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The latest mainstream thinking on happiness has developed in the last few years with happiness being researched and new therapies such as Positive Psychology, Laughter Therapy, Mindfulness Core Therapy, etc. emerging. There are many different viewpoints which I include here.
The things we expect will bring us lasting happiness, rarely do. Most of us have a happiness set point, depending on temperament and early life experience. However we can “turn up” our wellbeing by changing how we think about anticipation, expectations, memory and the present moment. (Carlin Flora, article in Psychology Today)
How we think about ourselves and our future influences our feeling of happiness. Research from University of Virginia has shown that we are bad at predicting how we will feel in the future. When we even reach our goals of achieving what we think will make us happy, often those feelings are fleeting and we return to our “normal state”. We think that a fresh career or a new relationship will permanently change us, but it usually gives us only a short term boost. It helps if we learn to predict more accurately what will give us lasting pleasure rather than short term pleasure.
Buddhist meditation practice shows that as we train our minds and therefore ourselves, to become more mindful and slow down our sense of passing time, we can learn to monitor our thoughts and moods more before they spiral downwards. We can, in other words, make ourselves happier. Meditation has been shown to reduce stress, restores balance, reduces pain, helps depression and can bring inner calmness, happiness and peace.
Happiness and the Brain
Neuroscientist Richard Davidson measured electrical activity in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain. He found that the left side is the activated when people are feeling happy and that the balance of activity between right and left moves as mood changes. He studied the brain activity of Tibetan monks whose meditation training resulted in extremely high activity on the left side. In fact, Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and translator to H.H. Dalai Lama, has been dubbed “the happiest man in the world”. The activity in his left prefrontal cortex was the highest ever measured.
Daniel Kahneman’s research, from Princeton University, shows that when thinking about happiness, that it is important to recognise that life is a long series of moments. In any of those moments there is a lot going on and you could stop and ask, what is happening right now? We all have mental, physical and emotional activity at each of those points in time. However, almost all of those moments are lost to us forever. We keep memories very selectively and certain moments count more than others. We tend to hold onto beginnings, the peak moments and the endings. For example, a parent might remember with great pleasure the day their child scored their first goal at sport. They’ll have forgotten the early start, the driving back and forth and the uneventful evening.
Through his research, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed the concept of “flow” which describes a state of joy, creativity and total involvement. Problems seem to disappear and there is a feeling of transcendence. “Flow” is the way people describe their state of mind when they are doing something for its own sake. Some activities consistently produced “flow”, such as sport, games, art and hobbies. He has identified the key ingredients to creating these optimal experiences; The task is challenging and requires skill, we concentrate, there are clear goals and we get immediate feedback. We have deep, effortless involvement and there is also a sense of control and a good sense of self.
Barbara Fredrickson from the University of Michigan claims that positive emotions have a grand purpose in evolution. Positive emotional mind sets widen our range of thoughts and actions, fostering play, exploration and creativity. We become open to new ideas and new experiences. These states help us create lasting personal resources, such as social connections and knowledge, which we can then draw on during trying times.
Psychologist Martin Seligman In his book, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment outlines three ways to increase happiness; get more pleasure out of life, become more engaged in what you do and find ways of making your life feel more meaningful.
The “slow movement” started by Carlo Petrini, is a backlash against the idea that that faster is always better.The idea is that by slowing down we can enjoy richer, fuller lives. It’s not about rejecting modern life, but rather striking a balance between fast and slow. That might mean making time for a hobby that slows you down or leaving some gaps in your day rather than striving to fill every moment with activity. Setting aside time where you turn off all technology or seeking out flexible working arrangements may also help find balance. Some people make even more significant changes such as changing careers or locations. An Australian study by Hamilton and Mail found that over 90% of people who have made those significant changes are happy with their decision to downsize their lives.
In Western countries, as GDP has gone up, happiness levels have either stayed the same or have decreased. Are we ready for a new approach? A BBC poll has asked “should the government’s primary objective be the greatest happiness or the greatest wealth? 81% of people chose the greatest happiness. In the Buddhist Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan they are doing just that, measuring happiness levels in the population since 1972. They use their Gross National Happiness (GNH) level as a basis for making policy decisions. For example, they restrict tourism in order to preserve their culture and they banned smoking in 2004 in order to promote national wellbeing.
Process Psychology has a different approach to happiness. It sees happiness as a certain emotional state just like other states like depression or grief or exhilaration etc. Process work say’s, don’t be against any of our states that we don’t like, or alternatively, also don’t get stuck in states that we like! as we will swing between the 2 polarities. (the entriodrama)
Awareness and Fluidity between all our states is the key. Recognising and catching our own signals and then knowing how to work with ourselves, where the edge is between how we identify ourselves and the parts further away from our awareness, will help us become more and more fluid with our own emotional and mental states. Even from hour to hour, if we are aware, there are subtle and more obvious changes all the time. Eg. We cry and then later, we may be laughing. All states are useful. Thich Nhat Hanh says, when awareness is the companion to the anger, Anger is the compost for the flowers. Everything, including emotions can be recycled!
“We see that the flower already exists in the compost and the compost already exists in the flower. It only takes 2 weeks for the flower to decompose. The gardener doesn’t look at the rotting, smelling compost and feel sad or disgusted. The anger can be a kind of compost to give birth to flowers.”