THE GURU of happiness is Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania. In his 1998 Presidential address to the American Psychological Society, Dr Seligman challenged his colleagues to focus on the things that go right in human nature rather than what goes wrong.
In the Gospel of Freud (as Seligman sees it), our present and futures are governed by our past. We are literally prisoners of our earlier traumas and buried memories. Thinking barely enters into it. Similarly, according to BF Skinner, our behaviors are conditioned by our environment. We essentially react rather than act. Again, thinking barely enters into it.
Dr Seligman was heavily influenced by Aaron Beck, founder of cognitive therapy, based on the simple proposition that - by reframing issues to reflect reality rather than imagined catastrophe - we could indeed think our way to wellness. But how do you define "well?"
Here's the deal: You are depressed. You seek meds or therapies to "undepress" you. Then what? Mainstream psychiatry and psychology are content to leave us in a state of "undepression," then leave us to fend for ourselves.
Putting in the Effort
In his 2002, "Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment," Dr Seligman cites data that indicates that the incidence of depression in the US has increased ten-fold since 1960 (as well as striking at a much earlier age), in sharp contrast to every objective indicator of well-being (such as purchasing power) greatly improving over the same period.
Dr Seligman suggests that part of the cause 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. Thus, we prefer settling back in the warmth of our homes with the TV clicker to venturing outside in the cold. But the exhausted mountain-climber freezing on an exposed ridge doesn't want to be anywhere else.
Sometimes we have to go to the ends of the earth to find happiness, but the effort is always worth it. One fine Wednesday morning I headed down the hill to San Diego to endure Inquisition-worthy torture commonly described as long-distance air travel. I boarded AMTRAK at noon, arrived in LA at 3 and LAX just after 4. My plane to New Zealand was leaving just before midnight, but I have a thing about being late. While waiting, I downloaded Martin Seligman's "Authentic Happiness" into my Kindle and started reading.
Thirteen hours after boarding my flight, I touched down in Auckland. It was eight on a Friday morning. I lost a day crossing the International Date Line. Three hours later, I arrived in Wellington. My daughter was there, holding my eight-month-old grandson, Little Teddy. Then I was holding Little Teddy.
Happiness - sometimes words can't express it.
Meanwhile, Back In Our Miserable Lives
What we tend to overlook is that two seconds after turning off the TV, we forget just about everything we've viewed, ready to drag our comatose selves to bed for yet another unsatisfactory conclusion to yet another thoroughly unexceptional day. Meanwhile, that frozen mountain climber's sense of exhilaration is going to stick around for a long long time.
True gratification, Dr Seligman tells us, involves effort, such as cooking a meal from scratch (preferably for the enjoyment of others, as well) rather than popping something in the microwave. Yes, shortcuts are useful, but our near-exclusive reliance on having our pleasures spoon-fed to us is what is making us unhappy and depressed.
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Ironically, according to Vaillant, positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. Whereas negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to rejection and heartbreak. Perhaps, then, it takes a brave individual to be happy. Perhaps happiness does not elude us so much as we elude happiness.
This message happened to resonate with Gretchen Rubin's 2009 "The Happiness Project." Over the course of 12 months, Ms Rubin set out to apply everything she researched on happiness to her own life, blogging daily as she went.
What jumped out and and hit me in the face was her emphasis on paying attention to the small stuff. For instance, in the first chapter, Ms Rubin comments that "sleep is the new sex." Apparently in our sleep-deprived society (we get 20 percent less of it than our great-grandparents) a day-time nap can border on orgasmic. Meanwhile, according to one study, along with tight work deadlines a bad night's sleep is a major factor in upsetting our moods. Another study suggests that an extra hour of sleep each night would contribute more to one's happiness than getting a $60,000 raise.
Once Gretchen wised up and made the requisite changes, she began to "feel more energetic," and that "getting out of bed in the morning was no longer torture."
Never underestimate the value in paying attention to the small stuff. Learning to love your enemy may be a noble goal, but you might want to tackle more mundane projects first, such as moving that pile of paper off the TV tray in the living room - and folding up the tray and putting it back in its proper place while you're at it.
Tying Happiness Together
Gretchen's book places a lot of emphasis on making resolutions and following through. The catch is we are creatures of habit. Change - even involving the small things - is hard work. But the point of both Rubin and Seligman is that we actually feel better when we put in the effort. And how would one describe this state of feeling better?
Published as a series of blogs 2009-2010, reworked into a series of articles Jan 26, 2011, reviewed Dec 5, 2016
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