Five panel members participated in a focus group called "What makes you happy?" Two
dozen applicants were screened ahead of time; we chose the five whom we felt were
best able to communicate their thoughts on what makes them happy, and describe how outside
influences affect their ability to seek happiness.
The questions (in bold) on this page were distributed 24-hours prior to the focus
group members who met at Think & Ask's offices in New York City. While panelists
were encouraged to gather their thoughts ahead of time, no one was allowed to
bring scripted answers for the focus group discussion.
Moderator: Please state you first name, age, and anything else you'd like to
share, we'll go alphabetically for the introduction, and subsequent questions are
on first-speak basis.
I'm Amy and 38-years-old, I'm married and we have two sons, one's 10 [years old] and the baby is one. My husband is a stay at home dad, which I love, but he [also] does freelance as a
journalist. I work for the UN [United Nations] in an administrative capacity.
I'm Abe, going to be 70 next month. I run a two-generation old financial
services business in Brooklyn. I'm a proud dad and granddad and have been happily
married for 47 years.
Hi. My name is Dirk, I'm a 42-year old law student, I decided to change careers
after I was laid off in software consulting back in 2004. I live on the lower
east side and I'm single.
Marc. IT guy for eight years. My girlfriend and I live together on the upper east
side. Oh, I'm 29.
My name is Patricia, I'm 44, I'm not single, I'm a teacher in special education
here in New York.
Moderator: What defines happiness in your world today?
Probably for me, maintaining a lifestyle that I have no financial worry and
can cover expenses and save enough to actually retire someday. My job is always
on the latch for outsourcing so, not being outsourced certainly makes me happy.
Making sure my sons have what they need to do well down the road and have
many opportunities for future success.
Planning our next vacation, we are going to Buenos Aries in June and we
are so thrilled, neither of us have been to South America before.
It does make me happy when my clients are happy, so I say giving them the
best of service and investment advice keeps my world safe and secure and happy
Keeping ahead on my studies, I guess that ensures my long-term happiness,
because after law school I'll have a new career I never thought possible. That
and playing the violin I guess.
Moderator: At this moment in time, what single activity makes you happy?
The weather today makes me happy, so walking over here today was really nice.
My sons, I know that is plural, but it is an activity! [Laughter] Watching them discover new things is
amazing to me. Their experiences make me realize how much I'd forgotten about
discovering life as child, but when you have children you see it all unfold
again, at least we do anyway.
Blogging makes me happy, the process closes the doors and windows
mentally, to everything around me I don't even hear noise when I'm writing. Its
the solitude I think, and then putting it all out there so I can walk away from
what frustrates me at work or in life -- that makes me happiest.
Drinking good beer. [Laughter]
Hey, lets get together man.
Moderator to Dirk: Dirk: Abe:
My wife and granddaughter, well family, all of them I won't list everyone
here, we are close. I think family ties are very important for my happiness.
Moderator: At this moment, what prevents happiness in your opinion?
Without a doubt trying to stretch the paycheck each month. Dirk:
I know we've made
the choice with only one full-time wage, but Ami is with the children
every day and that is important to our values. That formula did work for our parents
though, just doesn't hold today without going into debt.
My unease with protection in this city. I can't deny that every time I
enter the subway I think, will this be the moment a bomb hits?
Well, what Amy just said probably contributes to what I have to say, because
I see all too often these young families come in for financial advice, and to be
honest, I don't know how they can even save $10 a week for retirement.
I do care
that those around me are living the almighty American dream. Knowing this isn't
the case, [gestures towards Amy] and I only just met you today, but seeing you
and knowing you in this forum - I just say it makes me feel bad that anyone in
this city or nation has a struggle. It shouldn't be that way, makes me out to
feel guilty that I've never had to struggle while raising a family.
It is hard to make ends meet. Neither of us bring home that wonderful
'average' salary the statisticians say everyone earns. But we get by. I think
friendships, meaningful friendships, intimacy, and community make me happy. [Moderator, 'The question was about what prevents happiness.'] Oh! I'm sorry, yes
Well, making ends meet, discourteous people on their cell phones and
In my profession I see a very different lifestyle, mostly underprivileged
families and children, and that definitely drains on my overall happiness.
Sometimes I think about changing careers after a long summer break, but I keep
going back in August to teach again.
Bureaucracy, [to moderator] you don't use our last names do you? [Moderator,
'No.'] I work at IBM and there is no company I've ever see as bureaucratic, and it
does prevent getting work done.
So, this aspect of my job carries home with me
all the time. My girlfriend doesn't have this issue, she's in advertising sales,
she comes home feeling great, and I am home biting my nails and upset about some
guy sucking harder on the Big Blue [IBM] tit to get ahead faster. [Laughter]
Sorry ladies, I didn't mean to be so crude.
