Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy

Humans have been thinking about what happiness means for hundreds of years.  Back in the seventeenth century, a French Philosopher named Blaise Pascal said, “Happiness is, without exception, the motive of every action of every man.”  But it’s only in the last 30 years or so that anyone began really looking into what creates and maintains happiness in people.  Why?  Because in the last few generations, we’ve been able to create enough abundance, safety and health in the world to finally be able to put some serious thought into the idea of fulfillment.  Only a few hundred years ago, an average person’s main goal for their day was just trying to survive!  One of today’s most interesting experts on the subject of human happiness got started in quite an unexpected way…

Dan dropped out of high school without graduating so he could pursue a career as a science fiction writer.  After a few years of working at his craft, he decided to enroll in a writing course at a nearby community college.  He took the bus all the way across town, but when he got to the school, he found that the course was closed.  He didn’t want the trip to be a waste, so he asked the woman at the registration desk what else was available.  She told him that the only class still open was Introduction to Psychology. 

Dan had never given the subject much thought, but he knew it had to do with human beings and their behavior.  As an aspiring writer, these topics were of interest to him as well, so he signed up.  He had no idea it was the decision that would lead him to his calling in life.

Daniel Gilbert went on to get a Ph.D. in social psychology from Princeton University and began a promising career as a research psychologist.  For about ten years, he researched people’s tendency to focus on others’ internal characteristics to explain their actions, rather than consider external factors.  An example of this would be if you assumed that someone who runs a red light is a bad driver, rather than on their way to the hospital.  Dan was perfectly content with this area of study until a series of unfortunate circumstances led him to a new path.

In a short period of time, Dan’s mentor passed away, his mother died, his marriage fell apart, and his teenage son began developing problems in school.  Not long after, he had lunch with a colleague who was also going through a difficult time.  As they talked, they both realized that, as bad as their situations were, neither of them was devastated.  Daniel realized that, although he was sad, frustrated, and distracted, he was still basically all right.

Realizing this inspired Dan to look into whether anyone else had ever researched peoples’ ability to create their own happiness.  And it turned out that they hadn’t.  This may sound like somewhat dry stuff that only a psychologist could get excited about, but here’s what makes it interesting:  Dan had stumbled onto evidence that people can be happy whether it’s sunny or raining; whether they’re single or in a relationship; whether they’re rich or poor.  For instance, he proved that someone who wins the lottery and someone who loses the use of their legs are, a year after each event, equally happy in their lives.  Believe it or not!

Dan had found a new life’s direction.  What he figured out is that our ability to be happy and okay with our circumstances comes from inside us, a sort of "psychological immune system” that helps us feel better about the situations in which we find ourselves.  That’s a pretty big discovery to make just a few decades ago, considering that humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years!

One of the keys to maintaining our own happiness is living grateful lives, in which we remind ourselves of all we have to be thankful for.  This isn’t quite the same as what Dr. Gilbert talks about, but training our brains to recognize all the wonderful things in our lives will help support our psychological immune systems, allowing it to do its job when times get tough.  So remember the Attitude of Gratitude Mindset – it’s like Vitamin C for your happiness!

Until Next Week,

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