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In Pursuit of Happiness, Part 3

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Have you ever had the experience of having a good day during which you are feeling really happy? Have you ever thought to yourself that you don’t know why you are feeling so good on that day? If you were aware that you were feeling so good but didn’t know why, did you think to yourself that you could lose the good feeling?

Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has conducted research on "Happiness" and the types of interventions that can increase feelings of happiness among individuals. In this posting, Part 3 of the series on happiness, we will discuss some interventions that you can try in an effort to promote your own happiness. In all,part of the effort is for you to find ways to give yourself credit for your happiness so that you can attribute it to things you have done.

We will also discuss a case study of a woman named "Rose" who is a good example of someone who uses these strategies without being aware that this is what she is doing.

Review:

According to Dr. Seligman, happiness is too vague a term to rely upon for use in scientific research. Therefore, he and his colleagues broke the concept down into three components. Happiness is: 1. Experiencing positive emotions or a pleasant life, 2. Being engaged in life, 3. Having a meaningful life. All three are necessary to achieve happiness.

Some of the strategies that Seligman and others have used as interventions to increase happiness in alignment with the three components of the concept are: 1. Performing acts of kindness or doing things to be of help to others, 2. Building gratitude or "counting your blessings," 3. Identifing three good things that go well each day and identifying why they went well. Identifying those times when you were at your best and what strengths you have that allowed you to be at your best, 4. Thanking someone whom you may not have thanked before, for something they did for you. 

According to Seligman, these strategies are designed to boost positive emotions and increase a sense of meaningfulness in one’s life. In other words, the focus is on actions and not thinking alone.

How long can it last?

While people vary in the amount of happiness they experience and each individual has a "set point" as to how much happiness they experience, the positive psychologists such as Seligman state that their research shows that these types of interventions can increase feelings of happiness lasting a month or more. No one remains happy all of the time but, overall, each of us can train ourselves to feel better more of the time.

It is important to remember that the types of activities that each of us chooses to help us feel better will vary from person to person based on their individual preferences.

Case study of Rose:

Rose is not a patient but is a friend who has given permission to discuss how she achieves happiness.

She is a 37 year old woman who has never married, has no children but is now in an intimate relationship with her boyfriend with whom she lives. She finished her college education but is now enrolled in a college near her home and is hoping to become a Nurse Practitioner in the future. In the meantime, she works as a waitress andas a sales manager for a company in the health care industry. She is second youngest of 8 children, and remembers her childhood with both fondness and sadness when she reviews the types of positive and negative things that occurred. Rose is not perfect, as she is quick to point out, is given to bouts of anxiety and, on occasion, mild depression. Partly, these shifting emotions are caused by an elderly father who suffers from dementia and money problems caused by the number and amounts of tips she receives as a waitress.  However, none of this ever stops her or prevents her from living her life. Why is this so? How does she cope with her life and what prevents her from becoming extremely depressed?

Answer:

Rose is a good example of someone who uses Seligman’s strategies without any awareness of  his research. In fact, she experiences a pleasant life, by her own admission, feels very engaged in her life and her activities, and finds meaningfulness in everything she does.

1. Instead of dwelling on the negative things in her life, this woman, if her thinking turns negative, quickly shifts to thinking of all the positives she has. Part of this shift from negative to positive is achieved by getting plenty of exercise each day. She loves to go for hikes, ride her bicycle and go to the gym. These types of activities always help her to feel better or to maintain the good mood she is already in.

2. She is grateful for the things she does have in her life. This gratefulness includes the friends she makes and keeps. She feels good about working and going to school and keeps focused on her long range goals to become either a medical doctor or nurse practitioner.

3. Rose is very spiritually oriented, believes in God and engages in "acts of kindness" and even attends church on a weekly basis. She and her boyfriend have found a particular church that they experience as relevant and meaningful. As part of her involvement in this church she helped collect large amounts of food to be donated to the poor and hungry in our country. She enjoyed telling me how she and the other congregants collected healthy types of food rather than "junk foods" that people wanted to clear out of their closets.

4. Rather than dwelling on the negatives she experienced while growing up in her family, she thinks of the warm and happy times they all had, even the quarrelling and competition among eight siblings.

Further suggestions:

I am not implying that any of us have to be like Rose to feel better about ourselves. In fact, spiritual pursuits are not the only ways to find meaning in one’s life and collecting food donations are not the only ways to perform acts of kindness. It is just that all of this suggests paths we can consider as a way of make our lives feel more fulfilled. The types of activities that lead to fulfillment depend on the tastes and preferences of each person.

According to Angela Clow, faculty member and researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Westminster, some of the activities that help promote feeling well include visiting an art gallery, listening to music and enjoying the olfactory sensation of baking, making coffee and melting chocolate. In a way, this is a variation of the old admonition: "Wake up and smell the coffee!"

So, when you feel good, give yourself credit. Look at your day, what good or successful things you did or what you feel grateful about and let yourself know exactly why you feel good. Feeling good is not a "fluke" and you can maintain that positive feeling.

What are your thoughts about the pursuit of happiness?

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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