Monday, November 11, 2013

Happiness: On a Scale of One to Ten

We were enjoying drinks and appetizers before heading out to dinner in Delray Beach, Florida, with one of my sister’s best friends, when she turned to me and asked, “OK, here’s one of my favorite questions: On a scale of one to ten, how happy are you?”

I blinked and fell speechless. If anyone else had posed the question, I might have questioned their motives or at least just shrugged it off and offered a funny answer. But Kim was one of the most caring and positive people I’ve ever met. She was also full of questions: not the nosy or superficial small-talk type, but the sincere kind that came from really wanting to see inside another person's head or heart.

She allowed me a momentary pass, allowing the rest of the people at the table to answer while I pondered the question. Readers who have followed along with some of my crazy escapades through The 52/52 Project might be surprised to learn I’m not naturally the impulsive type. Before I speak or act, I often weigh every word or decision.

I’d never analyzed my life by numbers, never dissected and examined it so closely. Sure, I’d contemplated the ideas of happiness and discontent many times before. A vague dissatisfaction with my life was clearly a partial impetus for embarking on a life of new experiences.

Kim, my two sisters, and my mother all offered their own answers, which ranged from a rating of seven-and-a-half to nine-and-a-half. They turned back to me. I bit my bottom lip. “I don’t know. I tend to compartmentalize my life. It’s hard to average everything out," I said. "If I had to, I guess I’d say I’m at a... six.”

A six. A rating of five would be average, right? So, I figured I was slightly happier than average. It didn’t seem so bad. Still, as I said it, I found myself unable to make eye contact with any of them, especially Kim, whom I believe rated her own happiness quite honestly at nine-and-a-half.

Admitting I was only a six suddenly dropped my happiness level down to a two.

The question nagged me all evening. It both intrigued and terrified me. I went back to my hotel room that night and, as I tend to do, I began to analyze my answer and my thought process.

“How happy are you?”

I found it a worthwhile question, one we all should probably ask ourselves throughout our lives. It appeared far too general though, and that was the aspect with which I struggled. It seemed to me that we could be simultaneously elated with some areas of their lives yet fairly miserable in others.

I finally broke down areas of happiness into six categories. How content was I with:
  •     Myself as a person: my self-esteem or self-satisfaction 
  •      My relationships 
  •      My social life 
  •      My career
  •      My entertainment and leisure
  •      My health
I graded my happiness in each category, finding that my individual ratings ranged from a four to a ten. Averaging them out, I found myself at a seven. I shrugged. Still above average, I figured. Yet being able to say I was an eight or a nine would have been far more satisfying. Being a perfect ten seemed as unrealistic as it was when I studied myself in a full-length mirror at fifteen.

I reviewed my happiness list. If I wanted to move higher up on the scale, I would need to work on a couple areas. I would need to change my life. I hoped I was already on my way, that The 52/52 Project was moving me in that direction. But perhaps I needed to target some of my new experiences toward changing those specific areas of my life in which I was least content.

Happiness is a strange and unpredictable thing. It varies year to year, week to week, even day to day. It’s relative to where we are right now. It’s a fluid feeling, shifting with the tides, affected by other people, new experiences, and also by how we choose to face our past, present, and future.

If we are happier—or less so—today then we were yesterday, maybe we need to examine why. What’s changed? What can we change?

If we're far dissatisfied with any areas in our lives, perhaps it’s time to take a closer look. Maybe it's time to take ownership, to decide what we might do to change our life.

Change is frightening, but choosing to remain unhappy is a far more terrifying prospect.

On a scale of one to ten, our right to be happy surely rates a ten.

What's the biggest change you've made in your life?  What would you like to change? How do you rate your happiness?


  1. Thought provoking post, Sherry! Your categories are pretty comprehensive. The one that I didn't see relates to the post you wrote about being kind to a stranger, which I so admired. Helping others (or repairing the world) is one area in my life I'd like to score higher. I'd be happier if I volunteered more. I keep waiting for my life to slow down, but if I wait too long my chance will be over!

    1. Good addition. And you're right--Waiting for life to slow down... HA! Maybe one small act of kindness a month, and then build up?

  2. I'm going to approach this like the skeptic I am. While I'm sure your friend had the best of intentions and just wanted to start an interesting conversation, She's almost a 10 --- I knew immediately that anyone who asks that question at a table will be close to a 10 on the scale. If I'm feeling like a 3 today, the last thing I'm going to do is go around a table to see how much happier everyone else is, which will only make me feel worse. HA!

    That said, I wonder less about happiness and more about the question of it. Is happiness a right, or is happiness a choice? Why would we need to be "happy" at the level of 10 in order to believe we are happy enough??

    Or maybe I just haven't had enough coffee yet this morning .... ;-)

    1. You are so right--only a really happy person would probably ask that question! And as positive a person as she is, I have a feeling she expected we'd all say 9 or 10.

      I guess I believe happiness is both a right and a choice. We have a right to it, if we choose to exercise that right.

      You articulated quite well for little coffee. Enough of that. Now you can move on to the wine. ;-)

  3. Happiness is such a minute-by-minute thing for me. I'm pretty quiet but tend to swing wildly up and down on the happiness scale. It would be hard to pin down my overall happiness by number, right across the board, and have it hold true for more than an hour or two at most. It's an interesting question, though.

    - Averil

    1. Averil: Yes, I would think it's a fairly fluctuating thing for most people. In that sense, I'm not sure how much value it has. But I do think looking within, at the different areas of your life in which you are happiest or least content, can initiate some beneficial life changes and prompt you to follow your heart. Say, for example, from Las Vegas to the Pacific Northwest. ;-)