If you're a Westerner, you might just be happy
by Rob Pudim
It was a miserable morning -- overcast sky, snow on the ground and temperatures in the teens. I was on my way to the recreation center and the Post Office by way of the local bus system. As a new year got underway, there was no good reason to be happy about anything. A pickup went by and the driver gave me one of those friendly, two-finger waves from the steering wheel, the kind you more often see when you're on a dirt road in the mountains. Then a woman bundled up like the Michelin tire man looked me in the eye, smiled and nodded.
A guy from New York once said to me, "People in the West are weird. They smile at you for no good reason." He's right. In the East if someone smiles at you, he's either up to something or he wants something. The truth is that people in the West seem happier than anywhere I've been, except for maybe a tourist trap or a gambling casino. But then again, traps and casinos want something from you -- your money.
I would say (most of the time) that I am happy, and come to think of it, most of the people I've met in my travels around the region seem to be happy, too. I'm not talking about the Walt Disney bursting-with-joy variety, or the frantic happiness people seem to have on the TV ads when they're in front of a Gut Grenade Burger served their way.
I think it is astounding that a bunch of books have been written to teach us how to be happy. That's enough to make me unhappy. Happiness books sound like crash-diet books, only instead of "Eat only grapefruit and rutabagas and you will lose 35 pounds in three weeks," it's more like, "Apply these five easy steps and you will be giggling in one hour and guffawing in three."
I don't believe shortcuts to happiness exist, nor do I think you can talk yourself into being happy. Some psychologist said that all you have to do to get in a good mood is walk around with a smile on your face. He had to be kidding. You'd look like a beauty contestant with a plastic smile glued below your nose.
Westerners are happy for very good reasons, and the first reason is abundant sunlight. You know about Seasonal Affective Disorder depressing folks because there aren't enough hours of light in the winter. We're lucky in the West, because even in winter when the daylight hours are the fewest, there are liable to be blue skies and unimpeded sunshine on the shortest days.
Second, it's endorphins. Westerners are thinner than Easterners, probably because they do more stuff outside, whether it's hunting, jogging, skiing or gardening. And when you do physical stuff, you produce some natural morphine-like substances called endorphins that make you feel great.
The third reason has to do with germs. If you're around happy people, you get infected with their happiness germs, and then you give them to someone else. Pretty soon what goes around comes around, and you get a booster dose of your own disease. The entire region gradually gets happier as the disease spreads and we trade it back and forth. On NPR recently they were talking about obesity as a disease and how fat people hang out with other and help one another along by accepting their rotundity and diet. Not only that, the fat effect is from people with as much as two or three degrees of separation from you. Well, happiness is like that, too. Run around outside in the sunshine in the West interacting with infected folks and you are going to come down with a serious case of happy germs on top of the sunburn and endorphins.
Fourth, pollsters say that eight of the happiest states are in the top 10 for volunteering. It would seem that working for a cause has something to do with being happy. Giving money alone does not seem to do it. Giving yourself does. It feels good doing righteous stuff, and helping feels far better than being helped. It's also cheaper than stuffing money in an envelope.
The truth is that the West is a happy place because it is full of thin, dedicated cheapskates who spread their germs all over the place. On the other hand, Rita Mae Brown may be right when she said, "One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory." That sounds right, too.
Rob Pudim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Boulder, Colorado.© High Country News