Who are the Five Happiest People You Know?


I've been thinking a lot about happiness recently, having just wrapped up a memoir about my search for a happier life.

Obviously I'm not alone. Google "happiness." There are 90 million entries. You'll find poems, polls, articles, definitions, and quotes about every aspect of happiness - and a gazillion different tips about how to attain it.

("Sadness" by the way, pales in comparison - just a few more than 18-million entries.)

Religion, money, good friends, a strong marriage, an enlightened workplace - they all feature prominently as keys to happiness. But trolling the web for insights about happiness can be a bit confusing. For every article that offers a definitive tip ("a big impediment to lasting happiness is having too little to do!"), three keystrokes later you can find another that states just the opposite ("a big impediment to lasting happiness is having too much to do.")

So I'm going to try something else here. I admit right up front that I don't have the answer. If you're looking for one of those lists spelling out the top10 things to do to be happy, I'm not your guy.

Happiness, I've found, is such an elusive quarry. Capturing it for any sustained period of time strikes me as an enormously complex undertaking, not the sort of objective easily reduced to a formula, recipe or one-size-fits-all pattern. I've found attaining it, even for a while, comes with a lot of work, a few bruises, some genetic good fortune, the gift of wisdom offered by others, and a strong desire to achieve it.

But, if I don't have the answer, I do have some questions. Let's start with this one: who are the five happiest people you know?

It's not a bad way to begin, examining happy people to see what makes them that way. Below are the five happiest people I've ever interviewed. Now let's be clear, talking with someone for a few hours, a day or two at the most, with a TV camera a few feet from his or her face, doesn't create the most natural environment to assess anyone's emotional make-up. But, with license to ask them anything I want with the cameras rolling - it's also not a situation that lends itself to faking it, either.

Among these five, you'll find the rich, the famous, and the powerful. But you'll also meet a woman not widely known outside the inner-city Philadelphia high school where she teaches. Each taught me something about happiness, which I'll try to distill here. Tell me what you think.

When I met her, Wilma Stephenson was a 64-year-old culinary arts teacher at Frankford High School in Philadelphia, reaching kids with her own special blend of toughness and compassion. 

The lesson I learned about happiness from Wilma had to do with the joy of making a difference in the lives of others. 

If she hadn't taken an interest in some of these kids, then no one might have. It's seems a crucial component of happiness to me: living a life with purpose.

Like him or hate him, I think we can all agree on one thing when discussing George W. Bush. He doesn't lose much sleep worrying about what people think about him. 

We live in a Facebook world, where people spend a great deal of time thinking about how they present themselves to the world. 

After covering him for three years, best I can tell George W. Bush looks in the mirror, asks himself if he's being true to his values, and then proceeds unencumbered by how his decisions are received. It may be not be a recipe for universal affection, but it seems to leave him happy.

I interviewed Ken Burns at dawn, at the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. I was still shaking the sleep from eyes, and he was moving the many groups of people assembled to watch the sunrise with all the hyperkinetic energy of a supercollider. He was doing publicity for a documentary about the national park system, and was so completely jazzed by sharing the majesty of the first rays of sun to hit the United States each day. I thought it at the time: "there goes one of the happiest guys I've ever seen." I understand it better now. Being thoroughly engaged with and enthused by your work seems to be an essential component part of lasting happiness.

Paul McCartney. When you're idolized by tens of millions, and worth hundreds of millions, how can you not be happy? Ask Elvis. Apparently, you can find a way. McCartney's life has been touched by deep sadness - the death of his beloved wife, a nasty divorce, the murder of his one time partner. But he radiated a joyful presence - understanding his own power and using it to touch people. When I told him I'd been on the road awhile and missed my daughter, the one to whom I sang "Blackbird," he picked up his guitar and sang me a verse, telling me "this is for you and your girl." I still well up just thinking about it. If happiness is to be found in giving, then McCartney must be one of the happiest men alive.

Craig Robinson was a making a salary deep into 6-figures as an investment banker in Chicago. He had the house, the cars, and the vacations. He was also deeply unhappy. Why? He was living a dream. But it was someone else's not his.

 So he took a 90 percent pay cut to pursue his first love - coaching basketball. Now the head coach at Oregon State University, he has found great happiness as he's turned around a program that had fallen on hard times, has higher approval ratings than his brother-in-law: Barack Obama, and provides a high-profile example of making sure the component parts of your life fit what matters most to you. There's not enough money in the world to make you happy, if you don't like how you're making it.

So there are five of the happiest people I've ever met. Who are yours? What do you think makes them that way? Happiness is so elusive. Something tells me the more sets of eyes we have peeled, the better the chance of finding it. So let me hear from you.

Jim Axelrod is a CBS News National Correspondent. His book "In The Long Run" will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in May.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the senior national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for "CBS This Morning," the "CBS Evening News," "CBS Sunday Morning," and other CBS News broadcasts.