Learning Happiness

Reviewed Apr 17, 2017

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Summary

  • Research shows that happiness can be lastingly increased.
  • You can choose to think and act in ways that make your life more pleasant.

You’re OK. But can you be even better? That’s one of the questions being asked by a burgeoning movement in the mental health field known as “positive psychology.” Unlike most traditional psychological practice, which seeks to understand and heal problems of the mind and emotions, positive psychology delves into what makes us emotionally healthy—that is, happy—and tries to build on those sources of strength to increase our happiness.

Happiness can be increased

Psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, sets out the movement’s tenets in his book Authentic Happiness. Contrary to an older scientific view that we all have a “fixed range for happiness, just as we do for weight,” he writes, new research shows that happiness can be lastingly increased. He also disputes psychologists who (following Freud) see happiness as “inauthentic,” an escape from and denial of our fundamentally troubled emotional reality. To him, happiness is natural to the human psyche—hence “authentic.” And positive psychology, he says, shows how to maximize it so that “you can come to live in the upper reaches of your set range of happiness.”

In other words, you can’t change everything about yourself, including much of your environment and your inborn propensity to look on the bright (or dark) side of things. But there’s much that you can control, Seligman says. You can choose to think and act in ways that make your life more pleasant and, ultimately, more meaningful. This latter realm of voluntary factors is the focus of his positive psychology. It’s where he says happiness, through one’s own thoughts and actions, can be learned.

Dispute pessimistic thoughts

Seligman says one can develop habits of positive emotion through methods such as disputing pessimistic thoughts. The key is to treat your own downbeat thinking as if it were coming from another person. Sometimes simply checking the evidence is enough to show that a negative belief is untrue. You may think you “blew” your diet, when an actual calorie count says you haven’t. More generally, he says, you have to recognize your beliefs about yourself for what they are—beliefs only, not facts.

And you need to get in the habit of taking the optimistic tack in explaining events: The bad will pass, the good will last. “Optimistic people,” he writes, “make temporary and specific explanations for bad events, and they make permanent and pervasive explanations for good events.”

Do the right thing

Doing the right thing is another cornerstone of Seligman’s psychology. As the saying goes, virtue—more precisely, acting virtuously by choice, and especially against obstacles—is its own reward. “We feel elevated and inspired when the exercise of will culminates in virtuous action,” he writes. He lists six virtues that he says are universally recognized in cultures and religions throughout history: wisdom, courage, love, justice, temperance and (as a single virtue) spirituality, and transcendence.

Build strength of character

The way to happiness, Seligman says, lies in building up the strengths of character that make the exercise of the virtues possible. The way to wisdom, for instance, can lie through the strengths of curiosity, love of learning, critical thinking, or social intelligence. The virtue courage can be exercised through the strength of valor, but also through other strengths, such as perseverance or integrity.

People don’t have all the strengths in equal measure, but Seligman writes that each person possesses “signature strengths.” These are “strengths of character that a person self-consciously owns, celebrates, and (if she can arrange life successfully) exercises every day in work, love, play, and parenting.” (To “own” a strength means to feel it as truly central to your being, the “real me.”)

Cultivate character, think positively, do good and, as a result, feel good—this, in simple form, is the prescription of positive psychology.

Consider your emotional health

Is happiness this easy to attain? The answer depends in part on how happy or unhappy you already are. Positive psychology is not aimed at those with serious emotional problems. Carol Kauffman, PhD, a Harvard Medical School instructor who specializes in positive psychology, says, “Wherever you are in the happiness continuum, cultivating joy, satisfaction, and fulfillment can bring you up a level or two. However, if you’re depressed, or going through very turbulent times, it is not a replacement for getting help, from a coach or a therapist or physician.”

Take baby steps

Patricia A. Farrell, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of the book How to Be Your Own Therapist, says that high hopes for change in your life have to be tempered with realism. Happiness springs from actions, but the actions often have to be baby steps. “For instance, shyness is something that keeps people from really engaging in life, but you can’t be expected to just toss aside your shyness and go out and enter a life of politics, or corporate leadership or whatever,” she says. “I tell people to go into a supermarket and ask someone where an item is on a shelf. It’s an easy step to beginning to believe in your ability to be more social.”

