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The Pursuit of Happiness

Coloradans are supposedly models of contentedness—but are we really as blissful as we think we are?

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Coloradans have every reason to be well adjusted and super content: After all, we’re surrounded by majestic natural beauty; we enjoy near-constant sunshine; our lifestyles are active and healthy; and our friends like to play as hard as they work. In fact, according to the 2013 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, Colorado is the seventh happiest state in the nation. (Worth noting: We’ve dropped from number two in 2012.) Our peers agree: Colorado residents are always landing on someone’s definitive list of the happiest, fittest, most dateable people in the country. By all accounts, we’re living the dream…right? Well, maybe. We asked experts to help us dig into what happiness looks like, where Colorado is falling short, and how we can find more satisfaction and fulfillment in our (already pretty awesome) lives.


Expert Advice

Michael Steger (pictured below) knows a thing or two about getting happy. As the director of Colorado State University’s Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life, Steger has spent the past 14 years studying happiness and how to achieve it. His prescription: Know yourself, and go beyond yourself. —Kelly Bastone

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5280: Is it possible to define happiness?
Michael Steger: Some people argue that happiness is when the majority of your days are pleasant. But another, less straightforward definition maintains that it’s not just about feeling good. Many worthwhile things take a lot of work. So maybe it’s about feeling like you’re not just floating through life but taking advantage of the opportunity to be alive.

What things trip us up when it comes to feeling good?
One thing is the notion that happiness is too hard to figure out. Another is that happiness is selfish and that to be happy, you’ve got to focus on yourself. A third is that we should be trying to make ourselves feel good all the time. People believe they should “live for the moment,” but focusing on the pleasures of the moment doesn’t create happiness. Lots of research tells us that the hedonic treadmill may be fun, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to something sustainable.

How do others influence our happiness?
Research shows when people turn outward, they’re more likely to find happiness. They help more, share more, pitch in more. That builds quality relationships, which are a contributor to big-picture happiness.

What are the other building blocks to fulfillment?
Know thyself. Cultivating a true sense of who you are puts you in a better position to gauge whether a particular hobby, job, or activity will be satisfying to you. The focus should be on meaning rather than happiness. It’s hard to escape the idea that happiness should feel good, but then how can you be happy if you or a friend is diagnosed with cancer? The pursuit of meaning allows us to see value in hardship and provides the antidote to the pleasure treadmill.

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Let’s Get Physical

Moving boosts more than muscle tone: It improves your outlook.


Stacks of studies since the 1980s have confirmed what any runner will tell you: Working out gives you a high. Whether they’re walking, cycling, or shimmying to Zumba beats, exercisers enjoy an uptick in confidence, self-esteem, and overall mood. That’s because physical activity releases opiates in the brain and activates its dopamine circuitry (the same pleasure center that also lights up from food and sex).
The short-lived euphoria wears off within an hour or so, says Monika Fleshner, a neuroscientist at the University of Colorado Boulder. But her 15 years of research into the impact of exercise on the brain reveal subtle mental-health benefits that last much longer. “Animals that regularly exercise have a change in their neural circuitry that makes them better able to cope with stress,” Fleshner says. Exercisers also turn off their stress responses more quickly. As a result, they spend more time in their happy places than sedentary subjects.

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Fleshner estimates that the anxiety-shedding effects of working up a sweat last for about two weeks before her subjects need to recharge with more exercise. “You can’t eliminate stress, but you can reduce its impacts on the body,” she says—and you don’t have to join the ranks of Colorado’s hard-core triathletes and climbers to do so. “Our animal subjects are not exactly athletic superstars,” Fleshner says. “What’s important is that you get some physical activity every day.” —KB


Work It Out

Four Feel-Good Moves

Take a walk. Stanford researchers found that walking triggers inspiration: Creative output improves by an average of 60 percent when people are walking rather than sitting.

