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By Ian Nixon, President 2003-04

Psychologists have traditionally been concerned with what ails the human mind. The goal has always been to bring patients from a negative state to neutral, or normal. In other words their focus is on improving from minus five to zero. But if mental health is more than the absence of mental illness, then we must also ask how we get from zero to plus five.

So, what has science learned about human happiness? Take wealth, for instance, and all the delightful things that money can buy. Research has shown that once your basic needs are met, additional income does little to raise your sense of satisfaction. What about a good education? Sorry, Morn and Dad, neither education nor a high 10 paves the road to happiness. How about youth? No, again. In fact, studies show that older people are more consistently satisfied with their lives and are less prone to dark moods. How about sunshine? This is a tempting thought as we endure the winter's bitter cold, but, in fact, nice weather does not make people happier. A 1998 study noted people living in the U.S. Midwest believed folks living in balmy California were happier, but when the data was collected, this turned out not to be the case.

On a positive note, religious faith seems to genuinely lift the spirit, though it's tough to tell whether it's the God part or the community aspect that does the heavy lifting.

How about friends? Voila! Having good friends has proven to be a huge factor. A 2002 study found that the defining characteristic shared by the 10% of people with the highest levels of happiness was that they had strong ties to friends and family and a commitment to spending time with them. Close interpersonal ties and social support are crucial in order to be happy.

Research has shown there are three dimensions of happiness. There is pleasure, the smiley-face piece, engagement, the depth of involvement with one's family, work, romance and hobbies, and finally there is meaning, using personal strengths to serve some larger end. Of those three roads to a happy, satisfied life, pleasure is the least consequential. Engagement and meaning are much more important. Also taking the time to conscientiously count our blessings has been shown to significantly increase our overall feeling of satisfaction.

Another happiness booster, according to psychologists, is performing acts of altruism or kindness--visiting a nursing home, helping a friend's child with homework, mowing a neighbour's lawn. Doing kind acts gives us a measurable boost in our feeling of overall well being.

Now I would ask you to think about your membership in Rotary. Membership is pulling on all of the right levers to increase your happiness. Membership provides us with strong connections, a commitment to meaningful friendships, and an opportunity to perform acts of kindness. That's what's in it for you as a member of Rotary.

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