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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.

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bliss-tip-3by Allison Aboud Holzer

One quick peruse through Facebook Groups shows the abundance of opportunities we have to express our commitment to causes, groups or organizations. My personal favorite is the “Chocolate=Love!” group of which I am a loyal member and committed chocolate eater! Belonging is a natural part of human nature that starts in the playground and continues through adulthood, driving team sports, the Greek system, Superbowl frenzy, political campaigns and walk-a-thons, to name a few. But what about being a loyal and committed member of the most important group of all… Team YOU?

When my husband Paul applied to business school, he had some lofty ambitions. He wanted to attend one of the best schools for social enterprise and receive a scholarship. He knew he needed support to achieve his goals, so he asked his father and me for help. We called ourselves “Team Paul.” Our team held regular meetings to strategize for him and to offer feedback. We each brought different perspectives, strengths and talents to the table. We worked hard to help Paul move steadily in the direction of his goals, while also having loads of fun! And guess what? Against fierce odds, Paul gained admittance to one of the best schools for social enterprise with a scholarship.

So, how do you start up a Team YOU?

  1. Decide on the theme of your team. Do you want to focus on a short-term goal, like admittance to graduate school? Or, rather, a long-term goal like achieving better physical health or fulfillment in your work?
  2. Select your team members. Having the theme of your group clearly stated will probably point you in the right direction. Choose supportive friends who will bring unique strengths and knowledge to your team.
  3. Ask them to join. Explicitly ask them to join. Invite them to dinner or a conference call and explain upfront what you need from them – like how often you would like to meet and how they can best support you.
  4. Act as team leader. You’ve courageously asked for support and gathered your troops. Now, you’re the one who sets the stage for success. Set guidelines for how often you meet, what you discuss, and what you need to move forward.

I know what you might be thinking. Trust me, Team YOU is *not* narcissistic! The most generous thing you can do in your life is prioritize your own fulfillment and personal growth. Your happiness, your growth, your success ultimately benefits the people and the world around you!

by Dr. Timothy Sharp, Founder and Chief Happiness Officer of The Happiness Institute

If you’re one of “the lucky few” then you’re very well positioned to dr-timothy-sharp1live a great life because by “the lucky few” I’m referring to those of you who find happiness comes easily.  No matter what’s going on around you, you still remain optimistic and positive.  And as well as enjoying happiness, you’ll also live longer, maintain better relationships and even be more successful at work.

Most of you, however, won’t fall into this very small group but the good news is that’s OK; because you can still create more happiness if you do the right sorts of things.  Regardless of whether or not you’re a natural optimist you can still learn to the proven principles of positive psychology and as a result, enjoy happiness more often.

Now this posting doesn’t present a simple strategy but rather, an over-arching approach I’ve used with wonderful effect in my work over the years (see www.thehappinessinstitute.com).  And it’s based on the simple but vitally important notion that to achieve anything in life we have to plan for it.

Most people understand that to be fitter and healthier we need to develop relevant plans – for exercise and diet.  Well, the same is true for happiness but unfortunately, most people spend more time planning their annual holidays than they do planning their lives; I have nothing against annual holidays but I can guarantee that if you take even just a fraction of the time you spend thinking about holidays and dedicate that time to contemplating life goals then you’ll enjoy incredible benefits.

Now before I go further I should explain that “plan” is not just a word but that it’s also an acronym.  Let me quickly explain The Happiness Institute’s PLAN model:

P represents a Positive image of the future

L is for Leveraging off what you already have

A is for the Action plan you need to develop and

N is a reminder to focus on your most immediate Next steps

In summary, then, this simple but (and I can vouch for this personally) very powerful model can help you determine your destination for life and set your course for the future.  If you imagine what a great life would look like, consider what you already have (in the way of strengths, attributes, characteristics and resources) that will help you get there, determine exactly what you need to do, and take it one step at a time then I’m confident you’ll go on to live a happier and more successful life.  And when you do, feel free to tell me your story; I love hearing about the positive outcomes of others!

Dr. Timothy Sharp is Founder and Chief Happiness Officer of The Happiness Institute.  He’s one of Australia’s leaders in the exciting new field of positive psychology, a sought after public/corporate speaker and he has Professorial appointments within the UTS School of Business and RMIT’s School of Health Sciences.  Dr. Sharp provides consulting and coaching services to individuals and organisations as well as Positive Psychology Training programs to relevant professionals.

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by Allison Aboud Holzer

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Do you remember the scene in Cast Away when Chuck Noland (played by Tom Hanks) cried “Wilson! WILSON! I’m sorry Wilson, I’m so sorry…”? I sobbed while watching him let his best friend drift away in the ocean in order to survive. And then I left the theatre baffled at myself for crying over a pet volleyball!