Explore a park. Studies indicate that city parks reduce stress and improve mood. That’s why San Francisco physician Daphne Miller actually writes “nature prescriptions” that require patients to walk or run in a park. These patients report less fatigue throughout the day, a sense of calm, better sleep, and lower blood pressure.

Row a boat. Performed solo, rowing releases mood-enhancing endorphins, but rowing with a crew delivers an even greater high.

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Recruit a drill sergeant. Ask your spouse, running buddy, or personal trainer to make you work out—even when you don’t feel like it. Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that rats that were forced to run enjoyed the same stress-reduction benefits as those that ran voluntarily.


Reader Survey: The Positive

Where’s your happy place?

The majority of respondents from a 5280.com survey about happiness head straight outdoors: Mountains, trails, and hiking top the list, followed by lakes, parks, and beaches. A few of our favorites responses:

“Camping in a gentle rainstorm with distant thunder, cool weather, and a warm blanket.”

“On my porch swinging on my grandmother’s antique glider.”

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“Grilling lunch in Vail’s Blue Sky Basin on an epic powder day.”

“Tucked away in the trees on a solo snowshoe trek on a bluebird day after a heavy dumping the night before. Just me and the woods and the crisp winter air.”

“Walking Washington Park on a cool summer morning.”

“The lounge chair in my backyard, next to my raised-bed garden. It brings me such joy to see my veggies grow every day, and I just love the sounds and community of my neighborhood in Park Hill.”


Reader Survey: The Negative

Respondents say if they’re unhappy, it’s mostly because of these things: negative people; stress; traffic; work; and finances. Of course, there are a few other, specific things that drag you down, too:

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“The amount of homeless people I see downtown every day.”

“Greedy land developers.”

“Being stuck indoors in an office cube.”

“Those who do not respect the environment.”

“Rudeness.”

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“Watching other countries destroy each other.”

“People who yell at each other, their kids, and their dogs.”


Survey Says

Sometimes it seems like every day in the Centennial State is just another day in paradise. But 5280 wanted to know how you really feel—so we asked our readers this question: Do you fit our state’s mold of perceived contentment? Here’s what we learned from more than 400 respondents:

49.6: percentage of respondents who rate themselves a four on a one-to-five scale of happiness, five being blissfully happy. About 33 percent are right in the middle—equally joyful and miserable.

76.1: percentage of respondents who think Coloradans are happier than most Americans, overwhelmingly because of the natural beauty and mountains; an outdoor, active lifestyle; and sunshine. (Other notable responses as to why we’re so happy: laid-back attitudes; microbreweries; weed; great restaurants; football; dogs; and new multimodal transportation systems.)

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For The Guys

Colorado’s newest (and completely unorthodox) approach to suicide prevention.

Struggling with mental-health issues is never a laughing matter, especially in Colorado, which had the seventh-highest suicide rate in the country in 2013. But sometimes a good laugh can serve as good medicine, particularly when the group most at risk—white males, ages 25 to 54—has long been averse to intervention. Enter Man Therapy, an innovative Denver-based online program that harnesses humor to reach men in need of care. The award-winning campaign—launched by Colorado’s Office of Suicide Prevention, Denver’s Carson J Spencer Foundation (an organization devoted to suicide prevention and mental health), and local communications firm Cactus—features a website anchored by a fictional character called “Dr. Rich Mahogany.”

Sound hokey? It is—by design. Seated in a wood-paneled office decorated with a stuffed moose and a dartboard, Dr. Mahogany makes his online video pitch about a place where “men can come to be men” and learn “manly techniques” to tackle “breakups, layoffs, and even your pain-in-the-ass teenager.” The play on man-cave mentality could come off as making light of a serious situation, but the brand of humor is strategic and offers an easy portal into valuable mental-health resources. After completing a tongue-in-cheek 18-point “head inspection,” respondents receive recommendations such as support group information, a suicide hotline, a “therapist finder,” or exercises designed to increase brain function and elevate mood. “Humor makes this subject more approachable for men,” says Jess Stohlmann-Rainey, senior program director at the Carson J Spencer Foundation. “Since you can’t fix your mental health with duct tape, you need to try some other methods. We know men tend to think therapy is for women and sissies, so we are giving them the therapist they want: a hilarious, no-nonsense man’s man.”