Look beyond yourself

The idea that happiness comes from virtuous action, which in turn arises from the cultivation of personal strengths, raises the question of whether it’s right to focus on happiness at all. Is a focus on becoming happier (or less unhappy) a form of unhealthy navel-gazing? Rabbi Dannel Schwartz, author of the book Finding Joy: A Practical Spiritual Guide to Happiness, says, “Trying to negate something like unhappiness gives it too much power over you. Wasn’t it Tolstoy who said, ‘Try not to imagine a polar bear and the first thing you will imagine is a polar bear’?” He urges people to move “out of self-absorption and into an altruism that gives meaning and purpose to life.”

But doing good, by itself, may not be enough. As Farrell says, there is a crucial component of attitude that makes action either fulfilling or dreary. “Everything you do can bring some measure of happiness, if you perceive the happiness inherent in it,” she says. “If you choose to see your work as drudgery, rather than a way to use your ingenuity, your creativity, and your life goals, it will provide no happiness.” 

By Tom Gray
Source: Patricia A. Farrell, PhD; Carol Kauffman, PhD; Rabbi Dannel Schwartz, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment by Martin E. P. Seligman.

Summary

  • Research shows that happiness can be lastingly increased.
  • You can choose to think and act in ways that make your life more pleasant.

You’re OK. But can you be even better? That’s one of the questions being asked by a burgeoning movement in the mental health field known as “positive psychology.” Unlike most traditional psychological practice, which seeks to understand and heal problems of the mind and emotions, positive psychology delves into what makes us emotionally healthy—that is, happy—and tries to build on those sources of strength to increase our happiness.

Happiness can be increased

Psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, sets out the movement’s tenets in his book Authentic Happiness. Contrary to an older scientific view that we all have a “fixed range for happiness, just as we do for weight,” he writes, new research shows that happiness can be lastingly increased. He also disputes psychologists who (following Freud) see happiness as “inauthentic,” an escape from and denial of our fundamentally troubled emotional reality. To him, happiness is natural to the human psyche—hence “authentic.” And positive psychology, he says, shows how to maximize it so that “you can come to live in the upper reaches of your set range of happiness.”

In other words, you can’t change everything about yourself, including much of your environment and your inborn propensity to look on the bright (or dark) side of things. But there’s much that you can control, Seligman says. You can choose to think and act in ways that make your life more pleasant and, ultimately, more meaningful. This latter realm of voluntary factors is the focus of his positive psychology. It’s where he says happiness, through one’s own thoughts and actions, can be learned.

Dispute pessimistic thoughts

Seligman says one can develop habits of positive emotion through methods such as disputing pessimistic thoughts. The key is to treat your own downbeat thinking as if it were coming from another person. Sometimes simply checking the evidence is enough to show that a negative belief is untrue. You may think you “blew” your diet, when an actual calorie count says you haven’t. More generally, he says, you have to recognize your beliefs about yourself for what they are—beliefs only, not facts.

And you need to get in the habit of taking the optimistic tack in explaining events: The bad will pass, the good will last. “Optimistic people,” he writes, “make temporary and specific explanations for bad events, and they make permanent and pervasive explanations for good events.”

Do the right thing

Doing the right thing is another cornerstone of Seligman’s psychology. As the saying goes, virtue—more precisely, acting virtuously by choice, and especially against obstacles—is its own reward. “We feel elevated and inspired when the exercise of will culminates in virtuous action,” he writes. He lists six virtues that he says are universally recognized in cultures and religions throughout history: wisdom, courage, love, justice, temperance and (as a single virtue) spirituality, and transcendence.

Build strength of character

The way to happiness, Seligman says, lies in building up the strengths of character that make the exercise of the virtues possible. The way to wisdom, for instance, can lie through the strengths of curiosity, love of learning, critical thinking, or social intelligence. The virtue courage can be exercised through the strength of valor, but also through other strengths, such as perseverance or integrity.

