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Happiness Is (Part 1)

Helping Your Life Work

Volume 7, Issue 6

June, 2012

Dear Reader,

The following newsletter, which first appeared in July of 2006, deals with the topic of happiness. As we enter into the summer season, with a warmer sun and longer days, there is an assumption that most of us who feel sad and discouraged during the winter months will begin to feel happier. And while many of us do, there are still many amongst us who don't. I thought it might be interesting to explore the possible reasons why.

I also wanted to follow up on the incidence of plagiarism that I discovered last month. As you may recall, I discovered some of my work on someone else's website. When I wrote to inquire about it, I found that the owner of the website had hired a freelancer to write some of his copy and the freelancer had borrowed some of my work. The website owner apologized and included an acknowledgement on his website of my words. This prompted me to ask my website designer to include a statement of copyright at the bottom of all of my newsletters, which you will notice below.

What makes us happy? We might guess money considering the billions of dollars we gamble on lotteries hoping to become fabulously wealthy. Or beauty and youthfulness, based on the ever-growing industries of cosmetics and cosmetic surgery. Climate might be another guess considering the large numbers of us that travel south every winter. And with the burgeoning pharmaceutical, diet, exercise, alternative health and health food industries, one might assume that having ‘good health’ is another source of happiness.

It turns out that all of these assumptions are wrong. (Well, we knew that money didn’t buy happiness, even though we secretly hoped it might.) In his latest book, “Authentic Happiness,” Positive Psychology guru Dr. Martin Seligman cites studies that have shown that climate, education, money (as long as one lives above the poverty level), age, health, negative events and emotions had little lasting effect on one’s general happiness. Marriage and the practice of religion had a moderate effect and a robust social life correlated the most. However, with regard to marriage and social life, it was difficult to determine whether individuals were happy because they were married and/or had an active social life, or they were married and had an active social life because they were basically happy people.

According to Dr. Seligman, there is a particular formula for lasting happiness, and it is one that we can master. His theory suggests that we are all born with a certain set point of happiness (based on what we have inherited from our parents). That, together with the circumstances of our lives will produce a certain amount of happiness or unhappiness. But what makes for lasting happiness is what is known as our “voluntary control of happiness.” This is comprised of three factors:

When we think about these three factors in relation to our own happiness, how do we fare? If our past was traumatic, is it possible to forgive those that have wronged us? How can we feel grateful for past losses, hurts and disappointments? If our trust in others has been damaged in the past, how can we learn to trust others in the present? How realistic is it to be hopeful about the future when our past and our present are not what we had hoped they would be?

Dr. Seligman attempts to answer these questions in this book. While I found some of his statements somewhat flippant (“I think that the events of childhood are overrated” is an example), his theory is worthy of consideration. He recognizes that there are good reasons to feel bitter about one’s past, but he suggests that holding onto these negative feelings to the exclusion or the minimization of the positive ones, tends to hurt ourselves more than anyone else. He states, “Insufficient appreciation and savoring of the good events in your past and overemphasis of the bad ones are the two culprits that undermine serenity, contentment and satisfaction.”

He teaches us how to go from hopeless to hopeful and from pessimist to optimist by challenging our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves and others. He teaches us how to be mindful of the present, so that we can find pleasure in it and savour it. By identifying and using our “signature strengths,” he contends that we can increase our levels of lasting happiness at work and at home.

What makes you happy? I would love to hear your stories of what happiness means to you. I believe there is much more to write about this subject and I would love to have your input.

Click here for Happiness Is (Part 2)

Barbara Fish, M.Ed.
Personal and Career Counsellor
“Helping Your Life Work”

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