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In Pursuit of Happiness, How to Achieve It

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

 For many decades, psychology focused on negative thinking, depression, anxiety and behaviors that result in people feeling really bad about themselves. More recently, psychology has started to delve into the area of "happiness" or a sense of well being, what it is and how it can be sustained. This recent research is called "Positive Psychology" because of its focus on happiness and life satisfaction.

What is happiness?

The word "happiness" is a very vague term that has no scientific validity because it cannot be measured. Positive psychologists have refined the term "happiness" into several components to make it a real, valid and measurable concept for human beings. For some of these psychologists "happiness" is made up of three components:

1. Having frequent positive or good feelings.

2. Experiencing a sense of satisfaction about one's life as a result of being engaged in life activities.

3. Infrequently experiencing negative emotions such as depression and fear. This results partly from having long term goals and values, and striving toward finding meaningfulness in life.

Research has shown that people seem to have a set point of happiness in their lives. What is meant by a "set point of happiness" is that they experience a steady amount of happiness. This set point of happiness probably results from a combination of factors such as genetics and life events. However, everyone has episodes of happiness. The question positive psychology attempts to answer is how to increase and sustain these episodes of life happiness?

Following are some suggestions, based on research findings, about how to build positive emotions in your life

I. Performing acts of kindness or volunteering several times per week:


Acts of kindness (including volunteering) help foster a sense of altruism in each individual so that there is a sense of doing something that is socially meaningful. Because people react positively to these types of acts, a sense of being a "good person" is fostered and reinforced. Also, acts of kindness are voluntary or a matter of personal choice for which one must take credit. In doing these acts, it is important that an individual choose those activities that are a good fit for themselves.

Some types of acts of kindness:

1. Donating to the blood bank,
2. Visiting an elderly neighbor,
3. Doing things to help the environment
4. Volunteering in a soup kitchen,
5. Volunteering at the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, etc
6. And many such types of activities.

II. Engage in "grateful thinking:

Instead of focusing on the negative such as problems and failures, it is extremely helpful to "think about" your "blessings." Thinking about blessings really has to do with "savoring" those peak or sublime moments when you did things or experienced things that felt very good.

Examples of counting blessings (this list varies for individuals and their stage of life):

1. Getting an "A" in a really difficult class,
2. Winning a bicycle race,
3. Having one's health,
4. Having healthy children,
5. Remembering when you got married,
6. And, here too, there is an endless list.

It is the process of savoring or really enjoying the memory of these and other types of good events that increases happiness. Again, research has shown that thinking about and savoring positive experiences have beneficial effects for mood and sense of well being.

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