But, as any pet boutique owner will tell you, owners take their pets quite seriously – often considering them members of the family! It’s not so much a question of whether pets make us happy, rather how:

1.Pets make us more social – they are a form of social support themselves, but they also provide us with opportunities to socialize with other pet owners.

2. Pets improve our health – people who have pets exercise more often, have lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and see the doctor less often.

3. Pets soothe us – an interesting experimental study showed that women given a stressful mental exercise were soothed more by a pet than the presence of a friend. Pets provide stress relief through physical contact and unconditional positive regard.

4. Pets promote empathy – children with strong bonds to pets have higher scores on empathy than children without pets. And pets foster nurturing from the adults who take care of them.

If you already have pets, savor the ways that they bring happiness into your life. And for thowilsonse of you who don’t have pets – perhaps this is the year for a new companion!

Allergic? Scared of dogs? As Chuck Noland helped us understand, we can make strong emotional bonds with pets of many kinds besides the standard cats and dogs, including plants, lizards, birds, snakes, rodents, virtual pets (WebKinz ring a bell?) and even the occasional inanimate object, like Wilson.

·Allen, k.M., Blascovich, J., Tomaka, J., & Kelsey, R.M. (1991). Presence of human friends and pet dogs as moderators of autonomic responses to stress in women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 582 –580.

·Anderson, W.P., Reid, C.M., & Jennings, G.L. (1992). Pet ownership and risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Medical Journal of Australia, 157, 298 – 301.

·Ascione, F.R. (1992). Enhancing Children’s Attitudes About The Humane Treatment of Animals: Generalization to Human-Directed Empathy. Anthrozoos, 5 (3).

·Sable, Pat (1995). Pets, Attachment, and Well-being across the Life Cycle. Social Work, 40 (3), 334-41.

·Siegel, J.M. (1990). Stressful life events and use of physician services among the elderly: the moderating role of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 1081 – 1086.

·Stallones, L., Marx, M.B., Garrity, T.F., & Johnson, T.P. (1990). Pet ownership and attachment in relation to the health of U.S. adults, 21 to 64 years of age. Anthrozoos, 4, 100 – 112.

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 Christine Carter, Greater Good Science Center

These are not the only—or even the most important—things we can do to promote happiness in our children , but they are things that might not be obvious to parents.

1. Teach gratitude.

In my opinion, one of the most important happiness habits in the history of the universe is GRATITUDE. Thankfulness is actually a skill we need to teach our kids to practice regularly (rather than something we should assume they’ll feel innately). Keep lists of things you and your kids are grateful for. Anything can go on the list, no matter how large or small—people, places, toys, events, nature. People who consciously practice gratitude like this are dramatically happier—as well as more energetic, determined, and kind.

2. Don’t be such a perfectionist.

I can tell you both from science and from experience that perfectionism is the bane of happiness. Perfectionists are more likely to suffer from depression and severe anxiety, and they are more likely to commit suicide when things go really wrong. We don’t want our kids to become them.

Kids today, especially upper-middle class kids, are under a lot of pressure to achieve. Parents who value their children’s achievements more than their character tend to create perfectionists.

Instead of always pushing for the next big win, we can help our kids see that mistakes, failures, and jobs left undone are often fertile ground for growth and learning. If you find yourself doing everything within your power to prevent your children’s failures—bringing forgotten homework to school, staying up late to “help” rewrite a paper, manipulating the system to your child’s advantage—take a step back and ponder whether you really want to prevent your children from learning to deal with challenges and mistakes themselves.

3. Improve your love life.

Phil and Carolyn Cowan, pioneering psychologists who’ve been studying marriage and parenting for decades, always tell me that it isn’t the status of a relationship—whether or not you are together or separated—but the quality that matters for children’s health and happiness. Unfortunately, 67% of couples have a big drop in relationship happiness and a “big increase in hostility,” after kids arrive. Not surprisingly, parental conflict isn’t good for children’s happiness.

There are two important things that co-parents (whether or not they are married) can do to improve their relationship for the benefit of their children: (1) learn to handle conflict in a positive manner, and (2) become better friends. This may mean that you need to spend more time with your co-parent and less time with your kids…something that many parents are loath to do when time with their children is already scarce. But here’s another insight from the Cowans’ research: if you improve your parenting, you won’t necessarily improve your marriage or your relationship with your kids’ other parent. On the other hand, if you improve your relationship, you WILL improve your parenting.


© Christine Carter 2008

Christine Carter, Ph.D. is the executive director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley and a sociologist who studies the childhood roots of happiness. The Greater Good Science Center is an interdisciplinary research center that promotes the study of happiness, compassion, and strong families. Dedicated to “translating” the science of a meaningful life into practical tips for the general public, Carter writes the blog Half Full: Science for Raising Happy Kids, which offers parents research-based tips for fostering well-being in children.

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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