Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Pursuit of Happiness

As therapists, we spend a lot of time talking with people about the things contributing to unhappiness. After all, people who are happy don't often come to therapy. However, research in the field of Positive Psychology comes at things from a different perspective. Instead of the clinical lens, which focuses on trying to decrease negatives, Positive Psychology focuses on trying to increase positives. High on the list of positives is happiness.

Happiness is something most of us wish for, and yet all too often find elusive. Happiness is often thought of as an emotion - that warm and fuzzy feeling - but true happiness is actually a much more complex human experience. Perhaps that's why people who go to great lengths to experience an emotional high continue to find genuine happiness beyond their grasp.

Indeed, research supports an understanding of happiness as a mixture of: positive emotion, occasional negative emotion, autonomy, mastery, purpose, belonging, playfulness, and psychological flexibility. Furthermore, it is not necessary to experience all of these, or to experience them in particular proportions. Indeed, different people experience happiness through different combinations, and the combinations are likely to change with life circumstances from moment to moment.

Some of the variables that contribute to happiness are within our control, while others seem to be innate. Indeed, genetics that influence brain chemistry, personality and temperament contribute to am emotional "set point." Like body temperature, our emotional "temperature" may have short-term ups and downs, but tends to return to our own natural baseline. This innate set point contributes about 60% of our happiness (or lack thereof). The good news for those of us with a lower set point for mood is that we have more control over the remaining 40%.

So, what can we do to boost our happiness?

1) Work on increasing psychological flexibility. People who are happy are able to modify their expectations and ideals, and therefore accept reality without readily succumbing to dissatisfaction. They are able to use uncomfortable emotions as information to guide behavior, rather than trying to avoid such emotions, or allowing the emotions to overwhelm them. Moreover, they can modify their behavior to fit each situation, and tolerate the discomfort of sitting with and containing emotional reactions when necessary.

2) Don't sweat the small stuff. While attention to detail can be helpful at times, being too detail-oriented lends itself to perfectionism, which only leads to dissatisfaction and disappointment. People who are happy tend to be less skeptical, less analytical, and less achievement-oriented. In contrast, people who are depressed are more observant, realistic, self-reflective, conscientious and performance-driven...but at a significant cost.

3) Step out of your comfort zone. While doing things that are comfortable and enjoyable can be fulfilling, life is richer for those who take some risks. Curiosity is correlated with satisfaction and happiness, and curiosity emerges through exploration. Trying new things produces short-term discomfort, but is energizing and contributes to longer-term growth.

4) Celebrate and share in other people's joys and successes. Unhappy people respond to other people's good news with envy. Happy people feel happy for others, and therefore experience a boost in mood after talking with others about their accomplishments.

5) Develop a sense of purpose. Working toward goals, and finding sources of fulfillment and meaning in life contribute to overall happiness, even when doing so involves challenges and set-backs. However, it's important to include things that genuinely feel fulfilling, rather than things we simply think "should" be fulfilling.

6) Take time for self-care. Relaxing, pampering, and indulging ourselves from time to time, and making time each day for some pleasure, is crucial to maintaining happiness and energizing us to take on life's challenges.

However, all that said, it's also true that striving for happiness can paradoxically produce unhappiness. This occurs because striving for happiness leads us to do the opposite of several of the things that produce happiness. It erodes psychological flexibility, heightening the distance between real and ideal, and raising our expectations of how life "should" be. It makes people unwilling to accept and tolerate negative emotions, and therefore reluctant to step out of their comfort zones. It makes it hard to share other people's happiness because such happiness triggers comparisons and dissatisfaction with one's own life circumstances. Lastly, it turns happiness itself into the driving goal or purpose, detracting time and attention from pursuits that offer meaningful fulfillment.

In other words, the best approach is to act in ways that can contribute to happiness, but not spend too much time focusing on whether or not you've achieved happiness as an outcome, since doing so only makes happiness more elusive.

1 comment:

  1. Love the Thoreau quote. I'm sure I've heard it somewhere, but had forgotten. I take a lot of chiding for being so committed to my yoga classes. I only attend three days a week, but since I go after work I'm not often available during the week for other social gatherings. But it's absolutely too important to my overall well-being. I really enjoyed your post, Natalie.