By: Curtis Peterson ©
Scrolling through my recent articles, which has been awhile, I noticed that I have focused on some negative attributes of the human condition such as loneliness and violence. With this in mind, I decided to write an article on more positive aspects of being human such as happiness and fulfillment. The first thing I think we should describe is what is happiness.
Happiness is often described by its’ opposite pain. Pain is a negative physical-psychological state that indicates that there is something wrong with the person. Pain can be both physical – like a paper cut – or it can be psychological – like the pain of rejection. Interestingly, we do not need to spend much time differentiating between the two because recent neurological data suggests that both physical and psychological pain originate from the same place in the brain and undergo similar processes. However, healing from each may require different methods. Since pain is a signal to the individual that something is wrong, then it would make sense that happiness is the absence of pain – meaning everything is currently alright. However, happiness goes a bit further because it includes feelings of optimism, feelings of place, and a general feeling that at this moment things are the way they should be.
Now it is important to distinguish between two types of happiness. The first is situational happiness; this is the happiness that we experience when we have some special event that occurs such as a birthday, wedding, divorce, or graduation. This type of happiness can be likened to its’ opposite, which is extreme pain experienced due to situational factors such as a car accident – meaning (hopefully) these extreme forms of pain and happiness tend to be short lived. The other type of happiness is continuous happiness. There is a portion of our population that measure high in continuous happiness, which includes a heighten state of optimism, a general sense of justice, and along with optimism, and these individuals tend to see struggles as opportunities. Now, this is very important; this does not mean that these individuals do not struggle. Indeed, these people can be found across the socio-economic strata from impoverished individuals to wealthy, minorities to majorities. They also tend to face the same number of challenges as less happy people do, but they differ in one way. Continuously happy individuals tend to view current crises as part of the human experience and that they will not last forever. Now since the late 1990s, a group of psychologists started what is known as the positive psychology movement. The idea behind the movement is the recognition that most of what psychology has studied are the psychopathologies of life – or what we can call the pain and dysfunctional side of life’s spectrum – and very little time was spent looking at its’ opposite such as happiness, well-being, and positive motivation. These psychologists started to look for individuals who seemed to continually happy and content, and of course, once we found them we bugged them with surveys, brain scans, and observing them to try and determine what makes them unique. What has resulted is what I call the ten principles of continuously happy individuals. The ten are listed here with a description of each to follow:
1. Engaged life
2. Meaningful life
3. Authentic life
4. Have a spiritual belief or philosophy
5. Notion of Justice
6. Work and play
7. Positive evaluation of negative emotions
8. Positive view of the future
9. Social and emotional connections with other humans
10. Unconditional positive regard
Living an engaging, meaningful, and authentic life
Now let us look at each one of these starting with the first three: living an engaged, meaningful, and authentic life. These three were first formulated by John Seligman who is the founder of positive psychology. What he and others have found is that continuously happy people tend to:
First happy individuals live an engaged life, meaning that they do not see themselves as passive bystanders, but as an active participant in the human experience. These individuals can be identified by how they engage in every aspect of their life including work, family, friends, hobbies, and even rest. They tend to be very curious and want to learn more when they experience new things.
The second is living a meaningful life. Now having a meaningful life does not mean you become president of the United States and work tirelessly towards world peace, or become the top CEO of an organization. No living a meaningful life means that you find meaning in what you do, even the inconvenient tasks of life. Many of the individuals that psychologist has found that are continuously happy are not all successful by western standards in that they not necessarily financially wealthy or have a high-powered position such as doctors or CEO. I can remember reading the story of an elementary school janitor who measured high on a scale of happiness. When he was asked about his work, he said he didn’t think of his job as simply mopping floors and cleaning toilets, but rather preparing a clean and healthy environment for children to learn. I would like the reader to think about how the individual frames their daily work tasks from meaningless – just cleaning toilets – to meaningful – preparing a clean place for children to learn. That is the key to living a meaningful life: being able to take even the most mundane task and find the meaningful purpose.
