from a business, a government or a community.  The Well-Being Index may rank the states but it’s more about our own state of mind.

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