06 February 2018

The Science of Happiness: Part 1, A Little Theory

" ...scientists now believe happiness is a skill that can be learned, just like skiing or playing a musical instrument: With daily practice, you get ever better."

(from Willing Your Way to Happiness," DenverPost online) 

If you're like me, when you first hear people talking about taking charge of their own happiness, you think of Al Franken's wacky new-age SNL character Stuart Smalley, who repeatedly chanted to himself, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!" Not long ago such "positive affirmations" were touted as one of many keys to happiness by a pop-psychology press overflowing with slickly packaged little books that were guaranteed to change your life. And while their hearts were in the right place, many of these authors had little or no scientific basis for the practices they were recommending.

In recent years, however, the Science of Happiness has emerged as part of the field of Positive Psychology. Today, Harvard educators teach overflowing classes on the subject to academic groups all over the world. And the University of Pennsylvania offers a Masters degree in the field. As you'll see if you follow the links in this series, there is a solid and growing body of science to support this simple assertion: You can train yourself to be happier. 

This is the first in a 3-part series of posts: The Science of Happiness. This Part (Part 1, A Little Theory) is for all you skeptics that are saying to yourselves, “This is a crock!!” It provides some links to resources that will acquaint you with some of the science related to happiness. (You can skip this part if you don’t need any convincing about the field’s legitimacy.) In Part 2, Some Fun Stuff, I’ll provide some links to some more entertaining information… stuff that’s less focused on scientific evidence and more on getting you motivated to learn about happiness and how you might achieve it. In Part 3, Train Yourself to Be Happy, I’ll provide an overview and some links to specific steps you can take to train yourself to be happy — And yes, it’s really just a matter of training!

I became interested in the Science of Happiness as a result of banging together three ideas that, for me at least, were fairly compelling news. These ideas are:
  1. Researchers using MRI have been able to isolate the portions of the brain that are related to happiness and watch them in operation, in real time. 
  2. We’ve learned that the brain is plastic. Throughout our lives, we can make actual physical changes to the brain’s structure depending on how we use it or what we ask our brains to focus on. 
  3. The new Science of Happiness (based on Positive Psychology) is developing some science-based tools and methods to enable us to train our brains to help create more happiness in our lives. 
Stimulated by these ideas, I began poking around a little more and came across this amazing finding: The left pre-frontal cortex of the brain — the place where we experience positive emotions — can be physically increased in size after 8 weeks of training in mindfulness meditation or even mindful yoga. (This essentially tells me that meditators have bigger happiness muscles!) Then there’s this finding: People who experience more positive emotions have more antibodies in their immune system. (Whoa! That’s very cool, indeed!)

But rather than my rehashing what I’ve been discovering, I’d like to share a couple of great resources that you can investigate for yourself. The first is an article in Harvard magazine. Here’s a couple of quotes from that article about the origin of the broader field of Positive Psychology which has spawned the new Science of Happiness:
“For much of its history, psychology has seemed obsessed with human failings and pathology. The very idea of psychotherapy, first formalized by Freud, rests on a view of human beings as troubled creatures in need of repair….A watershed moment arrived in 1998, when University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, in his presidential address to the American Psychological Association, urged psychology to “turn toward understanding and building the human strengths to complement our emphasis on healing damage…That speech launched today’s positive psychology movement…The University of Pennsylvania offers a master’s degree in the field. International growth, too, is strong… Though not denying humanity’s flaws, the new tack of positive psychologists recommends focusing on people’s strengths and virtues as a point of departure…Their lab experiments might seek to define not the conditions that induce depraved behavior, but those that foster generosity, courage, creativity, and laughter.”
– from The Science of Happiness: Psychology Explores Humans at Their Best by Craig Lambert in a Harvard Magazine online article:  http://harvardmagazine.com/2007/01/the-science-of-happiness.html

The above article is a great overview of the field and includes interviews with both leaders in the field and friendly critics, as well as lots of links to their books and book reviews. It’s a good introduction to the Science of Happiness. You can get more good introductory material by attending (virtually, of course!) a free 2-hour seminar titled Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness with Tal Ben-Shahar, instructor of psychology at Harvard. In this seminar, Ben-Shahar provides a fairly entertaining, yet research-based, overview of the Science of Happiness, weaving together findings from research studies with examples of how these findings may be applied in relationships and your work life. And he even throws in a few fun experiential exercises to help make the concepts real. The seminar is available in video, audio, or MP3 download from the WBGH Forum Network. Here’s the URL:  https://archive.org/details/PositivePsychologyTheScienceOfHappiness

These two sources will provide you with good overviews of the solid research and theories behind The Science of Happiness. In the next Part of this series, Some Fun Stuff, I’ll share some web-based resources that will get you a little more involved and motivate you to tackle the resources in Part 3, Train Yourself to Be Happy. [Thanks to Brian Johnson whose PhilosophersNotes on Martin Seligman’s books Authentic Happiness & Learned Optimism inspired my investigation of this topic.]