This article is from the cover of the June 19, 2008 Fairfield Sun Newspaper
A Hersam Acorn Newspaper By Bill Bittar, Editor
Every trip to the gas station is a sobering reminder of a sputtering economy. Watching $4-plus tacked on every time the counter ticks off each gallon can easily make the most optimistic drivers feel depressed.
But it will never spoil Lionel Ketchian's day. "If you're going to let things control you that are out of your control, you'll never be happy," the Fairfield resident said over a cold drink at Las Vetas Cafe last Thursday afternoon.
Of those stressing over each fill-up, Ketchian said, "They're going to complain about the gas prices, and their blood pressure is going to go up, and the doctor visits will cost them more money."
Ketchian, who is in the printing business as president of American Litho, has been dubbed "The Happiness Guru" by a newspaper that wrote a profile on him. He taught a course on happiness at Sacred Heart University and started the Happiness Club. The latter was a trend that quickly caught on as nearly 40 such clubs formed from coast to coast.
In addition, Ketchian has interviewed authors who wrote books about happiness on TV shows, writes a column and has free newsletter with 3,500 subscribers worldwide, has a Web site (www.happinessclub.com) and gives happiness talks to businesses and rotary clubs. He most recently spoke about the importance and value of happiness to Meriden Public Library employees at the Connecticut Library Consortium.
Ketchian said there is no official membership for Fairfield's Happiness Club, adding about 80 people attended its last event in the rotary room of Fairfield Library. The group features a speaker once a month.
According to Ketchian, "happiness is an inner state of well-being that enables you to profit from your highest thoughts, intelligence, wisdom, awareness, common sense, emotions, health, and spiritual values," rather than about monetary wealth.
"I don't need anything to make me happy," he said. I've been happy for almost 18 years." Numerous health studies found happiness leads to longer, healthier lives. "Gratitude is probably 95 percent of happiness," Ketchian said. "You are less susceptible to illness and more prone to faster, speedier recovery." "People who are happy tend to live eight to 10 years longer," he said. "They're thinking of starting a Happiness Club at St. Vincent's Medical Center."
Ketchian said outpatients who go to Bridgehouse, the mental health facility in Bridgeport, now have a Happiness Club. "They know how to make choices and are better adjusted," he said. "When you're happy, you become loving."
Ketchian remembers how he felt when his happiness streak began. "I was aware I was happy. I said to myself, 'This feels great, but how long will it last? What's going to take this feeling away from me?' I knew it would be hard to hold onto at the time," Ketchian said. "I found I was holding onto my happiness. It's a skill that you practice. Like going to the gym, you sort of build your happiness muscles."
Being happy is a state of mind and a choice one has to make moment to moment, he said. For instance, he remembers getting angry for a split second after someone cut him off on the road, before coming to the realization that there was nothing he could do about it. If Ketchian decided to be angry, he would have let the other driver have power over him, he said.
"When you're happy, you're better able to solve problems," Ketchian said. "To me this is common sense. When people succeed, the mind can be a beautiful place to live. Happiness is when our bodies are at equilibrium, and we have control of the thermostat. Happiness is emotional competence."
Ancient philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato and Marcus Aurelius sparked Ketchian's interest in studying about the state of happiness. "They absolutely talked about happiness," he said. "They knew it inside and out." Ketchian said he was struck that these wise men understood happiness 2,400 years ago, yet these lessons are not being practiced in modern times. This led Ketchian to teach a course on happiness at Sacred Heart University in 1999. "It wasn't recognized as a science. There was no college course at the time," Ketchian said.
Since then, Time published an article, "The Science of Happiness," in 2005, and colleges have begun to teach courses in it. At Harvard University, Tal Ben-Shahar teaches to the largest classes, according to Ketchian.
After the classes were over, Ketchian said his students wanted to keep it alive. They met at Tommy's Restaurant on the Post Road and the Happiness Club was born.
Happiness is contagious
Though Ketchian does not have medical expertise, he said he has been able to get doctors and psychologists involved by giving presentations. Dr. Bernie Siegel is one of those professionals. "Dr. Bernie Siegel and I did a health and happiness talk on PBS," Ketchian said.
The clubs have spread to places such as Seattle, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Chicago, to name a few American locales. Overseas, Happiness Clubs were formed in Denmark, Australia and New Zealand. "On July 3, a club is opening in Jerusalem," Ketchian said. "Rabbi Zelig Pliskin is running it. He wrote the book, Gateway to Happiness.
Mark Webb and Aymee Coget of California and Ketchian started This Happy Planet," which put together an agenda and tapes on topics for an entire year of Happiness Club meetings, for those who want to start their own group. A Happiness Club Leadership Teleconference will take place monthly. "We're trying to be an umbrella and have Happiness Clubs all over the world," Ketchian said. "Happiness really equals peace."
Dr. Cynthia Barnett, a retired principal and an adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport, wants happiness to be taught in public schools, according to Ketchian.
His best foot forward
Ketchian, 62, and Barbara, his wife of almost 40 years, have three children and three grandchildren. Prior to the gas crisis, the couple enjoyed taking weekend trips to the Berkshires. So is Ketchian opting to stay home and sulk? "Now take a hike," Ketchian said. He held up a small device with a digital reading of 2,600, the number of steps he took that day. "I try to take 10,000 steps a day," Ketchian said. "I walk more now because of the gas prices." Priorities, in this case attending his grandson's tee-ball game, stopped him from getting to 10,000. "I had done 6,842 steps by the end of the day," Ketchian said. "I went to the Trumbull Mall walked for an hour, while talking to Dr. Robert Nozik, one of our happiness facilitators in California, about happiness."