Editorial: Encouraged to exult

22:26, May 20 2012

Tom Scott and Murray Ball were interviewed about their collaboration on the Footrot Flats movie.

Scott's not-inconsiderable expansive side took hold. He portrayed it as a shimmering, incandescent experience.

Ball described it as OK, as far as it went.

Of course, it's possible the reality was simply that different for the two men.

But it's reasonable to accept the greater likelihood Ball was speaking in what we like to think of as a classic Kiwi tendency to understatement.

It's a national trait that can, of course, be overcome. Heaven knows little events like a Rugby World Cup win, or a Jacksonesque Oscar haul, tend to bring out our skitey side.


But it tends to take a pretty big event to prize a wa-hoo out of us.

That doesn't mean that New Zealanders have anything against feeling good and positive. Far from it.

The all-but-unspoken "steady on" approach whenever we are faced with unseemly excitability.

Many different sorts of open enthusiasm seem to strike us as zealotry. That brings out our suspicious side.

Victoria University researcher Erica Chadwick would have us be more openly, and sincerely, celebratory, even exultant. About a lot of things.

She has studied the pursuit of happiness. Right there, we should perhaps pause and evaluate our reaction to this being the basis of a PhD – as if it was somehow a trivial or less-than-serious subject.

In which case, you'd have to be curious what it would take to constitute a worthy one.

She found we were more liable to hold ourselves back than, say, her own countrymen who, you will be astonished to learn, are Americans.

Analysing 1500 adults across New Zealand and overseas, and 400 Kiwi teenagers, she determined that people found more moments to be happy about once they were looking for them.

Seems plausible. It turns out, however, that this doesn't just amount to an encouragement for everybody to stop and smell the roses. Or, as Warren Zevon put it, enjoy every sandwich.

Adults found closing their eyes and savouring the taste of a meal did add happiness. But not Dr Chadwick's younger subjects – for them, it was a matter of embracing achievements and congratulating themselves. Feel free to discuss among yourselves the reasons for that difference.

Ultimately, the researcher found meaningful social connections with family and friends were the most valuable tool for feeling happy and mentally well.

A lot of people would say they knew that already.

Less likely to be embraced, however, is the finding that showing all the appropriate facial expressions helps too. If you fake it you will make it?

Easier said than done.

Research like this does have its uses, though it should be received as information to bear in mind, rather than adopted all-but-uncritically as some sort of template for feeling happier.

For one thing, Eleanor Roosevelt was right: Happiness is not a goal; it is a byproduct.

The Southland Times