Back when I was in my 20s, I knew a guy named Roger who hung wallpaper for a living. The one thing I remember about Roger is that he was always happy. I would often see him on worksites, zipping around with a bounce in his step, singing gleefully under his breath and generally annoying everyone around him with his positive outlook.
I felt puzzled by Roger. I knew that if I had to hang wallpaper six days a week, I would be pretty miserable. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could possibly get any joy from working at such a mind-numbing job.
Eventually, I decided I was going to figure out what made Roger tick. So I asked him, “If you could do anything in the world, what would you do?”
Without any hesitation Roger answered, “I would go to Hawaii … and hang wallpaper!”
“But how would you even know you were in Hawaii?” I protested. “You would be stuck inside looking at wallpaper all day.”
“But I would be in Hawaii,” Roger said with a tone that fell somewhere between pity and disbelief. In that moment, I realized Roger was as confused by my ignorance as I was by his happiness.
My conversation with Roger reminded me that I shouldn’t judge other people’s happiness according to the things that make me happy. This was when I began to realize that happiness is a complex and highly personal issue.
As Americans, we spend a lot of time worrying about whether we are happy and whether we are happy enough. There are reasons to be wary of this pursuit. As the 19th century philosopher John Stewart Mill once said, “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.”
Certainly, as counselors, we can think of examples of people who harmed their lives by recklessly seeking happiness. Our waiting rooms are full of people who have tangled themselves into addiction, debt and unhealthy relationships in the search for happiness.
The reality is that as human beings, we are blessed with a wide range of emotions that serve us in many ways. We need to experience a variety of emotions to efficiently store information, retrieve information and respond properly to our environment. In fact, discontent is a wonderful motivator. Would we seek out food if we didn’t get hungry? Would we seek out more knowledge if we were content with the knowledge we already had? The truth is, if we were happy all the time, we would stop growing, learning and striving for our own self-preservation.
In his Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx warns that in a capitalist society, people can become willingly enslaved by the pursuit of material comforts. He hypothesized that people would work long hours to make money so they could pay off all their material goods, effectively becoming slaves to their own debts. In a day and age when the average American works more hours than previous generations while also carrying thousands of dollars in credit card debt, it is hard to ignore Marx’s point.
In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley imagines a world in which perfect happiness is maintained through a regimen of behavioral control, genetic engineering, intense training and a synthetic drug called Soma. While Huxley’s book is fiction, it bears an uncomfortable resemblance to modern life, in which the news is loaded with celebrity scandals and we are encouraged to pursue pharmaceutical answers to our common problems.
Americans have certainly sought out their own version of Huxley’s Soma. In his 2008 book, Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry Is Medicating a Nation, Charles Barber reminds us that in 2006, the United States made up 66 percent of the global antidepressant market.
Why study happiness?
With all of those arguments in mind, why should we bother to study happiness? One reason is because its opposite, depression, is taking an increasingly heavy toll on society. As Martin Seligman points out in his book Authentic Happiness, “Depression is now 10 times as prevalent as it was in 1960, and it strikes at a much younger age.”
A 2001 report in Health and Medicine Week concluded that depression affects an estimated 17 million people in the United States each year. According to a 1996 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the death rate from suicide remains higher than for Alzheimer’s, chronic liver disease, homicide, arteriosclerosis or hypertension.
Depression also has a significant economic impact. Consider the following.
- According to a 2004 World Health Organization study, major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the United States for people between the ages of 15 and 44.
- A 2001 article in The Wall Street Journal concluded that depression among workers in the United States costs businesses about $70 billion annually in medical expenditures, lost productivity and related costs.
- A 1999 National Institute of Mental Health report concluded that $11 billion a year is lost as a result of workers who were less productive or made mistakes due to depression.
Recognizing the need for the study of happiness and healthy adjustment, Seligman pushed for the development of positive psychology. This is a massive shift in thinking. The field of psychology had spent much of the previous 100 years focusing on the things that were wrong with people. Sigmund Freud, for example, once stated that the best that can be hoped for in life is “the transformation of hysteric misery into common unhappiness.” For those who want more than “common unhappiness,” there is positive psychology.
People are surprisingly inaccurate at predicting their own happiness. In his 2007 book Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert reports that we tend to make judgments about the future based on our current feelings and that we fail to take into account our ability to adjust. For example, we may predict that life would no longer be worth living if we were to become quadriplegic. Research suggests this conclusion is quite inaccurate. According to Seligman, “Of people with extreme quadriplegia, 84 percent consider their life to be average or above average.”
