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The answer to that question is yes Ã¢â‚¬” and, surprisingly, no prescription drugs are involved. A small but increasing number of psychologists have shifted the focus of their work from curing mental illness to discovering which character traits, attitudes, and habits make people deeply and lastingly happy. These "positive psychologists" figure that while alleviating conditions such as depression and anxiety are worthy goals, most people don't want to settle for feeling "not bad." They want to feel really, really good. Amen to that.
Of course, it's impossible to be happy all of the time. "We've found that even the top 10 percent of happy people, rigorously measured, have some unhappy moments every day," says Martin Seligman, Ph.D., author of Authentic Happiness and founder of the positive psychology movement. While adversity Ã¢â‚¬” whether in the form of a bitchy cashier, a failed relationship, or a natural disaster Ã¢â‚¬” is unavoidable, research shows that the positive feelings you have deep down about yourself, the people close to you, and the world at large can be profoundly and permanently improved.
Find Your Good Side
Between college psych classes, daytime talk shows, and those leading questions posed by pharmaceutical ads ("Have you been feeling bored, tired, or unmotivated?"), most people have already self-diagnosed their "mental weaknesses," not to mention those of their friends, family, and significant others: obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety, fear of failure, ADD ... call it a postmodern hobby. But if happiness is really what you're after, you need to quit zeroing in on your pathologies and start pinpointing Ã¢â‚¬” and using Ã¢â‚¬” your strengths. "Countless therapies advocate focusing on your shortcomings, but doing so can often cause you to backslide and feel worse," Dr. Seligman says. "Identifying and burnishing your signature strengths, however, is fun and effective for increasing positive emotion, and there's no backsliding."
In this model of happiness building, everyone wins because everyone has built-in, signature strengths, just waiting to be tapped. People who detest teamwork are advised to revel in their originality. The seldom cautious can take pride in their passion. It doesn't matter what your virtues happen to be, as long as you know what they are. To that end, go to reflectivehappiness.com and spend half an hour answering a list of carefully worded questions that will reveal your top five strengths. (If you already know that patience won't be one of them, we've created a shorter version of the quiz on page 119 that should hold you over until you get online.) Citing dozens of psychological studies as backup, Dr. Seligman states that finding ways to use your character strengths on a daily basis will directly lead to feeling better about yourself and your life in general.
The reason it works is simple: Doing good makes you feel good. And since there's no struggle or massive transformation necessary, the warm, fuzzy effects start to kick in immediately. You increase your sense of self-worth. You're more confident and more fulfilled. Even if you have a bad day, a bad week, or a bad year, you rest more easily at night knowing that Ã¢â‚¬” at least in some ways Ã¢â‚¬” you're a fundamentally good person.
Fuel Your Resilience
Since adversity is inevitable, getting better at enduring and bouncing back from negative situations will do more for your overall happiness than trying to avoid them. "A common misconception about happy people is that few bad things have ever happened to them, or that they don't have their share of down days," says Karen Reivich, Ph.D., coauthor of The Resilience Factor and research associate in the department of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. "The truth is that happy people are just better at acknowledging that setbacks are only temporary." And while that translates to being more optimistic, it doesn't mean being unrealistic. A recent eye-opening study led by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert revealed that people almost always overestimate the damage negative events will have on their lives. According to Dr. Gilbert's research, "common events typically influence people's subjective well-being for little more than a few months, and even uncommon events Ã¢â‚¬” such as losing a child in a car accident or being diagnosed with cancer Ã¢â‚¬” seem to have less impact on long-term happiness than one might naively expect." Telling yourself that you're going to be okay, it turns out, isn't gilding the lily, it's a fact of life.
For those times when things go so wrong you can't even remember what right looks like, Dr. Reivich presents some simple techniques that will help you avoid getting sucked into a black hole.
The more skillful you become at bouncing back, the less any kind of adversity will be able to shake your inner sense of well-being. Your new, high-resiliency motto: Shit happens, but that doesn't mean I have to stand in it.
Engage in Mind-Bending Behavior
The discovery of antidepressants made it clear that changing your brain chemistry can have positive effects on your behavior. Studies now show that changes in behavior can also have positive effects on your brain chemistry. Take, for example, the work of Richard Davidson, Ph.D., professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin. He monitored the brain activity of Tibetan Buddhist monks who had logged between 10,000 and 50,000 hours of meditation over the course of their lives. He found that while they were meditating, the area of their brains associated with happiness and positive thoughts Ã¢â‚¬” the left, prefrontal cortex Ã¢â‚¬” lit up like the big screen at Yankee Stadium. And even when they weren't meditating, their happiness-nodes were unusually active.
