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Learning the art of happiness

Happiness is like an art: hard to define or describe, but we know it when we feel it, says Alison apRoberts.

india Updated: Aug 01, 2006 11:48 IST

The latest people to put up signposts to the sunny side of the street are scholars: The art of happiness has married the science of happiness.

A burgeoning positive psychology movement has put happiness under the microscope, inspiring rigorous research and peer-reviewed published research.

There's even a Journal of Happiness Studies, which publishes articles on such happiness topics as the "time-sequential framework of subjective well-being," "evidence for an upward spiral of personal and organisational resources" and the "reliability and validity of a brief life satisfaction scale with a high school sample."

The research is also generating some comprehensive advice for regular people. "It's got to be a by product; it can't be the goal itself," says Suzanne C. Segerstrom, a Psychology Professor at the University of Kentucky in Lexington and author of a new book, "Murphy's Law: How optimists get what they want from life -- and pessimists can too."

In one experiment, people were asked to listen to the uplifting strains of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." Some were told to just listen, some were told to cheer themselves up by listening to it, and some were told to monitor how happy they felt as they listened to the music piece. The only people who felt happier listening to the music were those who weren't told to get happier or to note their feelings.

Segerstrom and other researchers say some of our favourite shortcuts to happiness -- candy and TV, for instance -- are the equivalent of junk food for the soul. "People are more happy than unhappy when they watch TV, but the ratio is much better for other things," she says. Those other things include socialising, relaxing, praying or meditating, and exercising.

Segerstrom comes away from that list with some concrete advice. The things that make you most happy take some effort (for instance exercising in comparison to TV watching), and they have more lasting effects because they build resources, such as social networks or physical strength. This also can explain why losing a job is one of the biggest hazards for happiness: Loss of employment usually signals not one but several losses -- of income, status and social networks.

Optimism is essential in the arsenal for happiness hunters, which Segerstrom defines as "the expectation of positive outcomes." Most Americans, about 80 per cent, are somewhat-to-very optimistic. If you aren't, you can, of course, blame your parents. Your level of optimism, Segerstrom says, is determined to the tune of about 25 per cent by heredity. But, she says, that's a lower hereditary factor than many other personality measures. "You don't have to change your inner being, you just have to do what (the optimistic) do," Segerstrom says. But first…

Do worry, to be happy

Julie K. Norem, a Psychology professor at Wellesley College and author of "The positive power of negative thinking: Using defensive pessimism to harness anxiety and perform at your peak," says you shouldn't overlook a dark point of view in your quest for happiness.

Norem says she was drawn to this research partly because there were already lots of people doing optimism research, and she was inspired by a successful colleague who is very pessimistic. A successful "defensive pessimist" is one who considers negative outcomes and plans ways to avoid them. For people who naturally rely on defensive pessimism, being told to just quit worrying can backfire. For these people, preparing for the worst helps.

"For people who tend to be anxious, they're better off finding ways to operate that work well with their orientation," she says. "I think the key for an anxious person is not to try not to worry but to worry effectively, to think and plan in concrete and specific ways."

Pick a definite path

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a Psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, is working on a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study different happiness boosters. "What's important to consider is that different things work for different people," she says. "There's a fit issue."

Lyubomirsky compares one's predisposition for happiness to the notion of set point with body weight. You have to choose tactics that will bring enduring benefit, she says: "Eating chocolate will make you happy, but it won't last and can have negative effects, so it's maybe not a good strategy." You also need to beware of overdoing your happy homework.

One of the biggest surprises in happiness research, Lyubomirsky notes: What happens to you doesn't matter as much as you might expect. "Life events don't have much of an impact," she says. Rather than life events shaping outlook, it seems outlook may shape life events. For instance, those with high family incomes are happier than those with lower incomes, but the money might be a result of positive outlook rather than its cause.

"When you have a positive mood, lots of positive things happen to you," Lyubomirsky says, "Whether we clap our hands or not, when we're happy and we know it, we know it, she says: "Ninety-nine percent of people, when they say they're happy, they are."

Do some happy homework

Here are a few ideas on how to increase your feeling of well-being, from happiness researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky and Suzanne Segerstrom:

* Turn off the TV and do something more active and engaging like socialising, praying, exercising

* Take up hobbies that use and build on skills

* Write down what you're thankful for with complete details, but don't do it too often. Lyubomirsky found that once a week is more effective than three times a week for this exercise

* Write down the way you would like your life to be in five or ten years

* Do something nice for someone else. Make sure you pick the good deeds yourself and vary them to make them more effective

* When you set goals, keep trying to achieve them even when discouragements occur

Lastly, for those who need a "Don't worry be happy" antidote, try Mose Allison's "I don't worry about a thing" with its no-sweat refrain: "I don't worry about a thing, because I know nothing's gonna be all right." 

Courtesy: HMU distributed by New York Times Syndicate