We also tend to assume that various things will make us happy even though research suggests that, in reality, they do not. For example, we may think we would be happy if we had more money. But Seligman reminds us, “Mounting over the last 40 years in every wealthy country on the globe, there has been a startling increase in depression.” He also cites studies which found that people who win the lottery tend to have a brief burst of happiness for an average of three months before returning to the baseline of happiness they experienced before winning the lottery.
Indeed, research has failed to show a significant correlation between happiness and material wealth once individuals reach a point where they have a place to live and a little something to eat. Similarly, research has been unable to find a correlation between happiness and attractiveness, happiness and health or happiness and popularity.
One important finding in positive psychology research: We often neglect the things in life that truly make us happy in the quest for things that we think will make us happy. We may, for example, neglect our family and friends to focus on getting a promotion at work. Soon after receiving the promotion, however, we return to the emotions we had prior to the promotion.
So, what actually makes people happy? Clients can use several different practices to find happiness in their everyday lives.
Have a sense of control
Daniel Nettle points out that people who have a strong sense of control in their lives report a significantly higher level of happiness than people who have a poor sense of control. As a result, clients are likely to benefit from shifting their focus away from the things they cannot control (for example, the behavior of other people or things that happened in the past) and toward things they can control (for example, changing their own behavior in a way that is likely to improve a bad situation). I often describe this to clients as shifting from a “victim” role to a “survivor” role.
Savor the small pleasures in everyday life
As Gilbert reminds us, “We are served more by frequency of happy events than by intensity of happy events.” This suggests that we don’t need to win the lottery to be happy; we just need to enjoy a lot of small pleasures in everyday life. Counselors might challenge their clients to write a list of simple, healthy pleasures in their lives and encourage them to commit to spending time being mindful with a few of those pleasures every day.
Practice positive cognitions
In Hamlet, Shakespeare writes, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Indeed, anyone who has even a passing familiarity with cognitive therapy knows that the cognitions we choose to interpret our world have a profound effect on how we feel and act.
“Optimistic people tend to interpret their troubles as transient, controllable and specific to one situation,” according to Seligman. “Pessimistic people, in contrast, believe that their troubles last forever, undermine everything they do and are uncontrollable.” So encourage your clients to focus on the transient, controllable and situation-specific elements of their problems.
Recognize problems as opportunities for growth
Tal Ben-Shahar encourages his students to “Learn to fail or fail to learn.” I find myself using this phrase with clients on a regular basis. It challenges them to think about each problem as a learning tool rather than as proof that the world is a terrible place. When prompted, clients can almost always cite examples of past difficulties that have helped them to learn and grow. Recognizing this, they can view their current problems as one more opportunity for learning and growth.
Focus on gratitude
I often encourage clients to create a gratitude journal. I challenge them to spend a few evenings each week documenting things for which they are grateful in their lives. Once there is a journal to fill, clients will often go through their lives looking for things they can include. This exercise can change their perspective significantly.
Have a sense of attachment to others
In The American Paradox, David Myers states, “There are few stronger predictors of happiness than a close, nurturing, equitable, intimate, lifelong companionship with one’s best friend.” Clients can commit to spending more time with the people who are important to them. When clients report that they are not close to anyone, I suggest they write down a list of their interests. Then we look for the social manifestations of those interests. For example, if a person likes to read, he may want to join a book club. If a person likes animals, she can volunteer at the local animal shelter.
This principle extends to the larger community as well. In their 1998 article “Social Well-being,” Corey Lee M. Keyes and Shane Lopez reported that the degree to which a person is engaged in society is positively correlated with measures of happiness, generativity, optimism, life satisfaction and a sense of safety in one’s environment.
Have a sense of attachment to the universe
People tend to report more happiness when they have a sense of meaning and connection in their lives, whether it is their spirituality or through a secular sense of connection to humanity. As a result, clients are likely to benefit from redirecting their focus toward their own spiritual or humanist values.
Research suggests that altruistic people are more likely to be happy, and happier people are more likely to be altruistic. Challenge clients to find charitable activities that are meaningful to them. This can get them engaged in their communities, give them a sense of purpose and shift their focus away from dwelling on their problems.
It is actually a lot of fun to help clients explore their own positive psychology. Most clients will have good results in a relatively short period of time by working these techniques into their daily lives. These skills are also a great form of self-care for professionals in the mental health field. Have fun!
Mike Hovancsek is an American Counseling Association member who runs a private practice in Stow, Ohio. He also offers presentations and workshops on a variety of subjects. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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