Do you ever think about how “happy” you are? Do you wonder if you are living a meaningful life? Counselors are helping their clients answer these questions by working to reframe their concept of happiness so they can achieve the goal of overall wellness.
“Happiness is a fleeting emotion,” says Shelby Fisher, LCPC, who works at the Discover Yourself Wellness Center in Columbia, Maryland. “It is impossible for us to be happy all the time. But the ability to be well is something that you can achieve all the time.”
Using evidence-based happiness interventions to help clients become more aware of the good in their lives can improve their outlook and overall mental health.
“Happiness interventions are designed to foster positive emotion and experiences in people’s lives,” says Daniel Salois, PhD, LCPC, an assistant adjunct professor in the Department of Counseling at the University of Montana and clinic supervisor and counselor at the Tamarack Grief Resource Center in Missoula, Montana. “If you take them to heart and earnestly try them on, for many [people], not all, they elicit an emotion that is incompatible with negative emotions, even if just briefly.”
These therapeutic practices can help shift a client’s perspective and “allow clients to see that if they’re intentional, they can improve their well-being,” Salois explains. “They have some control over their happiness, which hopefully generalizes to other areas of life.”
Happiness and Mental Health
The human pursuit of happiness became an area of interest in mental health largely through the work of Martin Seligman, PhD, director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Seligman is credited as one of the founders of positive psychology, a branch of psychology that has happiness as its foundation.
In a 2004 TED Talk, Seligman shared what he feels was the main problem with psychology during its first 60 years: The discipline’s primary focus on pathology neglected to improve the lives of everyday people and didn’t produce interventions that could make people happy.
To address this issue, Seligman developed his own authentic happiness theory, which became the basis for positive psychology. In Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Seligman writes that authentic happiness theory “claims that the way we make choices is to estimate how much happiness (life satisfaction) will ensue, and then we take the course that maximizes future happiness.” In other words, we make choices in our life with the intent of increasing how good we feel. “Maximizing happiness,” he argues, “is the final common path of individual choice.”
John Sommers-Flanagan, PhD, professor of counseling at the University of Montana and a clinical psychologist, says although Seligman was an early proponent of positive psychology, the science of happiness dates back to ancient Greece and Abraham Maslow.
The field of psychology has produced substantial research about the concept of happiness and the effectiveness of happiness interventions, which are a central part of the practice of positive psychology, Sommers-Flanagan says.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, in her presentation on the science of happiness interventions during the Happiness@Work Conference in 2018, defined positive or happiness interventions as “experiments in which people are instructed to change themselves in some way that has a positive outcome.” Lyubomirsky is a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside.
These experiments or practices can include writing a gratitude letter, developing a forgiving attitude, performing a random act of kindness, going for a 10-minute walk in nature, buying a friend a cup of coffee, or thinking of three good things that happened during the week and writing in a journal what you did to make those three things happen.
Sommers-Flanagan, who credits Lyubomirsky for the popularity of happiness interventions in mental health, notes that the terms “happiness interventions” and “positive psychology interventions” are interchangeable. However, counselors often prefer terms such as “happiness interventions,” “happiness practices” and “wellness practices” because they communicate a similar idea without using language based on a medical model.
Lessening the Pain
Counselors can use happiness interventions with clients who struggle with a wide range of mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, obsessive-compulsive disorder and suicidal ideation.
Clients report a variety of symptoms, including problems in personal relationships, angry outbursts, panic attacks, feelings of extreme isolation, low energy and low self-esteem.
No matter what the mental health concern may be, counselors say most clients have a goal of attaining some form of happiness, which usually translates into a desire for relief from their mental health symptoms.
Dylan Wright, PCLC, the wellness education coordinator at the Families First Learning Lab in Missoula, Montana, says for his clients who present with feelings of agitation, anger and fear, being happy or joyful means not hurting anymore and lessening the pain they’re dealing with in life.
