Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, says: “The message of the positive psychology movement is to remind our field that it has been deformed. Psychology is not just the study of disease, weakness and damage, it is also the study of strength and virtue. Treatment is not just fixing what is wrong, it is also building what is right. Psychology is not just about illness or health, it is about work, education, insight, love growth and play. And in this quest for what is best, positive psychology does not rely on wishful thinking, self-deception or hand waiving, instead it tries to adapt what is best in the scientific method to the unique problems that human behaviour presents in all its complexity.”
Positive psychology is about internal transformation through the interpretation of the world – the way we perceive or by what we focus on that will determine our lives.
Our readiness and potential to experience happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind, not on our status or our finances, or accolades for our achievements. Research has shown that external factors account for very little of our level of happiness. (Diener) People who win lotto experience a temporary elevation of happiness but within three months they return to baseline, that is if they were miserable with their lives before the lotto win, they returned to that level.
Income matters little on just about every income level, in that once we have our basic needs (food, shelter, clothing etc.) our happiness level is not affected by how much we earn or how much we have. The only group who’s happiness was differentiated was those who did not even have the basics. Place of residence was also shown to be irrelevant. Studies have also shown there was even no change across generations (even though we are more affluent than previous generations).
Change is not illusive. How we perceive what we have – dependent on our state of mind, directly influences how happy we feel. What we focus on (whether positive or negative), how we interpret failure or success, whether our expectations are realistic or not, all determine our readiness and potential to experience happiness.
Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar (who wrote the book, Happier) believes happiness should be our ultimate end. Aristotle said,…” it is the meaning and purpose of life”. William James and the Dalai Lama also believe it is. However, should it be? What is good about positive emotions?
Barbara Fredrickson argues there are benefits for positive emotions in that we can achieve psychological growth and health over time. People transform themselves over time, become better individuals, and overcome negative emotions (depression). Positive emotions can help us focus on the bigger picture. We are likely to broaden our perspectives as well as to try harder to find other alternatives instead of going down in spirals. Creativity increases, and research shows people (children as well) are more creative. When put in a positive mood prior to tasks, motivation and energy increase. Success comes more often when we are happy. Physical health has been shown to be healthier and we live longer. Emotional channels open up and let all emotions flow rather than restricting these happy emotions through negative scanning.
Our happiness can also contribute to a better, more moral world and to others’ happiness. Why is happiness good for other people? It is a win-win situation – that is if I am happy, I am smiling and this has been shown to be contagious. Each of us has the ability to spread happiness. When we give happiness we are not only helping others – we are also helping ourselves. The Buddha said “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” Indeed, happiness increases when we share it. The most selfish act is a generous act. When we give, we receive, and when we receive, we want to give…and so on in a potentially upward spiral. People who work on their happiness become happier and tend to make others happy as well (Isen, 2002).
Helping ourselves (to be happy) helps us to be empathic toward others and this in turn helps us (to be happy). (Lyubormirsky) There is so much benefit to kindness. People who spend money on others feel happier than spending it on themselves. When we resist helping others, we diminish our own levels of happiness.
If we want to be practical idealists, then we need to begin with ourselves. Be the change you want to see in the world. Share happiness, share yourself. “Be the change you want to see in the world.” (Ghandi) If we want others to be happy, to exercise, to open up and be human, to keep a journal – do these things ourselves and be an example for others.