The third notion of this triad is living authentically. Most people think they are acting “real” or “being truly them” but when one digs deeper usually that real person is what we call a persona that the individual is wearing. What is a persona? The word persona was first used by Carl Jung and would eventually evolve into the word personality as we know it in psychology today. But the word persona is a Roman term which is a Greek mask that Roman actors wore when playing a Greek drama. Carl Jung liked this name because he believed that for the most part, we all wear masks and we have masks for different situations, but the true self lays somewhere behind that mask. Now we all must live in a world of social convention, with the exception of Walmart and college classrooms, it is usually not seen as appropriate to wear pajamas to social situations, and conversely while one can, it usually not socially acceptable to go to bed wearing a three-piece suit. So, in many ways, we will always have some type of persona that we must wear in our social world. However, a person who is truly authentic does not hide behind these social conventions. Now, this does not mean showing off your personality by being a loud-mouthed jerk – unless that authentically who you are. No this means truly letting people know who you are as an individual. One of the most authentic individuals I know, whenever engaging in a social group activity would say “I am extremely introverted, so I like to think things through before I talk about them socially, so please do not think me rude for being quiet through the first part of this group project.” Being authentic is the ability to express your needs, wants, and even negative qualities in order for others to have an understanding of who that person is as a human being. In a time of such political polarity, I had the chance to hear a truly authentic person when he said,
“Curtis I am a conservative, I have always voted conservative and even go to many conservative events, but that does not mean I agree with everything that conservatives stand for especially when it comes to their broader views about people in poverty”.
Both the student in the earlier statement and my conservative friend are what one would consider living with authenticity, meaning it okay to have beliefs and ideas and even lean towards one view or another, but being authentic means that one does not become completely entrenched into something that they start acting against their personal beliefs and attitudes and who they are as a person.
These three seem to be essential qualities of a truly happy person, but there are seven others that tend to be very common. We will start with spirituality
Happy individuals tend to have a deep sense of spirituality. Whether it is finding meaning in poetic naturalism, and seeing one’s self as an important chain in human evolution and life – or a religious individual who has a strong belief in their faith in God. In the most basic sense spirituality is the belief in something bigger than the self, that brings the individual meaning and purpose beyond just surviving from day to day. Now it is important to say you can be a hardcore atheist and a devoutly religious person and lack spirituality. Some individuals are indoctrinated into their belief system and believe what they believe because that is all they been taught by their family, friends, and communities. Usually, a person becomes spiritual, when they go through some spiritual experience that brings meaning to their life and helps them believe in something beyond their existence. For example, I had a good friend who went to a weekend Christian get away with his spouse, upon returning he found spiritual meaning in his life and has guided his actions since. This friend is doing amazing things working with kids and families. Another good friend of mine has found meaning in not having a religious belief, but having a deep respect and love for human potential and our places in this amazing universe – as she would say. Both individuals may have different belief systems, but they both would are considered highly spiritual in that they have found meaning for their existence beyond the self and simple survival.
Notion of Justice
Individuals who tend to be happy have a belief in universal justice. For me, this is much like the idea of karma, in that the universe has ways of balancing out the injustices that we may experience from time to time and ultimately leads to fairness. This idea reminds me of the final justice that many of the domestic violence survivors I have worked with experience. One that comes to mind was a young woman when she was going through the criminal justice system and trying to get justice through the court saw very little help let alone justice, the most her abuser received was 30 days in jail for strangling her until she passed out. She and her kids were abused by this man with little justice over a three-year period. When through other means than the justice system she got out and started building her life on her own. Today she is married to a very loving and non-abusive man and she has become a school teacher. However, her ex-abuser has spent his life in and out of jail and now serving time for drug charges. This example is an example of the just world idea and that individuals eventually get what they deserve and justice, in the end, will always prevail. It is believed by many psychologists that this belief in justice is what helps happy individuals get through difficult times in their lives and can see the light at the end of the darkest tunnel.
Work and Play
Have you ever known someone who when they get to the end of the work week they get bummed and say instead of “I can’t wait until Friday” they say, “I can’t wait until Monday”? If you do know someone like this, you probably met a continuously happy individual. An interview with someone who scored high on this type of happiness stated, “I can’t tell the difference between the joy of spending the day at the beach, versus a day spent in the office.” Now, this is important to state at this point; happy individuals are not workaholics!! But when one lives a meaningful, purposeful, and authentic life both leisure and work become balanced in that one finds equal enjoyment in both.
Positive view of negative emotions and positive view of the future
The seventh and eighth concepts on our list go hand and hand with a qualitative difference. Having a positive view of negative emotions is an affective experience whereas positive view of the future is a cognitive one. A positive view of emotions is the ability to understand that (A) negative emotions are situationally bound, and (B) negative emotions have an important purpose in informing the individual that something is wrong.