Hey, doesn't bother me, I know what you mean, my brother used to work for
them too, he's glad to be out of IBM.
Moderator: Has the definition of happiness changed for you in the past decade and
if so, how?
I don't know about the others, I grew up in the city, and if I think back to
9-11, I've had this 'stuck' feeling ever since.
I never recall feeling that while
growing up. Maybe its helplessness and this rush for outsiders to rebuild 'my
city.' Plus, that it can or could happened again and I have no idea what we would
Where are the places to seek refuge in an emergency? What are the escape
routes? During 9-11 we were all alone and I don't see how that has changed any.
Feeling more secure here would make me feel a lot happier, or at least as much as
living here 10 years ago.
Yeah, I buy that totally. 9-11 forced us, or some defined by blue states, to look past our
borders now, and now that we can't ignore what is happening. That does affect
happiness overall, at least mine. Patricia:
I think it was a combination of 9-11 and job
loss at 40 [years old] that made me decide, life is short Dirk, so, I'm going to
work on my law degree, but finish it this time. Until that happens I'm pretty
much in limbo though.
In the past 10 years? I want more. Not material goods, I want more in
the way of personal connection, safety. Marc:
I'd be happier if the public was aware of
challenges we face in education where most kids are left behind. Maybe they would demand
more funding for special ed, which makes our lives and the children's lives much
I just want a better quality of life, much like I personally have seen
in other countries -- Europe in particular. I think we did have a higher quality
of life years ago, that has changed now in my opinion.
Less material, more religious introspective or perhaps maybe spiritual is the
right word because I'm one of those ex-Catholics my parent's don't like. Abe:
definition of happiness does involve everything outside of my world, because with
the Internet you see the world from a new place since 1996.
There is more than one way of
life now. We can read about it on a blog from someone in Russia or Germany. I can chat with anyone in the world and they tell me what America is doing to them. I can't live and ignore what goes on outside because I'm talking with
people in other countries every day. I think Amy's 'stuck' statement is very
appropriate for me, being brought up in the city too.
I am affected by the controls in place put by others, it does impact my
happiness even indirectly, because it affects my grandkids future too.
told what they need or should want in ads [advertising,] that comes from capitalistic ideas and I don't want
those things I see.
It bothers me these kids think in order to be happy they need
things up for sale, and my own grandkids challenge me on what I say they don't really need to
have a fulfilling life.
Moderator: Does the government in anyway prevent your happiness?
Yes. I've been in, okay, I'll say in a 'happy' relationship with my partner for 10 years,
but we aren't recognized as a legal couple because the government, at least in my
opinion, purposefully does not condone same-gender relationships.Abe:
Maybe I should withdraw the
word happy, because that does hang over us. We aren't legal. We don't exist as a
committed pair in the eyes of this government, so yes, in this case I say the
government prevents our, and my full happiness.
Without a doubt I think, and I say this because I travel abroad often, but due
to this government's actions in the Middle East in particular I am always
questioned whether I'm in support of [President] Bush or not. This never
happened for me when other presidents were in office, not even with [former
President] Clinton's indiscretion with what's her name, Monica something.
Lewinsky, right. But the question is not about business, its highly political and puts me, as an American businessman, on the spot. I don't like being in that situation.
Well, does future happiness count? I'm not sure the government will do what
they've been saying to help retired people when I'm that age.
Now they are
enmeshed in a bunch of scandals, so, Social Security isn't even mentioned anymore;
I find that worrying actually, because they might pass some legislation when the
media isn't looking.
As for today though, well, I don't support what the
government has done in Iraq, and I think how they've reacted to New Orleans is
more telling to how they react to anything. So, yes, this all impacts me too and makes me very unhappy.
Probably not too much, [gestures to Marc] yeah, I agree with you on New
Orleans problems. Up here though, I guess I wish the taxes were lower, I don't think we get much
for what we all pay. But I know we have to pay for trash pick up and all, and
forestry services, which takes money. Amy:
I don't thing they prevent me from being
happy though, it's all up to me really.
I actually hadn't thought about this until just now, but we have our older son
in private school and the reason is we sought a better education [for him.]
our decision is based on how the government fails our public institutions. We pay
for public education we don't use, nor will we use it, and private education we must have in order to give him the best. There is something wrong with that picture. So, the government does impact my happiness. In a negative way.
Moderator: It seems almost cliche to say 'name one change' either in your life or around you that
may improve your happiness, so as you are aware from the script, please name up to
three changes you would like to see that you think would improve your happiness.
Moderator: Final question, but we've added a requirement for your answer. First, state
whether or not you think you are happy overall right now. Secondly, in doing this
exercise, did you learn anything about yourself or what happiness means? I'll point to you for an answer.
