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Mark Goulston, M.D.

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'Why Are Americans So Unhappy?'

Posted: 11/25/11 03:37 AM ET

I am writing this on the heels of Thanksgiving and Black Friday in hopes of finding Americans in a more thankful and grateful frame of mind.

Now, of course, the challenge is how to keep that up because when we are feeling down it unfortunately doesn't bring out the best in us.

"Why are Americans so unhappy?" is a question several Indians asked me on my recent trip to Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi. I felt embarrassed by it in light of seeing the still-incredible amounts of poverty in India and yet seeing how happy people seemed compared to Americans.

I responded, "Americans may be unhappy because of all the financial insecurity since the awful financial problems began in late 2008."

One of my hosts said, "With all due respect Dr. Mark, they were unhappy long before that. And add to that, they rarely seem calm or content. Most of our country has very little, but we still seem much happier and more content than your country. What is that about?"

I didn't have an answer, but one came to me on my 27-hour journey back to Los Angeles. Many Americans seem to be addicted to more, sooner. That can lead to feeling that at any given time, no matter what they have, they always want more. And no matter how quickly they get it, they always want it sooner.

If you think that is too simplistic, how many Americans do you know that are happy, or even okay with having less, later?

It seems that India has been so used to having less for ever that they are able to appreciate having anything more than that. They also seem more patient, perhaps because they know that becoming impatient doesn't help the process.

What is something that you and I as Americans can do to become a little happier even as we wait and hope for our financial situation to stabilize?

A few thoughts and situations come to my mind and I hope you will add in your comments suggestions that you can offer.

First, start every day thinking of 10 people you're thankful and grateful for. It may be people who stood up for you against other people, stood by you during a crisis or stood up to you to prevent you from doing something stupid (think of all the sponsors in 12-Step Programs who came and took you to a meeting before you fell off the wagon). It may be people who saw good in you and potential in you that you couldn't see or people who believed in you when you didn't. On Thanksgiving, I received a wonderful email from the co-author of my next book which will be about the power of positive influence, Dr. John Ullmen. He wrote to say that he has recently gotten into the habit of each day thinking of 10 people he felt thankful to and told me that for several weeks I have always been on the list.

Talk about positive influence. That email from John influenced me to not only feel gratitude towards him for his comment and for doing the lion's share of the details in writing that book (which we think you will all enjoy when it is published in fall 2012), it influenced me to write this blog entry.

Second, I think how much happiness is directly related to our perspective on the world and others and ourselves. One of the best examples I can remember about a perspective I try to keep is the day 20 years ago when two women in their late 70s came to see me separately on the same day. Both had arthritis.

The first was a rather vain woman whose fingers were moderately swollen. She had one too many plastic surgery procedures, was dressed to the nines and bemoaned how unsightly her swollen fingers looked and how she would now have to get her jewelry re-sized. It's not up to me to judge my patients and I did my best to empathize with her and help her deal with her upset about her condition.

A few hours later a woman who was about the same age came in and was hunched over with severe arthritis, walking slowly with a cane. She reminded me a little of the witch in Snow White. But what stood out about her from the first woman and from the witch in the Disney classic was the radiant smile on her face. She not only seemed happy, she seemed glowing. The contrast between her and the prior woman was astounding.

It caused me to say to and ask her, "Excuse me, you look in a fair amount of pain and are walking with such difficulty. I need to know. Why such a beautiful smile?"

She looked at me with that smile radiating even more and said, "I was just thinking how great this cane is going to look when I am in a wheelchair in a few years."

Talk about perspective, if all of us could look at our present through the eyes of our future and see our present glasses as well more than half full, perhaps that could put a smile on our faces that we could hold onto.

Finally, there was the story of Mr. Cohen. It was 4:30 in the afternoon and I had just finished doing an EKG on him. Unlike everyone else living at the Jewish Home for the Aged in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, Mr. Cohen was spry and totally alert for his 87 years. As a third- year medical student with much living (and learning) ahead of me, I couldn't understand why he was staying in this place, which well appointed as it was still remained a last holding unit for people who were waiting to die.

I asked Mr. Cohen why he lived in such a depressing place when he was clearly doing so well. He looked at me with a patient, knowing look and explained: "Two floors below us is my wife, Emma. Three years ago, she developed Alzheimer's disease and then had a stroke on top of that. On the very best of days, which don't occur that often, I think she might recognize me. At all other times, she's lost."

He went on to tell me to me that Emma and he had fled the Russian revolution together, and that more than a few occasions she had saved his life. The couple made their way to America, started a tailoring business and raised a wonderful family. "I tell my family not to visit as much as they'd like," he said, "because I want them to make sure they enjoy their families now and because their mom and I are doing fine."

Each day, he would wake up, go downstairs to his wife's room, bathe her, replace the diaper she now needed, put her into a sun dress, braid her hair, have breakfast with her and then read his newspapers and books as he sat beside her.

I didn't get it. Why was he doing this with a woman who couldn't even recognize him? "This poor man must be eaten up with guilt," I thought.

I suggested, presumptuously, that Mr. Cohen's guilt would not help his wife. The old man looked at me with an annoyed expression on his face and shook his head at my stupidity.

"Each day I get to go downstairs and give my wife dignity. That's what she would do for me and want to do for me. You don't understand, do you? This is where I want to be. Maybe someday you will understand."

It's been nearly 40 years ago since my visit with Mr. Cohen and I think I do finally understand. Instead of guilt, he felt joy in the presence of someone he had loved and been loved by for 60 years.

What are some suggestions from you or stories you can share for becoming more happy?

This post has been modified since its original publication.

 
 
 

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