March 2012 Archive

What is happiness?

Posted March 10, 2012 By Mark

What is happiness?

Governments are trying to measure happiness and one psychologist has proposed (tongue-in-cheek) that happiness be classified as a mental illness because it isn’t the norm and has distinct ‘symptoms’. We value happiness and everyone has their take on what causes it. In fact, mental health professionals have spent so long looking at mental illness they are the latecomers to the field.

We can go to great lengths to find happiness and take ourselves up many blind alleys in the process by doing something we think is pleasurable but fleeting. In the highly commercial western world, retailers realise the impact of these intense feelings and how they can be linked to products to boost sales. Otherwise mundane objects are made pleasurable by attaching a meaning to them.

For example, shoes that looked ridiculous five years ago, and will look ridiculous again in five years, are must-have because celebrities wear them. By wearing the shoes, we identify ourselves with the positive messages that have been generated about that celebrity and feel happy for a while. The fleeting nature of this feeling works to the retailers’ advantage – although the shoes don’t need replacing, they will sell you a new pair a year later as the fashion has changed.

Celebrity and possessions are especially equated with happiness. But we have known for years that once the hype passes they don’t bring happiness. A study as long ago as 1978 in the Journal of Personal Social Psychology found that major lottery winners were no happier than anyone else eventually. After the excitement of the win, everyday life can seem mundane and novel experiences stop being novel if they happen every day.

Positive psychology

Despite being latecomers to the subject of happiness, psychologists have come up with insights that can lead to practical actions you can take to make yourself happier. These are collected in a field called positive psychology. Unsurprisingly, much of the research findings are mirrored in findings into the treatment of depression.

In cognitive behavioral therapy for depression, a major part of the approach is to find even small activities that can provide people with both a sense of enjoyment and achievement. These aren’t transitory pleasures that leave a sense of anticlimax and lead to a search for the next thing, but simple things that bring small pleasures, or activities that require some real mental and physical engagement and leave behind a sense of satisfaction.

To be able to identify activities that will help to develop these feelings you need to be able to identify two things:

  • Your core values
  • Your main strengths

These may have been covered up in the avalanche of social expectations that come directly from the media or indirectly through peers and family (whether intentional or unintentional).

Finding out what your core values and main strengths are is a journey in itself, but starting it can lead to a quick increase in your happiness. This is because you’re already engaging in activities that come from your internal motivation, not from some external source that leads to action in line with someone else’s values. You are engaging in ‘authentic action’ that is true to yourself.

As part of the journey, it can be worth trying out some ‘behavioural experiments’. If you have always equated money with happiness, what happens when you spend a day helping someone else? By improving the quality of someone else’s life, people can be amazed by the impact that an unselfish act can have on them. You have helped make both the person and yourself happier.

Alternatively, you may be driven by the belief that you must constantly help others. But what would happen if you took a day for yourself? Taking time away from helping others and looking after yourself can give bring a sense of happiness that might come as a surprise.

Finding your main strengths has been made easier by researchers in positive psychology, who have identified 24 human strengths that fall into six main categories:

  • Wisdom and knowledge
  • Courage
  • Humanity and love
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Transcendence

Acceptance and commitment therapy

So, if you find your core values and use your main strengths to live in line with them, do you live happily ever after? Life and even your own mind can be very skilled at undermining your determination to live the ‘good life’.

One final insight into dealing with this comes from an extension of the cognitive- behavioral therapy approach. This is called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). It starts with the observation that being determined not to think about something usually leads to you thinking about that thing. Over 90 per cent of people experience intrusive thoughts on a regular basis. The argument you had with a colleague years ago pops back into your head when you meet someone with the same name. You try to suppress the thought, but that only makes it stronger.

ACT helps you to see these thoughts as just thoughts, not realities, and to accept that an unpleasant emotion is part of life not a catastrophe and it will pass. Rather than in response to an emotion from the past, triggered by a random thought that isn’t in your control, ACT helps you to connect better with the reality of here and now, and make a judgement about which of your main strengths you can use to act in accord with your core values.


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Your mind

Posted March 10, 2012 By Mark

The mind is like the engine and the electronics in the car, but it is the soul who has the key and the heart is the ignition. The mind truly wants to understand the joy of living in God Consciousness, but it needs soul to give it guidance.

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