Baby goats. Fresh hay smell. Pansies. Marsh grass greening. Sunlight streaming. Biking. Convertibles. Naked-toed sandals. Spring makes many of us happy. But what is happiness anyway?
For much of my career as a clinical psychologist it has been unacceptable to try to help clients in therapy feel happier. I was trained to offer less: less depression, less anxiety, less smoking, less anger. Clinical Psychology was pathology-driven; goal was to feel less sick, not necessarily in top shape or to promote well being. We healed symptoms, like headaches and overeating, but we did not help create ideal lives. Around 1985, we began to understand that we do need to treat and prevent illness, but that we can help folks live optimal lives. Just as we have been brushing our teeth daily to prevent tooth decay, and paying dentists high fees when we slack off in our own prevention, we have begun to shout to all who will listen that we can help people be happier.
• We can prevent high percentages of divorce by teaching simple couples skills
• We can prevent future depression through behavioral treatment
• We can promote well being through coaching skills in how to think positively
Impressive indeed, but now that happiness has finally become an acceptable goal for all of us to achieve, what is happiness? Our Clinical Psychology intern Stephen Schueller, is as fascinated by happiness as I am, so we looked into what we know about happy individuals. How do we define happiness? What does it consist of?
Let’s consider Byron’s daily grind. Byron likes to work out, to have a nice car, and to laugh with his girlfriend. He is goal driven and ambitious. But his ulcers attack him daily, causing him unbearable pain and intense medical treatment. He refuses to do therapy because it is that “touchy feely stuff.” Byron is never going to be able to achieve a substantial level of daily well being to qualify as feeling happy. Happiness is primarily a highly personal, subjective state that depends on how you feel and how you think. If I ask Byron whether he is happy, he looks thoughtful, pauses, then answers carefully ”Sometimes. Yes. Sometimes I think I am, when my ulcers aren’t acting up.”
By refusing to do treatment for internal stress, Byron has overlooked his own power to influence his thoughts by making them more constructive. Byron can absolutely help his body to relax by learning to direct his thoughts and feelings into more positive channels. I promise you that he has the power to reduce his physical discomfort by training his thoughts and feelings. Byron can actually increase his own happiness.
If Byron entered treatment, he would quickly learn to practice cognitive self-discipline. I would teach him to direct his thoughts towards what I call the Lucky 7 qualities of a happy person. These lucky 7 are based on current thinking about increasing well-being and promoting happiness. To help you get your own happiness score, I have turned these qualities into seven True or False questions:
1. I tend to look on the bright side of things and am often thought of as an optimistic person by those who know me well.
2. I enjoy living in the here and now and making the most of every moment in life, especially my daily experiences.
3. I feel a deeper connection and commitment to a larger sense of meaning and purpose in my life, whether or not this involves a belief in a higher being.
4. For me, happiness is other people and the investment I make in the relationships I treasure.
5. I pursue my goals as a person and enjoy achieving goals I set.
6. I make time to help others and to donate my energies to enhancing the lives of other people, be they family or strangers.
7. I feel not only deserving of good things but grateful when I reap benefits of my life, whether or not I express this gratitude.
So, now that you know what we ask clients to see how happy they are, how did you fare? And how can you apply it to your life as an individual, whether singled or coupled?
To consider: How many questions did you honestly answer with a rousing “Yes?” What might you do to increase your “Yes” score? And how much might it benefit your life? If you take on this project to increase your own happiness, do let me know. I’ll be rooting for you.