People don’t have all the strengths in equal measure, but Seligman writes that each person possesses “signature strengths.” These are “strengths of character that a person self-consciously owns, celebrates, and (if she can arrange life successfully) exercises every day in work, love, play, and parenting.” (To “own” a strength means to feel it as truly central to your being, the “real me.”)

Cultivate character, think positively, do good and, as a result, feel good—this, in simple form, is the prescription of positive psychology.

Consider your emotional health

Is happiness this easy to attain? The answer depends in part on how happy or unhappy you already are. Positive psychology is not aimed at those with serious emotional problems. Carol Kauffman, PhD, a Harvard Medical School instructor who specializes in positive psychology, says, “Wherever you are in the happiness continuum, cultivating joy, satisfaction, and fulfillment can bring you up a level or two. However, if you’re depressed, or going through very turbulent times, it is not a replacement for getting help, from a coach or a therapist or physician.”

Take baby steps

Patricia A. Farrell, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of the book How to Be Your Own Therapist, says that high hopes for change in your life have to be tempered with realism. Happiness springs from actions, but the actions often have to be baby steps. “For instance, shyness is something that keeps people from really engaging in life, but you can’t be expected to just toss aside your shyness and go out and enter a life of politics, or corporate leadership or whatever,” she says. “I tell people to go into a supermarket and ask someone where an item is on a shelf. It’s an easy step to beginning to believe in your ability to be more social.”

Look beyond yourself

The idea that happiness comes from virtuous action, which in turn arises from the cultivation of personal strengths, raises the question of whether it’s right to focus on happiness at all. Is a focus on becoming happier (or less unhappy) a form of unhealthy navel-gazing? Rabbi Dannel Schwartz, author of the book Finding Joy: A Practical Spiritual Guide to Happiness, says, “Trying to negate something like unhappiness gives it too much power over you. Wasn’t it Tolstoy who said, ‘Try not to imagine a polar bear and the first thing you will imagine is a polar bear’?” He urges people to move “out of self-absorption and into an altruism that gives meaning and purpose to life.”

But doing good, by itself, may not be enough. As Farrell says, there is a crucial component of attitude that makes action either fulfilling or dreary. “Everything you do can bring some measure of happiness, if you perceive the happiness inherent in it,” she says. “If you choose to see your work as drudgery, rather than a way to use your ingenuity, your creativity, and your life goals, it will provide no happiness.” 

By Tom Gray
Source: Patricia A. Farrell, PhD; Carol Kauffman, PhD; Rabbi Dannel Schwartz, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment by Martin E. P. Seligman.

Summary

  • Research shows that happiness can be lastingly increased.
  • You can choose to think and act in ways that make your life more pleasant.

You’re OK. But can you be even better? That’s one of the questions being asked by a burgeoning movement in the mental health field known as “positive psychology.” Unlike most traditional psychological practice, which seeks to understand and heal problems of the mind and emotions, positive psychology delves into what makes us emotionally healthy—that is, happy—and tries to build on those sources of strength to increase our happiness.

Happiness can be increased

Psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, sets out the movement’s tenets in his book Authentic Happiness. Contrary to an older scientific view that we all have a “fixed range for happiness, just as we do for weight,” he writes, new research shows that happiness can be lastingly increased. He also disputes psychologists who (following Freud) see happiness as “inauthentic,” an escape from and denial of our fundamentally troubled emotional reality. To him, happiness is natural to the human psyche—hence “authentic.” And positive psychology, he says, shows how to maximize it so that “you can come to live in the upper reaches of your set range of happiness.”

In other words, you can’t change everything about yourself, including much of your environment and your inborn propensity to look on the bright (or dark) side of things. But there’s much that you can control, Seligman says. You can choose to think and act in ways that make your life more pleasant and, ultimately, more meaningful. This latter realm of voluntary factors is the focus of his positive psychology. It’s where he says happiness, through one’s own thoughts and actions, can be learned.