Since the 2012 launch—complete with billboards, bus signs, and public service announcements—the campaign has reached more than 400,000 unique site visitors in ways that traditional efforts don’t. At least 65,000 people had completed the head inspection as of last summer, and 79 percent of the visitors were men in the high-risk demographic. Hopefully on tap for the near future: expanding the site to address first responders and gay teens, making the site more mobile-friendly, and licensing the campaign to other states. Fictional or not, Dr. Rich Mahogany seems to be doing his job. —Megan Feldman

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If you or a loved one are experiencing mental health problems, take advantage of these local resources at 5280.com/prevention


Between The Sheets

It’s not about everyone else…or is it?

Most people would say that “less is more” doesn’t apply when it comes to our sex lives. But Tim Wadsworth, associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder, wanted to know just how happy our in-the-sack activities are making us. His 2013 analysis confirms the positive impact sex has on our contentment. But here’s the kicker: What makes us happiest isn’t the actual, uh, deed. Rather, it’s thinking we’re getting it more than our friends.

Wadsworth examined data from more than 15,000 Americans who were polled between 1993 and 2006. After controlling for variables like marital status, education, and health, he found participants who had sex once a week were 44 percent more likely to report more happiness than those who hadn’t had any sex in the last year.

Interestingly, regardless of frequency, people who reported having less sex than their peers were not as happy as those who reported they were getting busy the same amount or more. It’s a phenomenon no different than our satisfaction with income; it’s relative to what we perceive others have or don’t have. “The importance of many things we often believe—and research has shown—increase happiness, like money, physical attractiveness, health, and even sex, depends on the context in which we live and how our attributes compare to those of others,” Wadsworth says. “If you make $50,000 a year and everyone else makes $40,000, you feel rich. But if you make $50,000 and everyone else makes $75,000, you feel poor.”

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One solution to unhappiness, then, could be to change your context. Don’t like your body? Move out of the fittest city in America. Dissatisfied with your salary? Relocate to a more modest neighborhood. Of course, life doesn’t usually work that way; we aspire to higher levels and continue to feel dissatisfied. Wadsworth’s alternative? Being self-aware. “Maybe you find out your friend is having incredible sex with his new partner, and suddenly you feel less satisfied with your love life,” he says. “It happens subconsciously. But you can notice that it’s happening—and then make a conscious choice about if you really want to feel unhappy because of someone else’s circumstances.” —Jayme Moye


Pill Poppers

Are we happy because we’re masking our pain?

We’ve got sunshine, ski slopes, and beer gardens galore in Colorado. But that happy-go-lucky facade obscures a darker reality: Colorado has one of the highest rates of prescription drug abuse in the country. In 2012, 255,000 Coloradans abused prescription pills, ranging from benzodiazepines (primarily for anxiety) to opioids (painkillers), and prescription pill–related deaths nearly quadrupled from 2000 to 2011. Dr. Abraham Nussbaum, director of the adult inpatient psychiatric service at Denver Health, sees our reliance on substances as part of a bigger trend. “Colorado is an aspirational state, one people come to with hopes and dreams,” Nussbaum says. “It has so many people moving into it that it’s often a place with low social cohesion.”

Without solid connections—such as family, friends, or church—people have little in the way of relief, support, or even a pick-me-up. As such, Nussbaum says, it becomes easy to turn to the bottle,
prescription or otherwise, when hitting a rough patch. “Coloradans often look to substances to improve their moods,” Nussbaum says. “In Colorado and nationwide, we increasingly have a sense of managing distress and emotional states by reaching for external objects, like legal and illegal substances.”