Wright says studies have shown that happiness interventions can be effective in reducing the negative symptoms of life stressors and mental disorders. “By training [clients] to focus on what’s right with [them] and what’s going well, [they] begin to see their strengths more easily and clearly,” he explains.
Fisher notes that when clients take the time to pay attention to what is positive in their lives, they become empowered and are better able to cope with challenges and difficulties.
Rethinking the Western View of Happiness
Although clients are encouraged to define happiness for themselves, counselors say they often perceive happiness through a Western lens that can be unforgiving.
In Western societies the concept of happiness is based on individualism and consumerism, meaning “I have to have more than you,” Fisher says. To attain this kind of happiness, people must compete against each other to attain wealth and external possessions.
“I have to work extra hard to help my clients see that [material gain] is not the ultimate goal [in life],” Fisher explains. Rather than focus on an external basis for happiness, he works to support clients in developing intangible skills, such as fine-tuning and deepening their character or learning how to be more sensitive to the needs of others.
When this happens, clients can elevate their relationships and reframe their thinking to “not get caught up” in what Western ideals of happiness should look like, he says.
Veena Prasad, PhD, LPC, says Western societies thrive on the idea of “absolute happiness,” which can only be achieved “somewhere out there,” requiring people to work hard “to go [and] get it.”
In her work counseling medical residents and fellows at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, Prasad supports clients in reassessing their life goals to recognize their intrinsic value. For example, a client may have a goal of finding the “right” marriage partner, meaning they are looking for a life companion who possesses qualities that reflect their own values. Prasad says she would remind the client that being a partner who is loving, caring and committed is an intrinsic value that can actually bring more meaning to the ideal of the happy marriage they are looking for.
Determining the intrinsic value of a client’s life goals is one way to support them in reframing their definition of happiness and living a meaningful life, she says.
Wellness and Happiness
By the late mid-2000s, Seligman began to reexamine the idea that pursuing happiness is the most important goal in life. In Flourish, he argues that the pursuit of happiness based on a person’s mood is “one-dimensional” and can be a barrier to personal fulfillment. Instead, he now views well-being as the heart of positive psychology.
An individual’s state of well-being is based on the pillars of PERMA, five measurable life domains developed by Seligman:
- Positive emotion (which includes happiness and life satisfaction)
- Meaning and purpose
“The upshot of this is that well-being cannot exist just in your own head,” Seligman says in Flourish. “Well-being is a combination of feeling good, as well as actually having meaning, good relationships and accomplishment. The way we choose our course in life is to maximize all five of these elements.”
Counselor education also emphasizes the importance of wellness and has had some influence in the growing popularity of positive psychology, Sommers-Flanagan notes. He credits Thomas Sweeney, PhD, and the late Jane Myers, PhD, both counselor educators, for doing important work about wellness and counselor identity in the 1980s.
Salois says the concept of “eudaimonia,” a term used by Aristotle, is what he shares with clients and students as the definition of happiness. Eudaimonia means “striving for an authentic life that is well-lived and meaningful,” Salois says, recognizing the role well-being plays in experiencing happiness.
Because the state of happiness is not permanent, terms such as “well-being” or “wellness” are preferable when talking about being satisfied or content with one’s life, he explains.
“I think most people can acknowledge that there is probably at least one realm in their life where they could strive for more wellness,” Salois says.
Models to Use with Clients
Counselors can use therapeutic models to introduce clients to the concept of wellness and assess whether a client’s life domains are in alignment or if they need to work with a client to improve their overall state of wellness.
Rhonda O’Cana, LPC-S, uses Seligman’s PERMAH (adding the “H” for physical health) model to discuss wellness in her work as a personal counselor in the counseling services at Palo Alto College in San Antonio. She also created a free resource for students, which she calls the “happiness journal,” that lists examples of happiness interventions they can use in their everyday lives.