Dispute pessimistic thoughts

Seligman says one can develop habits of positive emotion through methods such as disputing pessimistic thoughts. The key is to treat your own downbeat thinking as if it were coming from another person. Sometimes simply checking the evidence is enough to show that a negative belief is untrue. You may think you “blew” your diet, when an actual calorie count says you haven’t. More generally, he says, you have to recognize your beliefs about yourself for what they are—beliefs only, not facts.

And you need to get in the habit of taking the optimistic tack in explaining events: The bad will pass, the good will last. “Optimistic people,” he writes, “make temporary and specific explanations for bad events, and they make permanent and pervasive explanations for good events.”

Do the right thing

Doing the right thing is another cornerstone of Seligman’s psychology. As the saying goes, virtue—more precisely, acting virtuously by choice, and especially against obstacles—is its own reward. “We feel elevated and inspired when the exercise of will culminates in virtuous action,” he writes. He lists six virtues that he says are universally recognized in cultures and religions throughout history: wisdom, courage, love, justice, temperance and (as a single virtue) spirituality, and transcendence.

Build strength of character

The way to happiness, Seligman says, lies in building up the strengths of character that make the exercise of the virtues possible. The way to wisdom, for instance, can lie through the strengths of curiosity, love of learning, critical thinking, or social intelligence. The virtue courage can be exercised through the strength of valor, but also through other strengths, such as perseverance or integrity.

People don’t have all the strengths in equal measure, but Seligman writes that each person possesses “signature strengths.” These are “strengths of character that a person self-consciously owns, celebrates, and (if she can arrange life successfully) exercises every day in work, love, play, and parenting.” (To “own” a strength means to feel it as truly central to your being, the “real me.”)

Cultivate character, think positively, do good and, as a result, feel good—this, in simple form, is the prescription of positive psychology.

Consider your emotional health

Is happiness this easy to attain? The answer depends in part on how happy or unhappy you already are. Positive psychology is not aimed at those with serious emotional problems. Carol Kauffman, PhD, a Harvard Medical School instructor who specializes in positive psychology, says, “Wherever you are in the happiness continuum, cultivating joy, satisfaction, and fulfillment can bring you up a level or two. However, if you’re depressed, or going through very turbulent times, it is not a replacement for getting help, from a coach or a therapist or physician.”

Take baby steps

Patricia A. Farrell, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of the book How to Be Your Own Therapist, says that high hopes for change in your life have to be tempered with realism. Happiness springs from actions, but the actions often have to be baby steps. “For instance, shyness is something that keeps people from really engaging in life, but you can’t be expected to just toss aside your shyness and go out and enter a life of politics, or corporate leadership or whatever,” she says. “I tell people to go into a supermarket and ask someone where an item is on a shelf. It’s an easy step to beginning to believe in your ability to be more social.”

Look beyond yourself

The idea that happiness comes from virtuous action, which in turn arises from the cultivation of personal strengths, raises the question of whether it’s right to focus on happiness at all. Is a focus on becoming happier (or less unhappy) a form of unhealthy navel-gazing? Rabbi Dannel Schwartz, author of the book Finding Joy: A Practical Spiritual Guide to Happiness, says, “Trying to negate something like unhappiness gives it too much power over you. Wasn’t it Tolstoy who said, ‘Try not to imagine a polar bear and the first thing you will imagine is a polar bear’?” He urges people to move “out of self-absorption and into an altruism that gives meaning and purpose to life.”

But doing good, by itself, may not be enough. As Farrell says, there is a crucial component of attitude that makes action either fulfilling or dreary. “Everything you do can bring some measure of happiness, if you perceive the happiness inherent in it,” she says. “If you choose to see your work as drudgery, rather than a way to use your ingenuity, your creativity, and your life goals, it will provide no happiness.” 

By Tom Gray
Source: Patricia A. Farrell, PhD; Carol Kauffman, PhD; Rabbi Dannel Schwartz, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment by Martin E. P. Seligman.

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