Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Psychology of Happiness, Part I




PSYCHOLOGY OF HAPPINESS, PART I



Many people think that psychological assistance is needed only by the mentally disturbed, not realizing that psychology is a tool which can be used to help everyone live more satisfying and productive lives. As a psychologist I am not a "shrink" who "shrinks" people to fit into categories of mental illness. As a counselor and life coach, in fact, I help my clients "grow" in happiness and contentment with themselves and their relationships.

Most of us think that happiness is an ideal to be earned by a lifetime of striving and hard work. We put off immediate gratification to plan and save for the future. Then as mature individuals who have earned our golden years, we encounter an unpleasant surprise: happiness still eludes us. The dreams of a happy retirement fade as we find that life is, as always, filled with its usual ups-and-downs, perhaps even more complicated by physical infirmities, crashing stock markets, and other complications.

Psychology teaches us that we carry within ourselves the capacity for happiness as well as depression and despair. Let me explain. Remember how children play and explore, smiling and delighted by the world around them, stopping to cry only when something hurts or the children experience an unmet need such as food or sleep. This picture reflects our basic human condition, and as adults we can rediscover the joy of living if we allow our life force to exert itself without suppression by negative thinking.

Our capacity for thinking, analyzing, judgment and problem-solving it is, of course, one of our most precious assets. None of us really wants to remain child-like. With increasing maturity we develop and refine our mental and intellectual resources. As this occurs, we also develop a system of thinking to interpret the world. However, along with our effective problem-solving, we also develop a stream of consciousness/background thought process that often blocks us from experiencing the world directly, including the happiness that is within our reach. This stream of consciousness or "automatic pilot " thinking often includes negative self-talk, sometimes called an "internal critic." We may not be aware of this unless we stop and pay attention to background thoughts which too often are filled with tension, stress, worry, lots of "shoulds" and guilt coloring thinking and perceptions of the world. With the internal critic dominating the background of our thinking, upbeat moods will sink into feelings of discomfort, anxiety or depression. Because we experience our thinking as if it is reality, not just our commentary on reality, the negativities in our thoughts translate to depressed and anxious feelings about ourselves and our lives, blocking pleasure. Thinking is something we do, not something that happens to us; thinking originates in our mind, not in the outside world. What we think determines what we see and feel. Because our thoughts play an important role in creating our moods, we can learn to control our moods. We do not have to be prisoners of our moods. We need to save our critical problem-solving thinking for specific, designated times when we have a life problem to analyze and solve. At other times we need to be able to set aside evaluative thinking in order to be able to enjoy the pleasures of life unencumbered by critical commentary. When we understand this path toward positive emotional health, we can choose to experience the world in a different way to find happiness in the present moment. We can learn to relax, find a rose to smell, and we can learn to feel good about ourselves. We can experience happiness and pleasure without suppression by negative thoughts/stream of consciousness.

If, on the other hand, your "automatic pilot" background thinking is infused with positive self affirmations, sense of security, pleasant expectations and a positive openness to life and new experiences, then you don't need to read this article. You are already happy, no matter your life achievements, financial worth, physical beauty or health. You already know that life achievements, by themselves, do not automatically bring happiness. You are already able to keep life in balance, enjoying positive thoughts and moods in the present unencumbered by the demons of negativity. When you encounter stress, dissatisfaction and life frustrations, you deal with them, then let them go.

The power of positive thinking over negative is truly amazing, helping us with our dark moods, helping us with our pains and infirmities and even prolonging life. Research has established the value of positive thinking for health and long life. A study reported in the August, 2002, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, for example, found that adults with positive attitudes about aging live more than seven years longer than others with negative attitudes about their senior years.

This positive thinking is easier to talk about than do, you are probably thinking. Exactly. That's where psychologists who practice cognitive/behavioral therapy and life coaching come into the picture, to help people learn this new approach and unlearn long-standing habits of negative self-talk. The older we are, the more ingrained are our habits of critical and negative thinking. The task of the helping professional is to help clients develop an understanding of thought-constructed reality and assist in learning new alternatives to attain a more relaxed and happy mind and life. Want to give it a try?