Let’s begin with the first concept of emotions as being situationally bound. Emotions occur through an interaction between the person and their environment. The individual includes their current affective state and the person general view of life. Emotions, however, do not occur independently of the context that the individual is in – the situation. However, all too often individuals ignore the situation and feel that the emotions somehow has some transient state that must somehow go back to earlier traumas and experiences. This false belief leads to maladaptive ways of controlling one’s emotions through drinking, drugs, or other self-destructive behaviors. When in reality most negative emotions that individuals commonly experience can be alleviated simply by changing one’s situation. It is kind of like a common Sigmund Freud meme that says “Before diagnosing yourself with depression, make sure you are just not surrounded by assholes.” Truly happy people understand that negative emotions are transient experiences that can be changed by determining the situational cause.
The notion of situational causes leads to the second important aspect in the way happy individuals interpret emotions. Happy individuals understand that negative emotions have an important adaptive purpose in signaling to the individual that there is something wrong in their current situation. They also understand that they have control of their situation and have the ability to change it in some manner. Therefore, they see negative emotions as an opportunity to change rather than some continued state that leads to depression and agony.
The second concept – and number eight on our list – is having a positive view of the future. If you have heard the country song and the saying: “if you are in hell, keep on going, and don’t give up” you understand the idea of having a positive view of the future. I said earlier that happy individuals have the same positive and negative experiences that we all experience. They lose loved ones, experience both marriage, and divorce, they know physical and psychological pain as we all do, but they do something different when they think about the negative experiences. Instead of getting stuck in the negative experience they have a strong belief that an experience can inform us but they do not define us. Using my example of working with individuals who were abused by their spouses, the most successful survivors see their experience as just that a life experience that helped them grow and be a better person. Whereas, individuals who tend to get in the cycle of abuse, tend to allow the abuse to define every aspect of who they are, being the victim becomes their identity. Knowing that we will always have both positive and negative experiences in life, but not one experience determines who we are as an individual, is important in becoming a happy person.
Social and Emotional Connection with others
If you have been following my posts, you may remember me writing about loneliness, and how there are two types of loneliness: emotional and social. Emotional loneliness is not having a close emotional relationship with at least one other individual. Social loneliness is not having a sufficient number of social connections and people one knows. Now there is no set number for how many social and emotional relationships one needs. Some individuals need only one emotional relationship but may need a large social network. Whereas others individuals may need several emotional connections but only a few social connections. It is important, to be honest with yourself and be authentic. If you are a high emotional need person, and you have a partner, it is important to express this need in order thwart any unneeded jealousy and problems in an intimate relationship. Conversely, it is important if you need little emotional connections with others it is important to communicate this to your partner especially if they have a high need. I bring these examples up to show the integration between these ten concepts because not being authentic about your social and emotional needs can lead to problems in other domains of one’s life. But let us move on and explain deeper in our need to belong through our connection from others.
If loneliness is the lack of emotional and social connection, it must represent what psychologist who study this a thwarted sense of belonging. Belonging being the need to feel like one has a place both physically and socially. Psychologist Susan Fiske best explains the need for belonging as a means for fulfilling four basic needs of an individual: (1) the need for control, (2) the need for understanding, (3) self-enhancement needs, and (4) the need for trust or to see others as benign. For a full description of these needs, I will refer to the reader to my article entitled “What is Loneliness” for our purposes, it is important to understand the humans are social creators, we cannot live independent of one another. If there is or were a grand designer, humans were designed through our language and use of symbols to work together live together, and experience what we call life together.
Happy people, understand this, they enjoy other people and they engage in their social world. Now, this does not mean if you are an extrovert you immediately have this down and that if you are an introvert you will never experience this type of joy and happiness. I often get asked – or told – that introverts are more miserable individuals because they hate people and can’t form relationships. First, we should say extroverts can hate others as well – we usually spot them in groups as the a**hole of the party or group. A true introvert doesn’t hate being around people, in fact, a true introvert needs to be around others as much as anyone else. The difference is they get energized and refreshed by spending time alone in quiet contemplation. If, however, you have the label of an introvert, but you hate being in a social situation and get anxious about going out, please stop blaming your introversion, you may be suffering from shyness or more serious condition such as social anxiety or social phobia. Okay now that we have gotten past the personality variability issue let’s talk about how other’s increase our happiness.
When we have others we can rely on, talk to, be both angry and sad with (emotional connections) and others that can help us meet our living needs (social connections) life, while it does not change, it does seem to become much more manageable and provides more opportunity to engage in things that make us happy. If there is one thing I would like my reader to do after reading this article, it is to pick up the phone call (or text) everyone you know and simply tell them how much they mean to you. After so many years studying psychology and helping people, I can promise you there is at least someone in your world that is suffering right now, and simply letting them know they are loved and cared for in some cases can mean the difference between life and death, and a minimum it will help someone get beyond their problems.
