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by Allison Aboud Holzer

LongitudesIn Positive Psychology circles and  discussions about happiness, the topic of gratitude is likely to come up in conversation. While scientists disagree about the ideal dosage and type of gratitude intervention, most agree that some degree of focus on gratitude increases well-being, hope, and positive emotions. Some argue for keeping a gratitude journal, writing 3 things down at the beginning of each day; others believe in writing about grateful things more extensively, but less frequently. Whatever the approach, my Bliss Tip #22 is to Longitude Your Gratitude, and here’s what I mean:

Geographically speaking, longitudes cross all seven continents; and any single longitude spans across hundreds of geographical regions, climates, and countries. Approach gratitude in a similarly global way, considering things you feel grateful for at a micro and macro level. For example, today I feel absolutely grateful for my sweet little Tibbie snoring next to me while I write; I also feel grateful for living in such a warm and inviting local community; and for the many people in our global community dedicated to reducing gas emissions.

Longitudes are spaced at regular intervals; in the same way, express gratitude regularly. Whatever dosage you choose (once a day, once a week, once a month), commit to it by marking in your calendar, Iphone or Facebook events calendar. Tweet your gratitude entries to the world, if that helps you stay committed! According to Harvard Professor  Tal Ben-Shahar (in his book Happier), “they key is, despite the repetition, to keep the emotions fresh; imagine what each item means to you as you write it down, and experience the feelings associated with it.”

Finally, the historical purpose of longitudes (and latitudes, for that matter!) was navigation; they helped lost people find themselves in the world. Whenever you feel lost, turn to gratitude to help you locate yourself and ground yourself within your community, the people you love most, and the things you care about most. Gratitude has the power to help remind us all of where we are and where we belong.

Now, if only I can locate the longitude of that gorgeous Italian Villa in Umbria I’ve been seeing in my dreams… gratitudine del’amore!

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by Allison Aboud Holzer

Some people are natural nesters. When we first moved to New Haven, I couldn’t even sleep at night knowing that boxes were left unpacked. My home space is a haven to me and I need to be surrounded by images of people I love and souvenirs from memories I cherish in order to relax. I have a friend from college who, not to make a gender stereotypical comment but, seriously needs a woman’s touch to make his home cozy. Imagine white walls everywhere and just the bare essentials – clean and tidy, but completely impersonal.

A researcher named Barbara Kerr has studied the characteristics of what she defines as “happy homes.” One of her findings is that happy homes have pets, plants, and pictures! Before you jump out of your seat to make a run to your local florist – let me clarify that this finding is a correlation; there is no causal evidence to suggest which comes first, the chicken or the egg. In other words, it’s unclear whether happier people tend to be drawn to pets, plans and pictures; or, whether or not pets, plants, and pictures actually help make people feel happier.

Evidence to the latter is mostly speculative at this point. We know that pets have a positive impact on our moods (see Bliss Tip #1) for multiple reasons. It may be that the act of nurturing and deeply caring for another being, whether a pet or a plant, brings us a sense of fulfillment in our lives.

What about pictures? Well, we can argue that seeing pictures of people we love or other items that spark memories of joyful events encourages us to engage in something called “positive reminiscence.” Simply savoring past positive memories gives us a mood lift.

However, the truth is that pets and plants require a certain level of time commitment and may not be for everyone. So, I will focus on the third point about pictures and personalizing the home. For those of you feeling inspired by this post, here are a few ideas to get you started…

  1. Find and display pictures around of yourself and/or your spouse (or siblings) throughout your childhood, next to one another at around the same age.
  2. Create a Snapfish or Kodak album collage for each year that includes the top 1-3 photos from each major even of the year. Stack them around your house where you (and guests) can easily find them and browse through them.
  3. Collect one item – ticket stub, rock, napkin, be creative! –  from each family vacation that represents the spirit of the trips and display them around the house to savor those memories.
  4. Create and display a family tree! There are many software programs to help do this, or you can make one of your own.
  5. Ask your grandmother or parents for items from their childhood and place them around your home.
  6. Mark your calendar to rotate your pictures at least once a year to keep them fresh.
  7. Place photos of friends and family in unexpected, but visible, places – like inside drawers you open often.

As you get busy personalizing your home, send me your creative new ideas to add to this list!

  • B Kerr and C Chopp – Encyclopedia of Creativity, 1999
  • Robert Biswas-Diener and Ben Dean, Positive Psychology Coaching, 2008

by Mark Setton, Founder of the Pursuit of Happiness, this article was originally published in the Huffington Post

It seems that many Americans have been pursuing the Wall Street version of happiness with a vengeance, encouraged by the 2006 blockbuster “Pursuit of Happyness,” in which Will Smith and his real-life son become best buddies in an epic journey from rags to riches. Try typing “pursuit of happiness” on Google. Half of the page is filled with websites devoted to the movie, in spite of the fact that you got the spelling right. It’s no wonder that, in the minds of many Americans, the “pursuit of happiness” is unconsciously equated with the pursuit of wealth and security.