Double my salary. [Laughter] I thought about this for 24 hours and I do think
that the lack of money weighs heavily on our life. I either say change how
necessities are priced, which won't happen obviously, or yes, I think more pay
would cover the expenses and lessen the burden we feel each week.
Back to the
schools, bring them up to civilized standards, I mean how hard can that be?
Canada, Western Europe, they all have better public schools than we do. I bet we
pay more too.
I think making our city safer, so we feel safer. Pulling back a bit in the way
I don't know how to change this. If somehow we could narrow this great
divide, you know, bring people back down to earth. Who needs two or three cars? My god we don't even have one car!
needs to be a millionaire, I mean come on being so rich means something? Is there
anything wrong with having just one car or one telephone? [Moderator, 'Making
the city safer is all you'd change?'] Well, realistically its hard to change
people, but okay, if I can have any change I'd have people change to be more in
tune with what's going on around them and less selfish to their own needs and
trying to be better than everyone else.
Okay, I'll say change our government policies, let Patricia marry her significant
other, [Patricia laughs says 'Thank you,'] be more kind to the rest of the world, that means getting out of Iraq and everywhere else, and figure out a way to fix our financial problems so we aren't all
homeless when it comes time to collect Social Security. I'm not far away from that myself in 20 years or so.
The legal profession should pay well Dirk. [Laughter]
After these student loans I'm going to need higher pay too.
Change the IBM bureaucracy so I can get projects done. Give us better security
from terrorism, well, future terrorism, and encourage more technical innovation
here in America so there are more jobs at home.
I've seen too many good guys let go
to save the corporation money, and where are they all now? They've left the field
they loved all because their talent is cheap in another country.
This isn't right, and if you speak out at work about it you can be next to go. So,
why don't we have rules prohibiting outsourcing for American companies?
My turn? Pull the plug on everything electronic.
That puts me out of a job.
No, I don't mean like that. I see it in my grandkids more, they either watch TV
or they are on the Internet, I see them slowly drifting away and my daughter and
son-in-law don't seem to think this is an issue, because they do the same.Patricia:
sympathize with what Patricia said, there is a great divide; and maybe it is
generational as well as financial. Bring back Parcheesi and sit-down time with
friends and family in the living room. Turn off that goddamn cell phone for Christ-sakes, we
lived, I lived 70 years fine without a cell phone why are they so necessary
Our culture should look at change, do pull back some, do look inside. Look at ourselves, are electronic devises really the road to happiness? Observe what is
going on around you and be proud of bucking the system. Say 'No' when others tell
I love it. The good old days.
Yes, to some extent. I'm not saying all technology is bad, I don't think we are
using it well, we are jumping into it like its a savior or something. We are less
aware of life's quality, with these things plugged in, than we were 50 years ago. We
have to change how we as a culture manage our lives and our lives together -
Yes, I consider myself happy.
I'm a bit older here, so the time was right, I
would say every so often I do a self-evaluation of what is happening and what
happiness means. When my wife had a health issue last year we both evaluated our
lives, I think that is a natural reaction at our age.
He [gesturing to Dirk] is
right, life is short and its shorter now for me. But I appreciate what you've
done with us, it was good to hear what others have to say.
Uhm, I think I'm happy in my relationship, but outside of that I don't
think I'm particularly happy.
I had one class that asked similar questions as an exercise once, but we were all
like 20 [years old] and what the hell did we know about happiness? [Laughter]
Yeah, it was good to visit this, I had my girlfriend do the questions too and
tonight we plan to share our answers with each other.
What happens tonight if she says she isn't happy in the relationship? [Laughter.]
You gotta room for rent there in Brooklyn, Abe? [Laughter.]
With kids, I think we constantly evaluate where we are with them and in
our own marriage, so I was ready for this, and Ami looked at the survey too. I
glanced at the questions ahead of time, but I felt the answers were probably on
the tip of my tongue already. Thank you for inviting me. [Moderator: Are you
happy?] Oh, sorry. Yes, for my husband and boys, no for everything else.
I'm probably somewhere in between Patricia's ill-ease and limbo. I'm not
happy, but I'm not unhappy either.
And yeah, this was important for me. I wrote
a lot in response to those questions and it sort of launched this internal
dilemma inside of me, especially on whether I'll be happy as a lawyer someday. I
didn't say this earlier, but in doing this last night I realized that being
single was a bit of a problem for me. That's something I'll have to deal with.
But I'm going forward and will keep checking.
Moderator: Abe, Amy, Patricia, Dirk, Marc, thank you all for participating. Please help yourselves to the wine and cheese that's been set out on the table.
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