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Does this mean our reputation for happiness is built on a lie? Not necessarily, says Nussbaum. Coloradans also have advantages when it comes to enjoying ourselves. Besides the obvious natural resources and beauty Colorado boasts, our state is very open to newcomers, and that makes it easy to create a life unbound by social hierarchies or tradition. There’s room for change and adaptation. Despite our penchant for substances, Nussbaum is optimistic about our chances for happiness. “Colorado is a state of opportunity,” he says. “It’s a place where one can be tremendously happy.”  —Kelley McMillan


Find Yours

In a rut? Feeling blue? Can’t seem to pick yourself up lately? Worry not—we’ve got suggestions for you. —Rachel Cernansky

Escape. Book a retreat at the Shambhala Mountain Center in the wilderness northwest of Fort Collins. These Zen-ful folks offer meditation, yoga, and renewal retreats, plus the occasional mindfulness-based stress reduction workshop to bring you peace of mind. 970-881-2184, shambhalamountain.org

Say Om. If your regular yoga class is getting old, get outside and try a sunrise yoga session at the Denver Botanic Gardens (720-865-3500, botanicgardens.org). Or, even better, hit up Laughter Yoga (yep, it’s a thing): “a combination of laughter exercises, deep breathing, and relaxation techniques from the yoga tradition to enhance health and happiness” (720-936-8529, denverlaughs.com).

Breathe Easy. The Smithson Clinic in Lakewood is an organization “supporting transformation to health and happiness.” As such, it offers workshops to help you release troubling feelings, feel your best, and live your fullest life. For a good intro, try Finding Happiness with Releasing: Introduction to the Sedona Method, which teaches tools for alleviating stress and anger. 303-762-8994, smithsonclinic.com

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Joke Around. Making others laugh might help you laugh—just a little—at yourself. Sign up for an improv class and let your funny side fly. Check out Bovine Metropolis (303-758-4722, bovinemetropolis.com) or Voodoo Comedy (303-578-0079, voodoocomedy.com/classes).


By The Numbers

Unhappy Truths

19.7 Suicides per 100,000 people in Colorado in 2012, the highest rate ever recorded in the state, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

12.3 Suicides per 100,000 people in the United States in 2011 (the most recent data available from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention)

Sad Realities

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295 People who died from overdosing on opioid painkillers in Colorado in 2012

14 Percentage of Coloradans, ages 18 to 25, who misused prescription opioids in 2012

1.7 Percentage of Americans, age 12 and older, who misuse prescription opioids


Herbal Essences

Can Mother Earth help us on our way to happiness?

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I’ve always been prone to stress, and I thought it was normal to worry so deeply about something that nothing else mattered until you resolved it. But when a therapist informed me I was actually suffering anxiety attacks, I bypassed prescription medication and a more regular yoga schedule to visit Artemisia & Rue, Denver’s Broadway haven for holistic, earth-centered healing.

Owner and herbalist Shelley Torgove founded the three-year-old store’s new Community Herbalist Initiative to offer one-on-one consulting sessions with trained herbalists. Whether it feels like an acute panic attack or stress-induced digestion problems, Torgove says there is an herb—or, more likely, a concoction of herbs—that can help. Moreover, an increasing number of medical professionals are recognizing the potential role of herbs in improving health and mood. Torgove, who also co-founded Apothecary Tinctura, says many of her clients have been referred to her by physicians. Denver pediatrician Dr. Jerry Rubin, for example, says he thinks herbs are valuable tools
for treating stress and anxiety.

Mood-boosting herbs fall into two main categories: Nervines, such as kava kava root, wild oats, and lemon balm, have an overall and immediate calming effect; adaptogens, such as eleuthero and ashwagandha, help the body better manage stress over the long term. “By working on the hypothalamus—the part of the brain that takes outside stress and converts it into messages the body then responds to—adaptogens buffer your sense of how stressful a situation is,” Torgove says.

I’ve used Torgove’s prescribed tinctures (liquid herbal extracts) and teas for a few weeks now—enough to test them on a couple of anxiety attacks. Before, nothing could slow my spiraling worry; now, taking those kava kava drops actually disrupts the circles in which my brain runs. And that’s enough progress to make me happy. —RC

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Mix It Up

Shelley Torgove’s herbal protocol for four unhappy conditions.