What did Thomas Jefferson mean when he enshrined the “pursuit of happiness” as a basic right in the Declaration of Independence? He failed to explain why, at least not in the original document, nor in his official correspondence. One of the most influential theories doing the rounds is that Jefferson simply plagiarized the English political thinker John Locke, who championed “life, liberty and estate (property).” According to this view, Jefferson’s replacement of the word “estate” with the “pursuit of happiness,” was essentially a play on words. The “pursuit of happiness” was a euphemism for the pursuit of wealth. From this perspective, Jefferson’s vision of happiness was the “rags to riches” version of the good life.

There is a good chance that we have profoundly misunderstood Jefferson’s view of happiness. One reason is that we have misunderstood the Greek thinker Epicurus, who, as it turns out, had a major impact on his thinking.

Rags to riches…or riches in rags?

A few years back I read that Jefferson was an “Epicurean.” In my mind it reinforced the credibility of the “rags to riches” theory. Over the years I had read textbooks and articles echoing the same refrain: Epicurus was an “egoistic hedonist”…ie someone who championed the pursuit of personal pleasure–for moi and moi alone, as Miss Piggy, the ruthless diva of Muppets fame, would have put it.

But life is full of surprises. Last summer, as soon as I stepped into my mother’s apartment in the south of France, she began excitedly waving the latest issue of the Nouvel Observateur, a sort of liberal Newsweek. It was devoted to the “Art of Happiness.” She knows that I am fairly obsessed with the topic. The cover displayed a naked couple locked in fond embrace (a great stereotype of the Epicurean life, and probably why the issue sold out). Yet the cover story, which was devoted entirely to the life and thought of Epicurus, sang a different tune.

I teach Asian philosophy, and I was astonished by the parallels between Buddha and Epicurus. Apparently, Epicurus did not teach in a lavishly funded Academy. Instead he conversed with his students in a cozy, well-tended garden. He treated his followers like family, emphasized simplicity and the need to tame desires, especially those not aimed at the “necessities” of life, and pretty well equated happiness with peace of mind.

In other words, if he was around now, you wouldn’t see Epicurus on Wall Street. He was not a proponent of the “rags to riches” view of happiness. Far from it. You could call it the “riches within rags” view of happiness. Simply put, if you cultivated close friendships, limited your desires to the essential necessities of life, and rejoiced in the moment, happiness was yours to keep.

I hit the books. It turns out that, in a letter to William Short, an ex-neighbor and private secretary who served him in Paris, Jefferson bluntly states that “I am an Epicurean.” What follows is an amazingly sophisticated analysis, and a lament, on how profoundly Epicurus was misunderstood by Greek and Roman philosophers and as a result, the contemporary world. Jefferson underlines the gentle, “rational” moral philosophy of Epicurus that rejects over-indulgence and leads to peace of mind. At the end of the letter he outlines a syllabus of Epicurus’ philosophy. This includes the topic “happiness is the aim of life.”

If Jefferson really was an Epicurean, the third of his “unalienable” human rights is much more than a veiled glorification of the rat race.

If the “pursuit of happiness” is such a distinguished human right, why aren’t we teaching about it in our schools? American kids learn about the remaining two, life and liberty (especially liberty), until they are blue in the face.

Teach about one of the ultimate goals of life? How silly! We’ve got to teach useful stuff! Such is the shallow pragmatism embedded in our school system.

One more problem is, of course, whose version of happiness should we teach?

How about the scientific version?

Science and the pursuit of happiness

Traditionally psychologists have focused their attentions on what makes depressed people depressed.

Yet recently a small group of scientists has turned the question on its head. Now they are asking: “What makes happy people happy?” This Copernican shift in perspective has given rise to the new “science of happiness.”

During the last two decades, numerous studies by “positive psychologists” such as Ed Diener and Martin Seligman have tried to place the study of human well-being on a scientific foundation. Many of these studies have homed in on small groups of “very happy people” and analyzed their lifestyles and personalities through questionnaires and interviews.

They found that, to a certain extent, the happiness that people can intentionally generate through their thoughts and actions can “psych out” genetically acquired gloominess.

Seligman’s bottom line is that happiness has three dimensions that can be cultivated: “The pleasant life” is realized if we learn to savor and appreciate such basic pleasures as companionship, the natural environment and our bodily needs.

We can remain pleasantly stuck at this stage or we can go on to experience “the good life,” which is achieved by discovering our unique virtues and strengths and employing them creatively to enhance our lives.

The final stage is “the meaningful life,” in which we find a deep sense of fulfillment by mobilizing our unique strengths for a purpose much greater than ourselves.

The genius of Seligman’s theory is that it reconciles two conflicting views of human happiness – the individualistic approach, which emphasizes that we should take care of ourselves and nurture our own strengths, and the altruistic approach, which tends to downplay individuality and emphasizes self-sacrifice.

