We are use to the idea of training our physical bodies to become physically fit. There are distinct things we can do to become a stronger and healthier person- eating the right foods, exercising regularly and consistently are the obvious things that come to mind. By applying the Law of Process I can make huge changes to my physical health. That is certainly well established and uncontroversial. But can I actually train myself to be an overall happier person? Shawn Achor, a teacher of positive psychology at Harvard would give an emphatic yes. If you have not yet seen this entertaining 12 minute video (introduced in the last post) I would encourage you to do so.

In all my training to become a psychiatrist I do not recall a single lecture or class on dealing with the positive in life rather than the negative. To illustrate this, according to Martin Seligman between 1967 to 2000 there were the following number of psychological abstracts on the following subjects:

Anger 5,584
Anxiety 41,416
Depression 54,040

Compare those numbers with:

Joy 415
Happiness 1,710
Life satisfaction 2,582

That is a staggering ratio of approximately 21: 1 in favour of the negative over the positive. I also recently looked at the ratio for articles between 2000 to 2013 and although studies of the positive have increased the ratio is still approximately 10:1 in favour of the negative.

According to Seligman we have been too focussed on the so-called ‘disease’ model of health. Quoting from him:

“It calls for as much focus on strength as on weakness, as much interest in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst, and as much attention to fulfilling the lives of healthy people as to healing the wounds of the distressed.”

Of course it is still important to focus on human problems and suffering, but it is also important to redress a huge imbalance in emphasis.

“The most basic assumption that positive psychology urges is that human goodness and excellence are as authentic as disease, disorder and distress.”

The fascinating conclusion Achor says that comes from the research is that only 10% of what is happening in your external world contributes to your overall sense of long term happiness. How different that is to how we normally think. It is so easy to live in the “If only….” mindset: If only I had that job, or did not have this job, or was married to that person, or not married or had children, or did not have children, or had that gadget or toy (you fill in the gap) – then I would be happy.

The problem is that our tendency when we get something we have always wanted, is to ‘normalise’ it and then not think very much of it. A relatively trivial example comes to my mind. I can still remember the excitement sometime in the late 1990s of sending someone my first email and receiving a reply from them! It seemed so exciting and amazing then. Apparently in his two terms as president Bill Clinton sent a total of 2 emails! The power and capability of technology if we were able to explain it to our great grandparents would truly astound them. Yet today getting emails is something we take totally for granted and seems more of a curse at times than a blessing!

(For a broader discussion on dealing with much bigger life challenges see Why Does A Loving God Allow Pain and Suffering? and related posts)

An interesting happiness formula is:

Overall level of Happiness = biological set-point + life circumstances + voluntary activities.

H = S + C + V

The biological set-point (S) is the person’s genetic capacity for happiness. This is the level one naturally returns to after positive or negative emotional experiences. According to research on identical and fraternal twins it accounts for approximately 40% of overall happiness. For much of my life my set-point has tended to be more on the negative than the positive. I have tended to be a ‘glass half-empty’ negative kind of person. I am not proud of that. Given a choice I will tend to find my mind drifting towards the worst case scenario.

When they were younger some of my children gave me the nickname “Puddleglum”. Puddleglum is a fictional character from C.S. Lewis’ children’s novel, “The Silver Chair”. He is caricature of pessimissim and a bastion of gloomy fortitude. (see post What Are The Forms of Major Depressive Disorder? and my own personal struggle with depressive thinking at the post Just As I Am).

For some time it was initially thought by some psychologists that trying to be happier is as futile as trying to be taller! But that view has largely changed among researchers. One author, Lykken (2000) has postulated that most of us live below the set-point of what is possible. According to him frequent thieves of happiness are depression, fear, shyness, anger and resentment. If these fears are locked up then happiness will necessarily increase.

But it is the nature of the voluntary activities (V) to train our brains to be more positive that is so intriguing. These can account for as much as 50% of our overall level of happiness.

Achor states that it is possible to train your brain to become more positive, and it need not take a long time. Even as apparently simple an exercise as taking 2 minutes every day for 21 consecutive days to write down 3 new things you are grateful for will actually rewire your brain circuits, so that you approach your work more optimistically and so are more likely to be successful.

So that is why I have been training myself over the years to be a happier person. In the next posts we will look at more in terms of practical things we can do to become a happier person, along with a Biblical perspective.

But for now, please feel free to leave your comments, thoughts and reflections. If I can I will aim to incorporate them in the future posts.