If you’re happy and you know it keep it that way

“The Happiness Project” a new study at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, promises to tell us not only how to get happy, but how to stay happy too. 

By Elizabeth Willmott-Harrop

28 October 2009

This article was first published in Happyzine.

The pursuit of wealth is really only the pursuit of happiness in disguise. But as a result of the global financial crisis, many of us have realized we need strategies for wellbeing that are within our control and not reliant on financial security as their foundation stone.

Advice on how to get happy ranges from the practical (smile at a stranger) to the woolly (tell yourself 100 times a day that you are worth loving). And the advice in many help-yourself-to-happiness books can be more wishful-thinking than science-based. Add to that the fact that it is one thing getting happy, but quite another staying that way, and it all seems rather daunting.

However, a new study at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, promises to tell us not only how to get happy, but how to stay happy too. “The Happiness Project”, headed by academic Alison Ogier-Price, explores how we can motivate ourselves towards long term happiness by using strategies such as gratitude and savouring, amongst others.

There have been several studies linking the positive effects of gratitude to emotional and physical wellbeing. One of the most interesting findings, from a US study, demonstrated that showing gratitude for the good things in our lives every day for just one week, has a positive impact on happiness that may last for six months or more.

Gratitude forms part of a positive mental attitude and it is pretty straightforward to be thankful for the obviously good things – waking up to a sunny day or a pay rise at work for example. Ogier-Price uses two further aspects of gratitude in her research – being thankful for the tough stuff as well as the good stuff, and taking responsibility for how we brought that thing we are grateful for into our lives.

It is being thankful for hardships, and turning those around in our minds that we are better able to cope with life’s difficulties. Here, Ogier-Price walks her talk with her positive perspective on her depression, which informed her foray into the field of positive psychology. She comments “When I was first diagnosed I had severe depression and just wanted to hide away from the world. Initially medication and then finding new ways to manage myself and my life changed that dramatically. Now I am able to view my depression really positively. It forces me to slow down, to look after myself, to read my mental and emotional signs and act on them – I’ve harnessed its benefits.”

While a sense of appreciation of the good and the bad is important, more crucial is acknowledging the part one plays in bringing things of value into one’s own life, or the ‘causal explanation’ for those, as Ogier-Price puts it. Ogier-Price explains: “It is one thing to be thankful for something, but the key is the next step – acknowledging the active part we played in bringing that thing into our life. For example, if you are thankful that you had coffee with a beloved friend, acknowledge the part you played in bringing this friendship about, and in being a good listener, which has nurtured that relationship”.

Through this extended type of gratitude, we not only see more positive things in our lives in the first place, we create the additional benefits of self-esteem and a sense of being in control of our positive experiences.

Recent studies have hypothesized that our ability to experience religious feeling served an evolutionary purpose. Professor Jordan Grafman, from the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, near Washington conducted a study to analyze why religion is a universal human feature. Grafman says: “Our results support contemporary psychological theories that ground religious belief within evolutionary-adaptive cognitive functions.” So humans could be hard-wired to be religious because for example, it is beneficial in overcoming adversity.

Thankfulness, for both the trials of life and for its blessings, is a regular feature of religious worship and research has shown that religious people are more likely to express gratitude, with faith enhancing the ability to be grateful. This perhaps indicates that we are also predisposed, in an evolutionary sense, to use gratitude as a tool for creating harmonious social groups and overcoming hardship.

Ogier-Price runs regular Science of Happiness courses at the University of Canterbury, which use gratitude along with other strategies such as optimism, mindfulness and character strengths to increase the happiness levels and decrease depression in participants. A result she has shown with her own research. It is these strategies that are used in the new study, along with new strategies for maintaining the resulting increases in wellbeing.

Ogier-Price is keen to stress that her course is really about the science of wellbeing, with happiness just one of many emotions – including the ‘negative’ ones – which have a valuable place in our lives. Without anger for example, we would not recognize a threat or a need to take action to protect ourselves. Sadness helps us to see what is of value in our lives. And anxiety can spur us to prepare thoroughly for something. It is only when these emotions are experienced too often or for too long that they may become destructive. The same is true of the range of positive emotions. Someone in a constant state of excitement for example would find it hard to apply themselves to anything.

According to scientists we think up to 50,000 thoughts every day, an estimated 80% of which are negative, and most of which are wrong. The thoughts we focus on depend on the type of filters we have which say what is, and what is not important. As Ogier-Price says “the truth is that we visit reality to get information and then retreat into our self-made views of the world”. It’s no wonder there is so much potential for conflict of opinion in our lives, and there is perhaps a message here about being more tolerant to the world-view of others.

In evolutionary terms, it may have been useful to think negatively and take a pessimistic view of the world, as it was necessary to be on constant alert for danger. However, although we are hard-wired to be negative and pessimistic, the good news is two-fold. Firstly pessimism is not always such a bad thing. As Ogier-Price asks “would you want your lawyer or wedding planner to be an optimist, or a pessimist?” I know I’d want pessimists on my side who dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’ and had contingencies.”

Secondly we have far more power to alter our level of positivity and happiness than we perhaps think. Research has shown that approximately 50 per cent of our disposition is informed by genetics and only around ten per cent by our life circumstances such as our upbringing and material life. So there is very little point focusing on the new car and laying our ills at the door of our past, when this only accounts for such a measly proportion of our lifelong wellbeing. That leaves a whole 40 per cent which is down to our free will and comprises voluntary and intentional activities.

So while we can use that 40 per cent wisely with practices like gratitude, Ogier-Price’s new study hopes to reveal how to apply at least some of that 40 per cent to maintaining our new found sense of wellbeing.

Liberty & Humanity

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