The debate between the positive psychologists and their critics, who claim that the new science is based on wishful thinking, is far from over. This is hardly a surprise if one thinks of the contrasts between them. Positive psychology is more proactive and preventative, whereas traditional psychology is more problem-oriented.

Yet within the science of happiness some major areas of consensus are emerging. Many of the new studies are confirming what great philosophical and spiritual thinkers from Confucius to Aristotle taught us long ago. In spite of powerful genetic and environmental influences, a sizeable chunk of our mental well-being depends on our actions and attitudes. Secondly, by cultivating certain strengths and virtues, we are not escaping from the causes of depression. On the contrary, this strategy seems to generate a resilience that protects us from it.

So now, a new science, which in fascinating ways is confirming ancient insights from East and West, is opening the door to an unprecedented opportunity. We can now analyze the growing mountain of data on “subjective well-being” or happiness, and separate the science from the hype. You may have noticed that there is a lot of hype about happiness. Next, we need to show how the results can be applied it to the real world. Not least, we need to translate the scientific jargon into proper English. As the writers of computer manuals used to say, “easy is difficult.” This too will take a lot of brain power. Academics are very good at digging up profound truths and burying them again with equal success. Finally, we need to integrate this new-found wisdom with existing curricula, both in high schools and universities.

In a society that spends more than $25 billion a year on psychopharmaceuticals (that’s $85 a person) and untold billions dealing with family dysfunction, shouldn’t education on mental well-being take priority?

This article is adapted from content at Pursuit-of-Happiness.org.

by Allison Aboud Holzer

The U.S. News and World Report special year-end issue included an article called “50 Ways to Improve Your Life in 2009.”This article highlighted 50 simple small changes we can make in our lives to improve them, many inspired by recent advances in technology, business or society. Some examples from the article include:

This article has inspired me to write a new column for the Bliss Blog that includes a series of Bliss Tips. I will try to connect each Bliss Tip to current research in the psychology, sociology or other behavioral science fields. And, in the spirit of the Bliss Blog, I will always include a practical way that the tip can be used to better your life. In addition to this column, I will continue to invite guest authors – experts across various fields – to continue our discussion about this curious thing called happiness.

From the Bliss Blog to all readers, Happy New Year!

Allison Holzer

by Dr. Aaron Cooper, http://www.mykidshappiness.com

The topic of happiness has made an impressive showing in the media sweepstakes this season, edged out only by presidential politics and Paris Hilton’s latest escapades. Happiness authors have been crowding the airwaves like a traffic jam, while across the Internet, bloggers weigh in daily with suggestions for creating our much-desired moments of personal bliss.

As a psychologist, I’m afraid that so much media attention encourages something that’s troubled me for years: parents’ preoccupation with their children’s happiness. Over the past two decades, I just want my kids to be happy has become mom and dad’s fondest wish; I hear it everywhere. Several years ago, I surveyed 100 middle school students, asking what they thought their parents wanted most for them: that they be smart, successful, happy, or good. Seventy percent chose “happy.”

I believe the focus on happiness has gotten out of hand. I’d rather our youth were learning the paradox behind it all: to find happiness, you’ve got to let it go. It can’t be planned or grasped and especially not purchased. It’s always just a side-effect, a by-product of living life in certain ways. Research has revealed those ways—the key ingredients that lead to true contentment. Like cultivating a sense of gratitude and an optimistic outlook. Enjoying close relationships and meaningful pursuits. Engaging as much as possible in acts of loving kindness. These are the things for parents to emphasize, rather than happiness itself.

In my counseling office, I’ve consoled too many youngsters wracked with guilt and shame over their inability to be cheerier than they are. They think they’re a disappointment to their happiness-obsessed parents, and sad to say, they’re often right. I’ve listened to teens railing against teachers who just won’t cater to their every whim, the way their parents do at home. And I’ve witnessed kids lacking the resilience to face ordinary challenges because mom and dad have shielded them from so many moments of unhappiness, those necessary encounters with adversity that build resilience and strengthen our children’s emotional muscles.

We seem to be forgetting that happiness is never on the menu. It’s up to us to order wisely, selecting the dishes that will have us licking our lips and relishing a sliver of pleasure and satisfaction. Happiness isn’t on life’s menu either. It’s the job of parents when kids are young to serve up the right attitudes and encourage the right habits. That’s how our sons and daughters will come to feast on true contentment. But first, let’s retire I just want my kids to be happy.

Welcome to the Pursuit-of-Happiness.org Bliss Blog!

POH is an organization committed to the pursuit of happiness through education. This blog offers a forum to discuss happiness, positive psychology, fulfillment, and other related topics. While POH has created this forum for community learning and discussion, please note that blog entries reflect the opinions of the individual bloggers and not the POH organization. I invite you to peruse the site and respond with your feedback and insights!

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