Me Time

5280 staffers dish on their “happy places.”

My backyard. One night this past summer, we had cocktails and cheese and crackers on our patio out back while our son ran through a sprinkler. He laughed and laughed—that belly laugh that jiggles a baby’s whole body. So we laughed, too. And I turned to my husband and said, “Of all the Thursday nights we’ve ever had, of all the places we’ve been, this is the best.” —Natasha Gardner, senior editor

Probably once a week in the summer I ride Betasso Preserve, a few miles up Boulder Canyon. For me, mountain biking is an activity that really wipes my mind in the most pleasant way possible. I don’t think about anything else while I’m on the trail—deadlines, what I’m going to eat for dinner, life in general. When I’m finished, I sit on the back of my car and drink a beer and watch the sun set. —Chris Outcalt, associate editor

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Cooking. I love standing over the stove, chopping at the kitchen counter, or manning the mixer. I like the process of watching a dish come together from individual ingredients. I find the entire experience relaxing and, almost always, satisfying. —Amanda M. Faison, food editor

Playing volleyball has always been a happy place for me. Being on the court is so familiar to me that I’m usually able to forget about everything else and just enjoy the activity, the sweat, and the competition. —Daliah Singer, senior
associate editor

Anywhere in the Arkansas River Valley, but particularly Salida; having a cold one next to the Ark just feels like ahhhhhhhhh. —Lindsey B. Koehler, deputy editor

On my bike in the early morning, preferably going up a hill. Or running, in the early morning or evening, especially in the dark (preferably no hills). —Geoff Van Dyke, editorial director

Sunday mornings in my leather reading chair with a steaming cup of coffee. Watching the sunrise, sunset, and starry skies next to a campfire just about anywhere. The pedicure chair. An eight-by-16-meter sand box (read: a sand volleyball court). The first 15 minutes of any road trip. —Kasey Cordell, senior editor

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It may be “cheesy mom” of me, but my new happy place is showing my young daughter anything outside: ladybugs in the bushes, worms, leaves, rain, and rocks (and making sure she doesn’t eat them). —Lindsey R. McKissick, assistant editor


Daily Dose

Ever feel like a black sheep in a crowd of laughing, carefree people? It can be maddening if you just can’t shake that rain cloud. What’s the secret? We caught up with University of Colorado psychology and neuroscience professor Leaf Van Boven, who studies happiness (in part) for a living. His biggest observation: Happiness comes less from material things and more from experiences. Sounds basic—but what experiences should you shoot for? Here, Van Boven shares five things happy people do (almost) every day. —RC

1. Be social. Social relationships are crucial for emotional well-being, Van Boven says. “Whether it’s friends or family, doing activities that foster those relationships is really critical.”

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2. Do something for someone else. “That bumper sticker about committing random acts of kindness? That turned out to be really good advice,” he says. “Helping other people provides a long-term boost for happiness. That seems to be true worldwide.”

3. Limit your impulse shopping. Especially if you’re on a budget, try to look at the “opportunity costs” of every purchase. Says Van Boven: “We very rarely think, ‘If I spend the money on this, what are the alternative experiences I’m giving up?’ ”

4. Think long-term. Van Boven uses camping as an example: It’s a lot of work and easy to forego because hanging out at home is easier. But in the long run, it’s that camping trip that will become your source of happy memories and personal fulfillment. “If you ask people to think of the long-term value of what they’re doing,” Van Boven says, “and how they’ll react to something when they look back on it years down the road—a lot of those inconveniences fall by the wayside.”

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5. Own your pleasures. Know your passion and pursue it wholeheartedly. “It’s important for people to think of the kind of person they would like to be,” Van Boven says. “Do you want to be someone who enjoys the arts, do you want to be someone who enjoys music, adventure travel, or reading great literature?”

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