Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Is Happiness Possible?

Over on HealthCentral's BipolarConnect, I recently wrapped up a major series on Happiness. Four of my pieces dealt with the positive psychology of Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania. Addressing the American Psychological Society in 1998, Dr Seligman challenged his colleagues to focus on the things that go right in human nature rather than what goes wrong.

In his 2002 book, "Authentic Happiness," Dr Seligman notes that despite our vastly improved standard of living, depression in the US has increased ten-fold since 1960. Part of the cause, he suggests, may be that our society is good at building shortcuts to pleasure.

Pleasure (which is fleeting), maintains Dr Seligman, is not the same as gratification (which is long-lasting). Typically, gratification involves effort. Settling back in the warmth of our homes with the TV clicker may seem like a rational choice. But the exhausted mountain-climber freezing on an exposed ridge doesn't want to be anywhere else.

Likewise, popping something in the microwave may be quick and easy, but making a meal from scratch is going to be a lot more satisfying (as is inviting people over).

A critical key to making the effort is "flow" - literally when time stops and you find yourself doing exactly what you want to be doing, totally immersed, and never wanting it to end. Of all things, flow involves the absence of emotion.

A study that compared "high-flow" teens (who had hobbies and did their homework) to "low-flow" teens (who hung out in malls) found the high flow kids did better on all measures of psychological well-being but one. The exception? The high-flow kids thought their low-flow peers were having more fun.

But tasks are not necessarily fun, per se. Typically, they involve challenge and hard work. Instant and ephemeral pleasure, such as watching sitcoms, is a sure flow-kill. Better, says, Dr Seligman, to pursue a life of meaning - to connect to something greater than yourself.

Dr Seligman also discusses optimism, which is not to be confused with our popular notion of "positive thinking" (which may involve viewing events in ways that fly in the face of unpleasant reality). Naturally, optimists and pessimists think a lot differently. For instance, optimists tend to internally credit themselves for good things happening and write off their inevitable setbacks as bad luck. Pessimists are just the opposite: If something happened to go right, they were just lucky that day. If something went wrong, it was obviously due to a major fundamental character defect.

Not surprisingly, optimists fare better in all endeavors save law. Lawyers are paid to spot negatives that no one else sees - only pessimists need apply. But lawyers have the highest depression rates of any profession or vocation, as well. (Perhaps they are envious of those wild and wacky undertakers.)

Dr Seligman lays considerable emphasis on strengths and virtues. These are embedded in the old-fashioned concept of "character." With his colleagues, Dr Seligman explored 200 works of literature that dealt with virtue including: Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas, Augustine, the Old Testament and the Talmud, Confucius, Buddha, Lao-Tze, Bushido, The Koran, Ben Franklin, and the Upanishads. Out of this emerged six universal virtues:
  • Wisdom and knowledge
  • Courage
  • Love and humanity
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Spirituality and transcendence
From there, Seligman et al identified 24 character strengths, such as curiosity and love of learning to augment wisdom and knowledge. Dr Seligman believes that everyone has 
several signature strengths, which they can deploy in their daily lives to their advantage. (You can test yourself for your signature strengths by going to Dr Seligman's Authentic Happiness site.)

My guess is that we tend to elude happiness far more than happiness eludes us. Heaven knows, I'm an expert at that, but thankfully I appear to be losing my edge.

My HealthCentral Happiness Posts

Happiness: Life's Greatest Challenge

Happiness: The Compassion Challenge

Happiness: Is Managing Our Misery the Key?

The Happiness Challenge: Keeping it Small

Happiness - Making the Effort is Always Worth It

My Practical (and Gratifying) Experience with Happiness

Happiness, Mental Wellness and Positive Psychology

Learning Optimism

More on Happiness: Using the Flow

Happiness: Capitalizing on Our Strengths and Virtues

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