Friday, October 14, 2011

Guest Blog Entry. The Happiness Hype: What’s All the Buzz About and Is it Worth It?

Today’s is part I of a special guest blog entry by my colleague, Dr. Christine Allen. Dr. Allen is a psychologist who is also an executive and life coach. She has over 20 years of psychotherapy experience, is past President of the Central New York Psychological Association (CNYPA), awarded the CNYPA Psychologist of the Year in 2008, serves on the governing Council of the New York State Psychological Association, and is an adjunct psychology professor at Syracuse University. She runs Chris Allen Coaching and can be followed on Twitter here.

You would have to be completely disconnected from TV, YouTube, movies, Facebook, Google and even newspapers and magazines if you have not heard about or been exposed to information about “happiness” lately. Some people are quick to dismiss this topic as another form of constantly chasing more....and always comparing ourselves to others. There were even recent articles that rate different geographical locations as being “the happiest” places to live. Is happiness competition the new way of “keeping up with the Joneses”? Or is it really something worth pursuing?

Happiness has been viewed as important throughout human history. Aristotle in
particular wrote that, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” The language of the “pursuit of happiness” is embedded into the fabric of our society through the Declaration of Independence (although as Ben Franklin allegedly said, “The U. S. Constitution doesn't guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself”).

But what is happiness and is it attainable? I have always liked the idea expressed by Nathaniel Hawthorne that, “Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” Thus, happiness is not a goal in itself, but perhaps a side effect of other, meaningful, goal-directed activity.

Still I don’t completely like the idea of just sitting around and waiting, so what to do? I recently finished reading Flourish, the newest book by the prolific Dr. Martin Seligman, who is considered the “Father of Positive Psychology.” In this book, he talks about the concept of “well-being” rather than about happiness per se. He believes that just like the concept of “weather”, where we measure wind, cloud cover, humidity, temperature, etc, “well-being” involves looking at a number of measures, not just how “happy” overall we are with our lives. He uses the mnemonic called PERMA, which stands for Positivity (or positive emotion), Engagement (or “flow”), Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment to explain “well-being.”

When researchers assess happiness, on the other hand, they are usually looking at a unidimensional concept like positive emotion or life satisfaction only. Seligman’s idea of well-being offers us greater opportunity to consider how to design a meaningful and fulfilling life, because even the more pessimistic types of people have the opportunity to increase well-being through developing in other ways, such as improving relationships or increasing accomplishment.

To flourish according to the PERMA principle, we need to look for opportunities to increase positive emotion through savoring our pleasures and amplifying our good feelings. We also become happier when we are actively engaged... “in the zone” so to speak. Time passes without awareness when we are engaged fully in what we are doing, whether it be having a conversation, playing tennis, or cooking a meal. This means being fully present, not distracted with our smart phones, Facebook, etc. Also, the better the quality of our relationships with others and the more we build these relationships, the deeper our satisfaction with life will be. Identifying core values and living these everyday is crucial to establishing a fulfilling, “purpose-driven” life. The philosopher Nietzche was the one who said, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” So develop a sense of purpose--what you want your life to stand for.

Finally, Seligman recently added a sense of accomplishment; while endlessly pursuing achievement out of a sense of perfectionism is unhealthy, dedicating yourself to the accomplishment of important goals, whether they be personal or professional, definitely adds to a sense of well-being.

Lots of research suggests that happiness matters; it’s not just hype. A meta-analysis of 300 studies with over 275,000 people found that people with greater levels of positivity lived longer, had better health, happier marriages, and made more money. So what are some take-aways on how to increase well-being and happiness? Stay tuned tomorrow to find out, in part II on this special guest blog entry.

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