To find out if meditation could increase positive emotions in the average American, Dr. Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, asked a group of employees at a biotech company to begin meditating just once a week for 8 weeks. Those who completed the study showed increased activity in their brain's pleasure center and reported feeling more positive and at ease. Two months later, when they were tested again, the benefits were still noticeable. How do you start meditating? "You put aside a few minutes of your day to focus solely on the present moment," says Noah Levine, a Buddhist therapist, meditation instructor, and author of Dharma Punx. "The simplest way is to sit in a chair with your back straight, your hands resting on your knees, and your eyes closed. Concentrate on the sensation of your breath moving in and out of your body. When you notice your mind wandering away from your breath, gently refocus your attention." Formal instruction isn't required, but if you're easily distracted, guided meditation makes it easier. The directory at buddhanet.net can help you find nearby classes.
You won't be surprised to hear that exercise has also been found to change your brain Ã¢â‚¬” and disposition Ã¢â‚¬” for the better. But the fact that exercise can be a more effective treatment for depression than drugs is pretty amazing news. Researchers at Duke University followed the progress of patients with major depressive disorders who were prescribed Zoloft, Zoloft combined with an exercise routine, or just plain exercise. Six months after the study ended, they found that the patients who had relied on exercise alone were more likely to be partly or fully recovered. Other major studies have shown that regular exercise keeps your brain in better condition as you get older. "There's no scientific doubt that exercise, even if it's just 10 minutes a day, contributes to well-being," says David G. Myers, Ph.D., author of The Pursuit of Happiness. "It triggers the release of mood-lifting endorphins, lowers the blood-pressure reaction to stress, improves self-esteem, increases muscle relaxation, and leads to sounder sleep." Whenever we decide that we're too tired, busy, or out of shape to move our bodies, we're basically asking for a bad mood.
Know that Some Big Things Matter Little...
Despite the fact that money can buy African safaris and hot young tennis instructors, it is nonetheless true that it doesn't have much impact on day-to-day happiness. This boggles my mind, but there's no arguing with numbers. Psychologists Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D., of Princeton University and David Schkade, Ph.D., of the University of California-San Diego conducted a survey of 909 working women that asked them to rate how much they enjoyed the different activities they engaged in throughout the previous day. Wealthier women reported getting just about the same amount of pleasure as everyone else. Same goes for education. An advanced degree didn't result in greater satisfaction.
You'd think that in our youth-obsessed culture, young people would be happier and more optimistic than the old and wrinkled. Not the case. In a 2003 study of 144 participants, researchers at the University of California-Irvine found that while people in their 20s tend to dwell on negative images and memories, older people focus more on the positive. A different study conducted by psychologists at University of California-Berkeley examined whether personality changes after the age of 30. It revealed that women become more warm, generous, and helpful in their 30s than they are in their 20s.
People who like to fantasize about how much happier they'd be if they moved to a sunnier location will have to find something else to daydream about. In 1999, Dr. Schkade and Dr. Kahneman discovered that college students from the West Coast didn't claim to be any more self-satisfied than students on the East Coast. And if you've always loved big families and are considering a minivan full of your own babies, you might want to take into consideration the results of a recent, groundbreaking University of Pennsylvania study on parenthood and life satisfaction. Sociology professor Hans-Peter Kohler, Ph.D., found that while mothers with one child were at least 20 percent happier than childless women, having more than one didn't increase happiness at all. In fact, two or more kids were shown to decrease satisfaction, due to increased stress.
...And that Some Little Things Matter Big
On the flipside, some small-scale, everyday stuff can produce disproportionate amounts of pleasure. Instead of the massive responsibility of raising a third child, for example, you'd be better off raising a little dog. According to the Mayo Clinic, caring for a cat or a dog will lower your blood pressure, help you deal better with stress, and add to your overall sense of well-being. In one study, AIDS patients with pets experienced less depression than those without. What does a pet offer that's so incredibly beneficial? Unconditional love.
Your nonfurry friends aren't anywhere near as forgiving, but insisting on squeezing them into your weekly schedule is another major harbinger of happiness. Study after study shows that extroverted people report feeling more fulfilled, and in that survey of 909 women, the activity enjoyed above all others was socializing with friends. Combining girlfriend time with a fun activity that requires skill and attention Ã¢â‚¬” like racquetball, yoga, pottery, or a cooking class Ã¢â‚¬” can be a veritable pleasure bomb, according to scientists who are studying the happiness-producing phenomenon known as "flow." The gist is that people enjoy themselves most when they're so fully engaged in what they're doing that they lose all sense of place, time, and even self. Theoretically, it's possible to achieve "flow" in just about any situation, but sports and hobbies are the most common means of scoring the high.
Last but not least, you'll be much, much happier if you stop obsessively comparing yourself to people you think have better lives than you do. "To a certain degree, happiness is relative to others' attainments," Dr. Myers says. "Whether we feel good or bad depends on who those others are." Go ahead and be inspired while watching gorgeous Scarlett Johansson stroll down the red carpet on Oscar night, just be sure to have a DVD of Meet the Fockers standing by. We're not saying that you should take pleasure in the sight of Ben Stiller being humiliated and embarrassed, but there's nothing wrong with reveling in the fact that you're you and not him.