Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Era of Happiness

We've placed men on the moon, literally. The thought of even attempting such a feat a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, would have been severely improbable. The advancement of science and technology in our time has been increasing at an exponential curve. The amount of technology and sheer knowledge that humanity has at its disposal at this time in our history is unprecedented, unless of course one believes that ancient civilizations knew things that have long since been forgotten or ignored.

And yet, in our prime of research and knowledge gathering, we are a culture that is obsessed with the negative. A recent survey of published articles and studies concluded that there area seventeen times more research on negative emotions (e.g. depression, mental disorders, etc.) than on positive ones. In truth the field of optimism psychology is still in its infancy, and yet some of the research that has already been done has put to rest commonly-held fallacies surrounding this mysterious, elusive topic of happiness itself.

One of the more so-called commonly-established tenets of psychology is the idea of "hedonic adaptation". In a nutshell, hedonic adaptation means that doing something pleasurable will have less of a pleasurable effect each time it is done. The same applies for activities or situations that are deemed as negative. Addiction experts call it "tolerance", where more of the same drug is needed each time to reprise the same amount of pleasure. Hedonic adaptation of course does have its upside, namely, that we can adapt to less-than-ideal circumstances and activities as well over time since hedonic adaptation works both ways. The problem with hedonic adaptation as it concerns happiness and optimism, however, is that it is wrong. Not just wrong, mind you, but actually dangerous. Let me explain.

Rigorous studies conducted in the field of marriage research has conclusively shown that it is entirely possible, even probable, that one's happiness in marriage can actually increase over time. And yet how many sayings do we have in western societies that bally-hoo this notion? "Well, the honeymoon is over" comes to mind, among many others. We are socially conditioned to accept the "fact" that happiness in marriage should decrease the longer one is married. What does the research show? In many cases, happiness does take a nose-dive after the marriage. However, over time, happiness will increase in about a third of all marriages. The lesson here is not "stay single if you want to be happy", but "choose wisely". Even more interestingly, couples who have experienced a major life trauma in their marriage (such as addiction issues, infidelity, death) often come out happier on the other side after recovery. This has been shown time and again, and is often anecdotally corroborated when we ask couples who have been married for several decades about their marriage happiness "secrets". The secrets almost always boil down to preserving individuation while at the same time building up the relationship in mutual ways.

The physically-handicapped also throw a wrench in the hedonic adaptation. In one study, people were asked to rate their happiness over time if they suffered some sort of physical deblitation. Most respondents indicated that their happiness would plummet, especially at first, and on the average be considerably less than prior to their debilitation. However, the facts show otherwise. Those that were in some sort of accident that left them somehow physically debilitated did indeed suffer early acute depression, but over time it subsided to the point where they were in many cases actually happier than before their accident. This seems counterintuitive, and yet how many folks do we know who are physically handicapped in some fashion are "inspiring" to us? Words like "bitter" or "curmudgeonly" do describe some in this condition, but not most. The resilience of the human spirit need not be subject to hedonic adaptation. To add futher insult to injury, studies of prisoners have also shown that their happiness levels increase over time.

Perhaps there has never been a greater scientific discovery than this: we can learn how to increase our happiness. Mountains of research just in the past few years have borne out this fact, and controlled studies of small and large populations have proven this to be the case. Why are the two most objectively happy places on earth, Nigeria and Mexico, also among the poorest? Why do nearly 40% of Forbes Magazine's list of richest individuals have happiness levels that are less than the average in their country of residence? When we average out demographic differences such as income, location, ethnicity, religion, etc. we find that the baseline level of happiness for most folks is roughly the same. But more importantly, this baseline is not static. It can be increased, intentionally, methodically, and happily.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Actually, Happiness Is a Choice

"Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."
- Abraham Lincoln

Life is full of choices. This blog is dedicated to the most fundamentally important choice we have: to be happy and optimistic.

Most people do not consider happiness and optimism to be "a choice". Nonetheless, it is. It cannot be purchased at any price, but once discovered it is invaluable. Social standing, financial success, spiritual paths, and life experiences are never enough to guarantee one's happiness. The answer is actually far simpler, and one that you have suspected all along.

Do not defer happiness by making it contingent upon future milestones. Here are some examples:

I'll be truly happy...

  • ..."After I lose weight and get in better shape"

  • ..."When I land the perfect job"

  • ..."When my debts are all paid off"

  • ..."After finding the perfect mate"

  • ..."When my life is not so hectic"

  • ..."After the kids are all grown up"

  • ..."When I retire"

  • ..."As I find the correct spiritual path"

  • ..."After a few months or years of continuous sobriety/recovery"

  • ..."Once my cancer goes into remission"

  • ..."Starting Now"

Only the last choice can start immediately, right now, today, pronto, ASAP. It's that simple starting upon the journey to genuine happiness. Abraham Lincoln was onto something.

There are many misconceptions and societal "lies" surrounding optimism and happiness. We are constantly bombarded with propoganda and untruths regarding the attainment and continuance of happiness and optimism in our lives. Many of these myths are seemingly innocuous, but nonetheless become an entrenched part of our subconscious script because of being constantly reinforced.

Happy and optimistic people...

  • ..."Are happy all of the time"

  • ..."Have few problems at any moment"

  • ..."Are naturally, intrinsically that way and always will remain so"

  • ..."Have figured out something that I haven't yet"

  • ..."Find it easy to continue to be happy"

  • ..."Are normal"

  • ..."Have characteristics or qualities that I don't"

During our exploration of happiness and optimism, we will carefully consider the points above, shedding myths and misconceptions along the way. We will explore the latest research, and the latest techniques. Misunderstood and often overlooked characteristics, such as self-efficacy, will be examined.

Happiness and optimism doesn't just happen. It's a choice, and one that can be carefully chosen and executed if we are armed with effective techniques and compelling self-motivation.

And the journey begins.