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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Cultivating Happiness In Everyday Life

By Carol Weiss, MA

For 60 years the model used for psychology and psychotherapy was a disease model. It asked: What’s wrong with me? Some positive outcomes came from the disease model: a science of classifiable mental illnesses was developed; previously non-treatable illnesses became treatable or sometimes curable; drug and psychological treatments were designed and tested; miserable people became less miserable. There are also costs to this model. Sufferers of mental illness can feel they are victims of their pathology. The disease model forgot the improvement of quality of life for normal and high talent people.

In 2005 Martin Seligman opened the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He asks: Can psychology make us happier? Positive psychologists believe that psychology and psychotherapy should be as concerned with strength as with weakness and as interested in building the best things in life as repairing the worst. Seligman believes that the skills of happiness are different than the skills that relieve misery and that normal and high talent people deserve help in achieving and nurturing happiness. The science of positive psychology has created ways of measuring happiness (see tests at authentichappiness.org), has classified different types of happiness, and has discovered causality through both brain research and the observation of happy people. This is what they have found:

Three kinds of happy lives

The “Pleasant Life” seeks as much positive emotion as possible and looks for as many pleasurable experiences as possible. Such positive feelings and experiences can be amplified, for example, by savoring them. There are some drawbacks to this kind of happiness. First, it is heritable. About 50 percent of this kind of capacity for happiness is part of one’s genetic make-up. Also, it habituates, which means that it rapidly deteriorates so more and more pleasurable experiences are needed or the pleasure goes flat. Finally, research shows that this type of happiness can only increase by about 15 percent with learnable skills such as seeking and savoring.

The “Good Life” is a life of positive engagement. This form of happiness depends on enjoying one’s work, having a loving partner, family or friends, engaging in leisure and hobbies one enjoys, and feeling a sense of achievement and success in these endeavors. The concept of “flow” is identified with this kind of happiness. When one is engaging in music, a sport, or other endeavor one enjoys, time seems to stand still. This type of happiness can be created by assessing one’s highest strengths and re-crafting one’s life to use these strengths as much as possible. One can re-craft work, relationships, play, or activities to allow full use and enjoyment of one’s strengths.

The “Meaningful Life” involves knowing one’s highest strengths and using them in the service of something larger than oneself. Research shows this to be the deepest and most durable form of happiness. Sometimes it is found in combination with the second type of happiness based in positive engagement, but rarely with the first, which seeks personal pleasure as the highest goal. Meditation and mindfulness practice within one’s own spiritual belief system can aid and enhance our search for this type of happiness. These are teachable, learnable skills.

One can experiment with activities to try out the three kinds of happiness. For the first type, design a beautiful day for yourself. Plan and experience a “perfect” day. Enjoy the good feelings that come and notice how long they last. Positive engagement can be experienced by thinking of someone to whom you are grateful. Write them a letter expressing your gratitude and phone them, or better yet, visit them and read them your letter. Both you and the recipient will find pleasure in this sharing. Finally, become active in a philanthropic endeavor. Donate time, expertise, and love to a person or activity that holds meaning for you. Experience the joy of a life of meaning.

Martin Seligman’s website (www.authentichappiness.org) is an interesting site to browse for self tests and more ideas about positive psychology.

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