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Published: Sunday, 3/29/2009

Experts say nation could use a stimulus of happiness

BY ROBERTA DE BOER
BLADE COLUMNIST

Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.

- Aristotle

Job losses. Plant closings. Home foreclosures. Bankruptcies. Bailouts. Industries teetering.

As we near the end of the first decade of our new century, everyday life can feel like Chinese water torture - a steady and inescapable drip, drip, drip of depressing news.

And no, it's not just you.

Each year, the American Psychological Association measures stress nationwide. The latest findings show some 80 percent of us felt that money and the economy are significant stressors, up from 66 percent. Some 60 percent also felt irritable and angry, and more than half worried about job security and even lay awake at night. And now, consider: This latest APA survey was wrapped up by September, before the worst of the economic cascade.

Ken Pargament, psychology professor at Bowling Green State University, says,  A lot of the positive psychology concepts nowadays are deeply rooted in religious and spiritual traditions. Ken Pargament, psychology professor at Bowling Green State University, says, A lot of the positive psychology concepts nowadays are deeply rooted in religious and spiritual traditions.
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But if you're almost afraid these days to read the newspaper, take heart. Turns out mom had a point when she said, "Chin up, Kiddo, and find the silver lining." The difference now is that proponents of a de-liberately cultivated sunny outlook wear lab coats, not aprons.

In just the last 10 or so years, psychologists have shown that we are indeed what we think and what we do.

A growing body of research suggests that specific thoughts and actions can yield measurably "happier" lives.

Given the national mood, could the timing be any better?

Even before the first psych research lab opened in Germany's Leipzig University in 1879, the discipline had long focused on what is wrong with us. By now, America's self-help talk show culture means that anyone even slightly familiar with Oprah can sling words like anxiety, depression, and neurosis.

In recent decades, however, a handful of psychologists began looking at whether and how we can make our lives brighter. Most such researchers worked in isolation until the late 1990s, when a University of Pennsylvania psychologist reframed the question of human happiness.

In so doing, Martin Seligman became a key founder of a new branch: Positive psychology, which he and colleagues defined as the study of positive emotions, character, and institutions.

The Ivy League researcher believed the same empirical study of mental disorders also could apply to the intricacies of well-being.

At its core, positive psychology asks a simple question: What makes life worth living?

It was Mr. Seligman's stint as head of the APA in 1998 that gave him the authoritative muscle to move the question into the spotlight.

By January, 2000, the journal American Psychologist devoted a special issue to the emerging subfield.

In 2005, Penn offered the nation's first graduate degree in applied positive psychology.

And by 2006, it had so mushroomed that the Boston Globe reported "the most popular course at Harvard this semester teaches happiness."

Variations abound in the literature, but some common themes have emerged. Research shows specific habits of thought and behavior can result in greater happiness.

Some of these include:

Be grateful. Live in the present. Play to your strengths. Stay close to family and friends. Find meaning in your life, both at work and at home. Meditate. End each day inventorying three things that went well. Develop your spirituality. Be fit. Do for others.

The world of positive psychology is tinged with Pollyanna recommendations that don't sound so different from long-standing common sense. As Marcus Aurelius succinctly concluded (and without grant funding, even): "Very little is needed to make a happy life. It is all within yourself, in your way of thinking."

Still, what separates a wise Roman emperor from today's positive-psychology researcher are data that both confirm and build on such wisdom. Cynics may sneer, but the philosophical Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) has been lab-tested in the 21st century.

"It's hilarious to me that happiness has a really bad reputation," said Gretchen Rubin, a New York City lawyer-turned-writer who spent a year "test-driving every principle, tip, theory, and scientific study" that might lead her to greater happiness.

Ms. Rubin is writing a memoir of her experiment (her blog continues at www.happiness-project.com and also at Slate.com).

But, because of her focus, said the Yale law school grad: "Some people think I'm stupid, self-absorbed, spoiled, dumb. I get that all the time - people just smirking in my face. People see it as an easy way out." In fact, research shows it takes considerable conscious effort to increase well-being.

After years on the fringe, the practice of meditation is now a mainstream and frequently recommended approach to recalibrating racing minds.

Toledo native Jay Rinsen Weik returned here from Boston in 2001 and founded the Toledo Zen Center.

"One of the main [Buddhist] practices is generosity, because that strikes right at the heart of this cocoon we wind around ourselves, this 'I have to protect me.' That feeling [nationally] is like a thick fog right now: 'We're going down the tubes, baby, and I'm hunkering in.'•"

In fact, Mr. Weik argued, the economic downturn offers an upside.

"We have a great opportunity, actually. When these material things are taken away, what are you going to do? On the other side of it, it's a way of seeing, 'You know what? That wasn't who I was anyway.' I mean, I'd rather have a full retirement account, but there's much more to me than that."

Mr. Weik describes with a Buddhist mindset the weekly meditation practice and periodic gratitude workshops he leads, but he echoes findings in positive psychology.

Ken Pargament is a psychology professor at Bowling Green State University and winner of a 2009 award from the American Psychiatric Association for his research into spirituality and mental health.

"A lot of the positive psychology concepts nowadays are deeply rooted in religious and spiritual traditions," he said.

"They're really virtues, when you come right down to it: Gratitude, forgiveness, compassion, love. You find all these in virtually every major religion in the world."

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California at Riverside, has spent nearly two decades studying happiness.

Recently, the National Institute of Mental Health gave her a $1 million grant to look at how to permanently increase happiness. But even someone paid to help spread optimism is aware of the national doldrums.

"I've been complaining to my husband that almost every [media] article is negative. As a psychologist, what I notice is it's all leading to a downward spiral.

"I felt fine about my purchasing ability, but then I started reading all these articles, [and] 'Oh my God, the economy is so terrible we should stop buying things,'•" she said in a phone interview.

In her recent book, The How of Happiness, Ms. Lyubomirsky outlined 12 strategies to increase mental well-being.

"Some of these strategies seem hokey and corny even to me. It sounds trivial to me, 'Count our blessings.' But maybe these are really complex recommendations that are hard to condense down to their essence."

Ms. Lyubomirsky and others believe people have varying happiness "set points."

Overall, she said, genetic predisposition determines about half the level of someone's happiness. Life circumstances, meanwhile, account for about 10 percent. That leaves some 40 percent of an individual's happiness in his or her own hands.

But at a time when so many Americans are worried about the basics - finding work again, hanging onto the jobs they have, keeping a roof overhead - is pondering happiness a frivolity?

Senia Maymin, publisher and editor of the Web site Positive Psychology News Daily, is a graduate of Martin Seligman's inaugural Penn graduate program. She's also a Stanford University MBA, former hedge fund manager, and entrepreneur - and she argues that the current economic-social climate is an ideal time to look for meaning in one's employment.

"If you're thinking about your current job, 'It's boring,' or, 'It doesn't excite me,' then ask yourself: What parts of the job aren't boring? This is exactly what you do to find meaning," she said, "focus on what energizes you."

No doubt positive psychology's biggest supporters would agree with W. Beran Wolfe, who wrote the book How to Be Happy Though Human - back in 1931.

"If you observe a really happy man, you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden, or looking for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi desert.

"He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that has rolled under a radiator."

Roberta de Boer is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact her at:

roberta@theblade.com

or 419-724-6086



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