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The Happiness Hype
New research in psychology teaches us how to live a happier, more meaningful life
Tania Campbell (tania79)     Print Article 
Published 2008-07-22 05:49 (KST)   
Positive psychology is a relatively new branch of psychology. According to the Web site of the International Positive Psychology Association, the subject can be defined as "the scientific study of what enables individuals and communities to thrive." The movement, which began in the United States in the late 1990s, was based on research conducted by Dr. Martin Seligman and his colleagues. The research was seen as revolutionary for the way it authenticated positive emotions through empirical research.

Its emergence comes at an interesting time. On the one hand, those in the West enjoy the highest standard of living ever seen during humankind's existence. On the other hand, according to Harvard psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar in his book Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, "rates of depression [in the US] are ten times higher today than they were in the1960s, and the average age for the onset of depression is fourteen and a half compared to twenty-nine and a half in 1960."

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Statistics like this prompted psychologists to ask the question, "If we are so wealthy, why aren't we happy?" The answers, they argued, could be found in positive psychology. Two noted books that fit into the positive psychology genre, Ben-Shahar's aforementioned Happier and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, explore answers to this important question.

Haidt's tome, which was well received by both academia and the public when it was published in 2006, explores and examines 10 Great Ideas from throughout history and evaluates them in light of scientific research, finding common ground between the thoughts of the ancients and modern psychologists. According to Haidt's Web site, the book is about how "to construct a life of virtue, happiness, fulfillment, and meaning."

The hypothesis he ponders is "Does happiness come from within?" as the ancients proposed. Does Buddha's oft-cited quote, "What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind," ring true today? Haidt believes it does, but is too simplistic given that our set point for happiness is largely determined by genetics. Although we have some room to increase our own level of happiness, it has to be done in a psychologically sophisticated way.

Haidt uses the metaphor of a rider on an elephant to explain how we can tame the mind. It can be done gradually through meditation, cognitive behavior therapy or Prozac. All three have been scientifically proven to bring positive change in the brain and lift our happiness baseline.

Another interesting point to bear in mind is the Adaptation Principle. Humans, Haidt argues, are bad at "affective forecasting," or predicting how we will feel in the future. He uses two extreme examples to explain this: we predict that winning the lottery will make us incredibly happy, giving us financial freedom. Likewise, if we were paralyzed from the neck down, our life would be over, and we would live out the rest of our days in deep misery. However, studies show that both lottery winners and paraplegics, on average, return to their baseline level of happiness.

According to Haidt, lasting happiness and fulfillment comes not solely from within or entirely from outside, but from between -- it's about getting the inner and outer conditions right to flourish. He uses the metaphor of gardening to illustrate this idea:

Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger. It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.
Ben-Shahar's Happier is more practical and less philosophical than Haidt's work, but no less compelling. It is a result of the course he teaches at Harvard on positive psychology, which has become the university's most popular course. In his own words, this book is "a bridge between the ivory tower and Main Street." According to him, happiness is the ultimate currency, rather than money, status, prestige or any of the other things we confuse happiness with.

To illustrate how we can achieve happiness, he outlines the Hamburger Model. The greasy beef burger that tastes good now but is not good for us resembles the hedonist -- the kind of person who seeks pleasure and avoids pain or places too much importance on the present without thinking about the future. Then there is the super healthy vegetarian burger that tastes like dirt but is good for us. This resembles the rat racer who suffers now for the purpose of some future gain -- the future always trumps the present.

Next is the unhealthy burger that also tastes disgusting. That is the nihilist who has no lust for life, who does not enjoy the present or work toward any future goal because it is pointless. Finally, the best kind of burger to eat is one that tastes good and is healthy, and that is the happiness archetype -- it has present and future benefit.

So, can you guess which model is most prevalent in many Western societies and which one should be (but is not) the most widespread? Yes, the rat racer is most strongly reinforced in the West (and in some other societies, especially in Asia) while the happiness model is the one that has proven to serve individuals best. Thus, according to Ben-Shahar, the question we should be pondering is not "Should I be happy now or in the future?" but "How can I be happy now and in the future?"

Also, he dispels the notion that "no pain, no gain" is the way to go about achieving success and getting ahead. Actually, he says, pain is not the optimal condition for peak performance. When we work at activities that are a source of both future and present benefit, we are more productive and engaged. Through enjoying the journey that has a sense of purpose, we can expect a better outcome. Ben-Shahar highlights the importance of goals, which he sees as means, not just ends. According to him, people who seek personally meaningful goals and thereby engage in activities that are in line with their values function better in all aspects of their lives.

Both Haidt and Ben-Shahar cite work by psychologist David Myers, who illustrated, perhaps counter intuitively, that there is a low correlation between material wealth and happiness. When people are out of poverty and their basic needs are met, happiness is not determined by how much money you make or the material wealth you have. Happiness is much more complex. As Haidt notes, many people in poorer parts of the world lead unenviable lives on the outside (such as the prostitutes of a Calcutta slum interviewed by researchers), but from the inside, they are content, spending a lot of time with close friends and family.

What then, can we say definitively about happiness? The most striking point is that money does not equal happiness, except in cases where people are lifted out of poverty. The rat racer archetype does not lead to happiness, nor does the hedonist. Importantly, we have some control over our happiness level. Happiness, then, is about finding meaning and purpose and connecting with others. As Ben-Shahar surmises, "Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey on our way toward a destination we deem valuable."
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Tania Campbell

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