03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Year of Wanting What We Have

Happiness surveys typically are a little suspect partly because the definition of happiness is so loose. This is especially the case for surveys that blindly rely on simple self-assessments of the respondents. But, happiness surveys during the holiday season are probably even more tainted given the unique love/hate relationship people have with this time of year. Yet, when three different polls are revealed in December that consistently say that Americans have made great strides in their happiness, you have to take notice.

A mid-December poll of 1,000 Americans by AP-Gfk showed that 78% of Americans are either very or somewhat happy - some seriously spiked eggnog must have made its way to that bunch. Another survey of 1.3 million Americans was just revealed by Brit and American researchers and found higher levels of happiness than anyone expected. They also found these results tracked their independent evaluation of the portions of the country that had the greatest intrinsic quality of life based upon a variety of measures. Oddly, Louisiana was #1 in both happiness and the researchers' perspective on quality of life. Given that this state is normally in the bottom ten of most surveys for just about everything, they must have asked the question around Mardi Gras time when the environmental "joie de vivre" is quite high in the Pelican State or maybe the locals are just happy their NFL Saints are winning. Finally, the Gallup-Healthway Daily Life Evaluation Index of random Americans is now 50% higher than it was a year ago and is at a historically high level. Are we lying to the researchers or are we just high on life?

One of my favorite plays of all time is Rent. There's a goosebump-creating song with the enchanting lyrics of "525,600 do you measure a year?" This play was a modern take on the classic La Boheme and suggested that Americans could find happiness by being a little more bohemian. Is that what 2009 signifies? Our stab at a little piece of bohemia in the heartland. Are we measuring our own happiness in new ways now that we have a "new normal?" If disappointment equals expectations minus reality, does ratcheting down our expectations create the opposite of disappointment?

I came face-to-face with potential answers to these questions in San Francisco's bustling Union Square shopping district last week. I ran into a friend from college who was with his wife and two kids. They had just embarrassed themselves on ice skates in the open air of the Square. The four of them giggled like they were on laughing gas and my buddy told me he'd "never been happier." So, being a bit of a happiness researcher myself, I asked him what's going on in his life. He told me that both he and his wife had been laid off in Silicon Valley a year earlier. They fretted the first three months and then they downsized everything in their lives from their home to their cars to their vacations to how they spent money on food. In fact, they'd chosen this year to only give "Christmas experiences" to each other. No material gifts. No standing in line at department stores. No traffic at the mall. Each of the four members of the family were responsible for giving three experiences to each of the three other members, with ice skating in the city being an example of one of them. Somehow I imagined Henry David Thoreau sitting on my friend's shoulder whispering his famous quote from Walden Pond: "That man is the richest whose pleasures are the cheapest."

And, instead of desperately seeking jobs, he and his wife chose to volunteer for a couple of non-profits they'd always admired but never had been able to engage with. Before he shoved off for their next family experience in the city, my friend lobbed a philosophical softball my way: "Success is having what you want, while happiness is wanting what you have." Dude, where did you learn that? I don't remember that class at Stanford! Interestingly, four of the five states at the bottom of that happiness poll I mentioned earlier were the success-motivated, aspiration treadmills of California, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. Is this some communist plot to lull us into capitalistic complacency? I noticed in that same poll that Hawaii came in second behind Louisiana. Between the Bourbon Street booze and the Maui wowie, I guess I can understand why those two states are so happy, but what does this mean for the future of our country?

What if Forbes magazine were to follow up their cover article featuring the 400 Richest People in the country with a cover story of the 400 Happiest People in the country? Maybe it's time to redefine the idea of wealth. I suspect that while 2009 has been an emotional rollercoaster for so most of us, it's also been a year for wanting what we have rather than being obsessed with what we want. It seems as if gratification gave way to gratitude. And, maybe our painful sense of entitlement is evaporating as a result. There's no doubt that the Great Depression three quarters of a century ago was a great equalizer and humbler. It brought people together and it shifted expectations. And, from the ashes of that burned-out economy, perseverance and ingenuity led to three decades of unparalleled progress in the 1940's through 60's. So, I guess it's time for us to put our feet up, relax a little, and know that good times are ahead. More importantly, just as I learned from Rent, the good times are now and we have 525,600 moments per year to experience them.

Chip Conley is the Founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality and the author of PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo From Maslow