Tuesday, November 3, 2009


Since my last entry was some clinical information on mental health and highlighted depression, I thought this week I would strike a little balance and talk about happiness. Happiness research is big right now, as is positive psychology. As a culture that literally has the concept built into our Constitution, which of course has trickled down into our personal constitution, it is valued highly. Happiness is often described as the experience of joy and contentment and is a psychological, emotional, and physiological state. I will use this blog to share with you some tidbits out of the happiness research contributions and offer a few observations of my own.

I think it is important to start off looking at how our perceptions of what we need and want may be way off from what actually impacts our life experience. Daniel Gilbert, PhD (I suspect will soon be called "Uncle Dan" by me, as he is a major contributor in my field) is one of the happiness gurus and is a professor and researcher at Harvard. He has discovered a fascinating fact about humans and happiness, that is, that we largely fail to anticipate what will actually make us happy! The research is staggering and humbling. Social psychologists can largely predict what poor decision most of us will make in given situations! (Check out Daniel Gilbert's Ted Talk on mistaken expectations). How happy are you right now? This is how happy you will be a short time after you win $250 million in the Powerball! Yes, there will be a spike of jubilation and incredulity, and then you will return to your basic state. How happy are you right now? This is how happy you will be shortly after the wedding you have been anticipating would finally bring you the happiness you seek. There is a fascinating study done prior to a recent election where people anticipated their disappointment vs. happiness based on the outcome. Even with as fear based as political opinions have gotten, people's happiness was largely not impacted by the election results. Those who were unhappy prior to the election, even if they received the outcome they had hoped for, the research shows are most likely still feeling that way. What is interesting about this has nothing to do with politics, it is the struggle for us to accurately predict what will bring us to the emotional, psychological, and physical state we prefer. If we can't predict it accurately, how can we create it? Well........read on.

So what does make us happy?? There is some interesting information out there about this and it would take me multiple blogs, but I will touch on some highlights.

Well, for starters, it isn't money or financial security. Even though this is counter-intuitive, I promise you the evidence is overwhelming. I am not minimizing the loss of a job or the importance of financial self-care. I am telling you that, once you have paid your bills, the amount of money you have in the bank is unrelated to how happy you are. In fact, in the pursuit of the ever elusive financial security or the quest for material possessions, largely takes away from the time and energy it takes to invest in those things that make us happy. Though, if we use our money to create experiences vs. purchasing things, the evidence is that this does increase our feelings of positive well-being.

One key component to happiness is connectedness to other people. Having quality relationships and community, according to research, is a common experience of those who report experiencing a general contentment with life. Cultures that emphasize the community over the individual have less depression and furthermore, seem to have some biological protection. The culture in the United States largely favors individualistic values which affords us some wonderful benefits as a nation. They key is to keep a balance between the "me" and the "we." If I may add my own observation, simply having people around you does not cut it. Seek out your kindred spirits! Seek out those that can "hold the space" when you are having a difficult time with life. Seek out those who also place a high value on connectedness with themselves, others, and their world......those relationships feed the soul.

Another tidbit of advise from the happiness experts? Turn off your TV. A recent study out of the University of Maryland found that happy people report spending more than 30% less time watching television. They are likely to be developing closer relationships, pursuing a hobby, exercising, listening to music, attending church or a spiritual meeting of some sort, creating, playing, being absorbed in a challenging task, meditating, spending time outside or other endeavors that lead to more enjoyment or meaning. Turn on the TV for a favorite show or sporting event and then let it slip back into playing a secondary role in your life. If you are watching TV with your children or your spouse, you are not actually spending much meaningful time with them. TV viewing is a solitary event. Food for thought..........

The last tidbit out of the happiness research to ponder comes out of the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalfi's, a Czech psychologist, on "flow." Flow is the experience of being immersed, totally focused, and energized by a task. When one is in flow, time flies and the creative juices are, well, flowing! This task can be mental, spiritual, relational, or physical (athletes call it "being in the zone"). The key is to follow your bliss, your curiosity, your passion!

There is so much out there on this topic. I tried to pick the aspects of happiness that seem the most timely or impactful. I welcome your comments. In the meantime.......Carpe diem!


Regina's Point of View said...

Hi Sarah,
Your post on "Happiness" is helpful, thought-provoking. It made sense of an experience I had 10 years ago, when I changed careers. I made the career change that I thought "would make me happy," and I discovered I'd brought all my habits of worry, fear and feelings of incompetence with me! That was when I learned the meaning of the Zen Buddhist saying "How you do anything is how you do everything"--I saw that, even though I'd changed careers, I'd brought my worried, insecure self with me! Thanks for the great information!

matheson-counseling said...

I can definitely relate to your experience! Wherever we go, there we are!