I’ve been interested in learning how to be happier all of my life. My Dad got cancer and died when I was a kid. Needless to say those were tough times for my Mom who struggled to take care of him as well as my brother and myself. And I didn’t make it any easier for her. I was unhappy that my family was falling apart, and angry that there was nothing that I or anyone else could do about it.
But psychology has been my salvation. When I started studying psychology I learned how to help people who were unhappy: dissatisfied with their marriage, anxious about what others thought about them, fearful of the future, depressed about how their life had turned out. Helping others to overcome their problems helped me to deal with my own struggles in life.
However, I discovered that even after I had become much better at dealing with problems in my personal and professional life, I still wasn’t very happy. I understood why I, like so many others, made poor choices, exhibited character flaws, and had relationship struggles. That’s just being human. I came to realize that the best we can do is recognize our mistakes and repair the damage. Although that reduces the number of negative emotions, it does little to generate good feelings.
In the last century psychology followed the medical model, which assumes our body will make itself healthy if the doctor can eradicate whatever disease it’s contracted. But this turns out not to be true when it comes to our mental health. Our mind doesn’t know how to automatically make us happy once we’ve neutralized a negative experience.
Over the past 50 years psychology has gone through several major transformations. In the beginning it was mostly based on theory, like Freud’s psychoanalysis, that had little empirical evidence to support it. Psychotherapists listened to their patient’s tale of woe, but had no proven intervention to alleviate their suffering. My experience was that talking endlessly about problems only focused people’s attention on what was wrong with them, which didn’t make anyone any happier.
Evidence-based therapy evolved in the 1980s with the advent of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. CBT research revealed that if we change how we think about our problems that alters how we feel, which impacts what we do to alleviate our suffering. CBT has been proven to be the most effective way to neutralize negative emotions in order to deal effectively with problems.
I personally have found CBT to be helpful because it taught me how to stop dwelling on all kinds of negative thinking about myself and others. But it doesn’t last. When the next problem arises I find myself lapsing back into a bad place again – ruminating on what’s wrong and who’s to blame. At least I know how to get out of that dark hole, thereby reducing the intensity and duration of the bad feelings. But CBT didn’t teach me how to be happy.
Actually, psychologists didn’t know what makes people happy until this century. When Martin Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association in 1997 he wanted to focus on teaching people how to be happier. But he could find only 40 studies on happiness out of more than 40,000 psychology research papers. So he organized hundreds of researchers to study happiness, and the field of Positive Psychology was born.
Instead of studying unhappy people and trying to figure out how to fix their problems, Positive Psychologists studied the happiest people on the planet. They discovered what optimal human functioning looks like. Their research has revealed how people are able to achieve an abundance of satisfaction and success in their lives. Because they accumulate huge “emotional bank accounts” these folks are far better able to withstand the “withdrawals” that inevitably occur when problems cause them to feel bad.
People who are “flourishing” have learned how to exceed expectations by:
- Picturing optimistic outcomes when facing challenges
- Finding family and/or friends to support them when they’re struggling
- Bringing their best qualities to bear to quickly move past problems
- Rekindling feelings of love with their partners
- Accomplishing goals that fulfill their purpose in life
- Making a meaningful difference in the lives of others
Learning to use the principles of positive psychology has transformed my level of happiness. I still make mistakes and continue to have problems arise, but I have learned the steps to satisfaction and success that bring genuine joy into my life. Old dogs can learn new tricks.