Ways To Stay Happy in a Complicated World
Reader, you are a hearty specimen. We often aren’t pitching sunshine here — we tell the stories of what is wrong in the world, stories of pain and tragedy and injustice. But it’s not just us — life away from the computer screen can also be a depressing thing.
How do you keep it from getting to you? What can you do to avoid becoming depressed yourself, or better yet, to keep yourself happy?
Ignorance of evil and misfortune isn’t the answer. By visiting Care2 Causes you educate yourself, which leads you to take action to make things better — by signing petitions, sending letters and spreading the word to your friends and connections to do the same. You are a part of the solution. Losing you to depression or evasion of reality just won’t do. So keep reading the website.
No, we’ll need a different path to happiness. Not that happiness will completely insulate you from pain or sadness. Rather, I’m defining happiness as “a long-term sense of emotional well-being and contentment — a broad ‘feeling’ that one is happy.” It is an overall feeling about life, not a guarantee that every moment will be Hallmark-worthy.
Two approaches to the eternal question of happiness seem prevalent today. One is positive psychology. I’ll call the other the “set point” theory.
Positive psychology is Oprah. The premise is that we can make ourselves happier by doing certain things and cultivating certain attitudes. For instance, this theory holds that appreciating our strengths and accepting our limitations will help make us happier.
Positive psychology expert Tal Ben-Shahar says that academic studies have found that resilience is one key to happiness (and, perhaps not coincidentally, success). Resilience has five components:
1. setting future goals
2. maintaining an optimistic outlook
3. identifying role models
4. focusing on your strengths
5. staying physically active
Other believers in positive psychology focus on reciting affirmations, as Al Franken’s character Stuart Smalley used to do on “Saturday Night Live” (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me”).
While positive psychology promises that we can make ourselves happy, a competing theory contends that each of us is programmed with a default happiness level that we always revert back to. Psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky explains, “[w]e’re born with a genetically determined happiness ‘set point,’ meaning that even though our happiness will seesaw following pleasing or traumatic life events, it will inevitably shift back to a natural level.”
Some studies suggest that genetics account for more than 50 percent of our happiness levels. Psychologist Dr. Edward Diener “cites data showing that lottery winners are no happier a year after their good fortune than they were before. And several studies show that even people with spinal-cord injuries tend to rebound in spirits.”
Even the things that most of us accept as keys to happiness don’t have much effect on set points: “Studies of happiness in several countries have found that money makes little difference to perceptions of happiness, except among the very poor. Nor do education, marriage and a family…. Each factor may make a person a little happier, but it has a minor impact, compared with the individual’s” genetic set point.
The two theories, positive psychology and genetic set point, aren’t mutually exclusive. Tal Ben-Shahar believes that all his teaching about choices can account for only about 40 percent of a person’s mood. Another 10 percent is environment, and, as Professor Lyubomirsky agrees, 50 percent is genetic.
Since there is no changing your genetics, you might as well focus on positive psychology. One of the exercises positive psychologists recommend is keeping a gratitude journal in which, every night, you record five things you are grateful for. Thanksgiving is the perfect time to start.
I’ll kick it off. Here at Care2, we are grateful for compassionate, activist readers like you.
Photo credit: Blue Jean Images