Helping Your Life Work
July 1, 2006
Volume 2, Issue 7

Happiness Is.

What makes us happy? Based on the billions of dollars bet on lotteries each year by those hoping to become rich, one might guess ‘money.’ Based on the other huge industries of cosmetics and cosmetic surgery, another guess might be ‘youthfulness.’ If we consider the large numbers of snowbirds that travel south every winter, one would expect ‘better climate.’ And with the burgeoning pharmaceutical, diet, exercise, alternative health and health food industries, one would assume that having ‘good health’ would make us happy.

It turns out that all of these assumptions are wrong. (Well, we knew that money didn’t buy happiness, but 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:

  • Our Satisfaction about our Past (the degree to which we can feel grateful and we can forgive)
  • Our Optimism about the Future (our sense of hope and optimism)
  • Our Happiness in the Present (the pleasure and gratification that we feel, and our sense of meaning and purpose)

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 yourself 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. And 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.

And speaking of happiness, “Happy Canada Day” and “Happy 4th of July.”

All the best,

Barbara Fish, M.Ed.
Personal and Career Counsellor
416 498-1352
“Helping Your Life Work”

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