Unconditional Positive Regard
In the positive psychology literature, you are more likely to run into the term positive regard, but I have included the notion of unconditional positive regard to make our discussion go beyond just increasing one’s happiness, but also becoming a full and complete individual. But let us start with defining what positive regard is as it is experienced by happy individuals. Ever get in a heated conversation with someone who has an opposing view and maybe you ended up frustrated because you feel you cannot get through to them so they could “see the light”? It is a common and often frustrating experience, and it comes from a very basic human fallacy. Most individuals live with the cognitive fallacy that everyone must think and understand things the way that they do, and if someone doesn’t that must mean they are a lower form of life and lack intelligence. This fallacy comes from the mistake that we assume that we see the world as an objective reality, and that reality is the same for everyone. Unfortunately, we do not experience the world as an objective reality, but always through the lens of our personal experiences, beliefs, and attitudes. Since we all come from different experiences, we all see reality slightly different. Don’t believe me? Look on Facebook or watch the news and see how liberals and conservatives talk about each other. With my point proven let us move on to becoming a happier person.
It is said that when a wise person walks in the room, that they understand that everyone comes from a different background and different experiences and therefore their reality and life truths are likely to be different than their own. Conversely, the unwise person believes that everyone’s reality is the same, and therefore if someone doesn’t think the same way they do there must be something organically wrong with them. Continuously happy people take this idea a step further and embrace that everyone is different and enjoy hearing the experiences and understandings of others. Now that is the path to being happy, but I said I wanted to take this a step further to being a complete person.
So far, we have talked about the key components of happiness that have included living a meaningful life, being authentic with others, and having good social and emotional relationships. Now its time to take it a step further to becoming a happy and full person. Carl Rogers was a famous psychologist and therapist who developed a unique form of therapy called humanistic therapy. His belief was that individuals already know the solution to their problems but what they need is a safe and accepting person who will not judge them to discover that solution. He used a humanistic philosophical concept known as self-actualization to explain how this relationship can occur. But first what is self-actualization?
Humanistic psychology grew out of the dismay of Freudian psychology and behavioral psychology which posits that everything we do is predetermined by either uncontrollable unconscious needs or by learned associations. Therefore, everything in life is deterministic according to these views. The humanistic theory was developed to try and explain human motivation and how humans can change their situation given the right resources. They argued that every human has a motivation to become self-actualized or to put in more simple terms to become a complete person. Rogers argued that the way in which a person becomes self-actualized is by having complete understanding and acceptance of who they are. This required, however, to have a true and objective understanding of who the individual is both their good and bad qualities. They must also have the ability to accept and understand their bad qualities and how they can drive their behavior just as much as their good qualities. This idea according to Rogers is the state of self-actualization.
Now if we have complete acceptance for who we are both the good, the bad, and the ugly, this allows us to completely accept other for who they are, including the good and the bad. Meaning we can accept them with no condition and provide them with unconditional positive regard is our aide to help the. In the most basic form, being self-actualized is the ability to live life with no prejudices or hatred against others. Imagine a place where we stop to understand others, and that it is okay for them to be different because you as an individual are beautiful, different, and unique as well.
Before I end our conversation about happiness I want to leave you with a story about the experiences lived by Jews that lived through the German concentration camps during WWII. At the end of WWII, psychologist and psychiatrist noticed that a lot of young soldiers and Marines were coming back with a mental health condition known then as “shell shock” and what we call today as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This disorder has devastating effects on the individual personally, socially, and in their community life, and is marked by repeated flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety and stress reactions to trauma the person experienced in the past. Approximately 20% of a given population is susceptible to experience PTSD after a traumatic experience. But after WWII the rates were above 30%, and some have argued they were higher than 50%. A group of psychologists including the famous Jewish psychologist Victor Frankl, started to think that if our trained forces, who went through extensive training for what they experienced are having such high rates of PTSD, the civilian Jewish population must have a much higher rate? So, they went about to assess the surviving Jews that were freed and after years of assessment they found that the PTSD rate among Jews was less than 5% – that is 15% lower than the general population and a lot lower than what was being observed with returning military. In trying to determine why these rates were so low they did several thousand interviews. The psychologist summarized their findings by something one of the survivors said:
“The Germans could bound me, beat me, kill everything I love, BUT there is one thing that the Germans could never enslave, and that was my mind, my mind was always free and could never be taken away”.
With that thought in mind, I leave my reader with love, peace, and I hope many more happy days.
If you have any questions about this articles or would like to know more about happiness and positive psychology please fill-out the following form:
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