Happiness research gives hope in a dispiriting zeitgeist

Learning to be happy

“It’s almost as if this happiness stuff has anticipated the hard times to come. As we’re going into this recession, perhaps depression, it’s interesting to note there’s been this big upsurge of work on happiness just prior to that.”

That is David Van Nuys, PhD, aka Dr. Dave, in one of his Shrink Rap Radio podcasts, an interview with Richard O’Connor, MSW, Ph.D., author of Happy At Last: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Finding Joy.

Richard O’ConnorDr. O’Connor [photo] says it is possible to learn to be happier, even for the many people with a lower than average happiness set point.

Both psychologists note that is true of themselves, each having suffered depression.

My more or less lifelong experience of low to moderate depression has, at least in the past, led me to reject the idea of being able to change such an enduring mood or temperament.

But a number of psychologists over the past few years have developed research studies that show it is very possible to raise the set point or overall level of happiness.

How to change our brain’s structure

Downing expensive liquid depressants during happy hour does not do it; shopping and porn and other ways we might choose to distract ourselves or suppress negative feelings are at best only temporary shifts in mood.

Dr. O’Connor says one approach that does work is mindfulness meditation, but he cautions that it does take time.

He notes on his site undoingdepression.com, “Our brain does not merely store our experiences. Each experience changes the brain — structurally, electrically, chemically. The brain becomes the experience. In order to break free from the stress cycle, we need to feed our brains and bodies with experiences of mastery, creativity, and joy.

“Our minds — the way we think about things — have tremendous power to help us rebuild and rewire our brains, power that we too often ignore or use self-destructively. But we can use that power constructively, to build autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and help ourselves step off the stress cycle forever.”

The Happiness Hypothesis

Happiness comes from ‘between’

Jonathan Haidt, PhD has another perspective: “The most obvious hypothesis is that people are happy when they get what they want; but that one we all know is wrong.. The second hypothesis which is much more sophisticated, and more widespread is that happiness comes from within.

“Stop striving, you can never attain everything you want, therefore work on yourself; only by working on yourself can you find happiness.  This one you find certainly in the wisdom of the East, you find it in the Stoics, and there is a lot to be said for it.

“But what really excited me was that there is a further happiness hypothesis… It’s one that people don’t seem to have guessed; it’s not quite as obvious.  It’s that happiness comes not from within, but from between.

“That is happiness comes from getting the right kind of engagement: between yourself and others; yourself and your work; and yourself and something larger than yourself.”

From Shrink Rap Radio interview transcript with Jonathan Haidt, PhD, on Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis.

For related material, see a number of articles on Meditation and mindfulness, plus related articles on Positive Psychology, and the pages on Buddhist psychology and Positive Psychology.


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Originally posted 2008-12-20 16:02:40.


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