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The Psychology of Happiness


Sep 10 2013
Even happiness research struggles to get us to the good life.

As a psychologist, I hear the same words over and over when I ask folks what has brought them to counseling—"I just want to be happy." But as we know, happiness is an ever-shifting target.

If I can just find the right person and get married, then I will be happy…if I could get that new house or new car or new boat or new job… if I could just get pregnant and have a baby… if I could have another baby…if I could quit my job and stay home with my kids… if we could move closer to family and have help… if I could lose 15 pounds…if I could travel more…if we could afford to retire…

When we get those things, we are happy, until we're not. Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill, in which the efficacy of a new pleasure wears off over time. The more feel-good stuff we do or have, the more we need to achieve the same level of happiness. It's like the tolerance that develops over time in addiction, so we need three glasses of wine to get the same good feeling only one glass used to produce.

We know we want to be happy, but researchers have a hard time defining what that really means. There's a whole field called positive psychology that, in part, explores how we become happy. Positive psychology examines positive subjective experiences (pleasure, happiness), positive traits (strengths, interests), and the positive institutions (churches, schools, communities) that support them.

Martin Seligman, often considered the founder of positive psychology, posited in his theory of authentic happiness that we make choices we think will make us feel good in the future (i.e. "I'm going to marry him because he will make me happy" or "I'm going to pay for this Disney vacation because we will have so much fun"). According to authentic happiness theory, our goal in life is to feel good, and we make choices accordingly.

But do we?

The authentic happiness theory failed to explain why we choose things that aren't always pleasurable, like caring for aging parents or demanding toddlers. Seligman recently improved his theory to account for the impact of relationships and meaning on our decisions and wellbeing. In short, we care for crabby toddlers and parents who can no longer care for themselves because we love them. Because they need our help. Because it matters. Because we believe it is good and right.

Positive psychology research indicates that we can alter thought patterns, increase gratitude, serve others, exercise and eat well, savor the moment, engage in challenging and novel experiences, and smile more to feel happier. When we feel good, we are more likely to do good. The reverse is also true; doing good makes us feel better. These practical strategies for improving mood and quality of life have helped many of my clients, and I am thankful for research that provides a pathway to feeling and doing good.

Related Topics:Contentment; Psychology
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