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

The Psychology of Happiness, Part 2

The December 2002 issue of Fifty Plus magazine contained an article I wrote on the Psychology of Happiness . Many people have requested more information about this topic; hence, this article. In the first article I wrote about the power of positive thinking over negative in helping us with our darker moods, cope with pain and infirmity and even prolong our lives. I discussed the research-based fact that we can influence our moods by recognizing negative and critical internal commentary in our thinking and turning it around to experience life in a more positive, optimistic and self-content state. This article preceded this one on this website.

Many people eagerly affirm their interest in increasing their feelings of happiness. Some, however, wonder if this interest is merely self-centered or selfish. Why should we worry about ourselves when every time we turn on the television we see evidence of worldwide pain and tragedy? With my clients I make a basic distinction between selfishness and self-care. Selfishness or narcissism means being so self-centered that one feels justified in meeting his or her own needs by blaming others, ignoring or trampling on others; rights and feelings. Self-care means taking positive care of ourselves and, by so doing, increasing our ability to care for others. In fact, research shows that people who experience happiness are more empathetic and altruistic toward others than people who are so immersed in their own unhappiness that they are oblivious to the needs of others. The fact that "news" focuses on the conflicts and tragedies of life should be apparent. You won't find a news article about an individual' s positive life experiences, for example, about Betty Phillips spending a day of happiness talking with her clients in her garden office and then walking through the forest nature trail at sunset. In fact, one of my many prescriptions for happiness includes a news "diet," consuming the basic information but restricting consumption of all the pain and tragedy highlighted in the news every day.

So let's assume you now agree that happiness is a desirable state of being and that you want to increase all forms of happiness in your life, including not only joy and elation, but also peace, well-being, contentment, optimism. First, set a goal for yourself and begin with daily reminders to remember to focus on your goal. A happy face posted on your bathroom mirror works well. Instead of looking in the mirror for the latest wrinkle to ruin your outlook, remind yourself that you choose to have a happy day. No matter the problems or conflicts that might emerge during the day, you will do your best to overcome them and feel contentment and gratitude for the good things that also come your way.

As you start to think about happiness, you will notice that some people seem to experience joy and happiness naturally, as if they were born to do so, while others are burdened by a darker pessimism about life. It is true that our state of happiness is influenced by three factors: 1) our inherited "set-point;" 2) life circumstances; and 3) voluntary factors. Psychology, after years of studying depression and mental illness, now is researching the second two factors to assist those of us with a negative set-point to experience the same well-being as more optimistic people. The habit of negative thinking described in the first article is a powerful factor under our voluntary control which can be changed to influence our happiness. First, we have to realize that a negative internal commentary exists in our mind, that it is a bad habit and that it is not a representation of reality. Then we will need to develop a corrective habit of challenging the negativism by treating ourselves to a more positive self-caring way of thinking and being, until we find ourselves smiling at the happy face in the mirror every morning, ready to find the positives in our life.

But, you might wonder, aren't we constrained negatively by our life circumstances? Who could be happy growing older, losing agility, perhaps experiencing chronic illness, losing cherished family members, seeing retirement funds dwindle, etc.? Let me assure you that research shows we can experience happiness no matter what problems life throws at us, and further that, in fact, a positive approach influences life events toward more favorable outcomes. Does money bring happiness? It is true that poverty may make happiness more difficult to achieve. However, research shows that happiness is only loosely related to amount of money, and, in fact, that people who overemphasize the pursuit of money usually experience more unhappiness than others.

In this article I've described happiness as a state of well-being, not just a state of mind. For maximum well-being, we can influence our physical health and life circumstances as well as our habits of thinking. The beauty and serenity of nature, flowers, water, chimes, beautiful art, inspiring music, all can lift our spirits. Relaxation activities engage our parasympathetic nervous system to calm our overstressed sympathetic nervous system. Humor has a proven effect on our mental and physical well-being. You may have heard of Norman Cousins' experiment using humor and a change of environment from hospital to hotel to save his life. You can pay attention to your body language also. It's impossible to feel happy with a frown on your face, but a smile can help light up your life. Positive social contacts are important for our well-being, while the companionship of whiners and complainers can bring us down. For more information on achieving a state of happiness, you can consult the new field of Positive Psychology. Martin Seligman is a leading researcher and author in this field.

Is your cup half-empty or half-full? If you feel like you're running on empty too often, do consult a self-help book on this topic or, even better, find a therapist or life coach to assist you in achieving your goals of fulfillment, contentment and satisfaction.