Prasad uses the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Wellness Initiative model to familiarize clients with the eight dimensions of wellness: emotional, psychological, financial, intellectual, occupational, physical, social and spiritual. During the intake process, she asks clients to assess their wellness in each of the eight life domains; then, they work together on the domains that are out of balance and affecting the client’s mental health.
“When all of our [life] domains are in balance, then that is a state of happiness,” Prasad says. “Happiness is really within us and [is] a state of mind.”
Sommers-Flanagan, Salois and Wright are using happiness interventions to encourage young people to cultivate their own awareness of well-being. This work is being done through the Montana Happiness Project (MHP), an organization dedicated to helping people experience a meaningful, well-lived life.
The organization, which is the brainchild of Sommers-Flanagan and his wife, Rita Sommers-Flanagan, PhD, teaches professionals how focusing on a client’s strengths when doing suicide assessment, intervention and prevention and teaching evidence-based happiness strategies can help people live a more fulfilling life.
John Sommers-Flanagan taught the first Art & Science of Happiness elective course — which was developed by MHP — at the University of Montana for about 40 undergraduate students in spring 2020.
“We see alarming rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation at the college level, so we thought this course could be part of the solution early on in someone’s college experience,” says Salois, who served as a teaching assistant in the class and gathered the research data for his doctoral dissertation.
In the course, students learn about the seven life dimensions — physical, cognitive, emotional, social, spiritual, contextual and behavioral — and discuss what the research says about evidence-based happiness interventions when they are applied to aligning these life domains.
For example, in one class Sommers-Flanagan and Salois discussed the topic of emotions and assigned a reading on emotional regulation and the benefits of working toward experiencing more positive emotions in life. For homework, the students were assigned a “savoring” happiness intervention designed to promote a better mood: The students had to celebrate some type of good news with a friend for a longer time than usual. Then, they had to reminisce about the good time they had with their friend and write a reflection at the end of the week to see what impact, if any, this savoring happiness had on their lives.
The Art & Science of Happiness class resulted in several positive outcomes for the students, including greater perceived friendship support; greater hope; fewer/less intense negative emotions; better total health, including better sleep and fewer headaches; and slightly improved mindfulness.
O’Cana also developed a course on happiness for first-year students at Palo Alto College (which she calls Happiness Matters). In this course, she uses a happiness intervention that encourages clients to smile and plan at least one enjoyable activity for the day. She shares these questions and instructions as part of the intervention:
- Start the day with a smile and ask yourself, “What would make today great?”
- Look forward to at least one small enjoyable activity and do it.
- Think of someone who makes you smile and plan to contact them.
She often asks students to practice smiling at everyone they pass while walking on campus or when they are alone in their car. “I encourage my students to smile often, even if they are not feeling like it,” O’Cana says. “The physical act of smiling — turning up the corners of your mouth — can cause the release of serotonin and dopamine, which can improve your mood in the moment.”
It’s also important for college students to learn how to maintain a positive mood before a demanding class or difficult test, O’Cana adds, because “a positive mood opens up the learning centers of your brain, making it easier to understand, retain and recall difficult information.”
Surveys from the Happiness Matters class have been “overwhelmingly positive,” she says. The majority of students rate the class as “excellent” and “above average,” and almost all report they have learned something useful to their success as a student.
Continuing the Work
The practice of using happiness interventions in therapy and helping clients develop their own sense of well-being will continue to be important elements in the counseling profession in the years ahead.
Fisher says graduate counseling students should learn how to use happiness interventions and how to create their own positive psychology prompts, videos and worksheets. This will enable new counselors to use their creativity to develop positive psychology tools for the future, he says.
Wright says counselors can use happiness interventions to help clients process the trauma and grief resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. They can help clients see the areas of their life where they have been resilient and strong.
“While pointing out these strengths, counselors can help broaden clients’ perspectives and ways of viewing the world that highlight the good in their lives,” he says.
Resources for Further Research and Therapeutic Tools
Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania, Authentic Happiness
Action for Happiness organization
Greater Good in Action, the University of California at Berkeley
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.