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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

The Road to Joy

January 28, 2008

Wave of books suggests path to happiness is paved with positive psychology

By GARY SOULSMAN
Gannett News Service
Cherry Hill Courier Post, NJ
January 27, 2008

If you want to be happy, there is no time like the present.

What could bring about this boost in well-being is a bit of attention to
what allows us to feel most engaged in life and supplies us with
meaning. Act on what you learn from this inner-outer quest and by this
time next year you may be amazed at your leap forward in total smiles
per hour.

This is what I've learned in the last several months after looking at
the growing body of literature that's blending ancient wisdom with the
findings of experimental psychology. They've come together in the field
of positive psychology, which celebrates its 10th birthday this year.

The father of this academic field is University of Pennsylvania
psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, author of books such as "Authentic
Happiness" (Free Press, 2002). Some of his colleagues believe his
emphasis on life's positive moments is as big a leap forward as Freud's
focus on the unconscious in the late 19th century. Makes sense

That makes perfect sense to Mickey Stafford, a Cherry Hill-based social
worker and family counselor who is board certified to practice
psychoanalysis.

"What all of this is based on is . . . how influential our mind is to
our health," said Stafford. "It's a mind-body connection that's so real."

She added that the desire for a sense of true happiness among her
patients has increased palpably in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001,
terrorist attacks. In the ensuing years, she noted, "I saw many couples
in particular (confronting) the fact they weren't happy and that life
could really end (unexpectedly)."

Positive psychology was given a harder look in May after listening to a
warm and rotund Hindu holy man. "If spiritual teachings don't make you
happy, what's the point?" said the Rev. Jaganath Carrera of the Yoga
Life Society.

I know it's a simplistic question, but it can spark one of those perfect
moments of clarity. I had mine in a church, my mind drifting to the
Dalai Lama because he personifies happiness to me.

In 1959, when the Chinese invaded Tibet, the Dalai Lama fled for his
life and was forced to deal with the loss of his country, family and
friends. If anyone is entitled to pain and cynicism, I thought, it's the
Dalai Lama.

But he's a great spiritual leader because he radiates happiness,
compassion and peace. Somehow, in claiming these traits, he suggests
that while life must involve suffering, none of us is a lost cause.

That's especially true if we find a form of meditation we like,
according to the Dalai Lama. And the field of positive psychology backs him.

In fact, the rewards of meditation are almost too good to be true --
helping with increased self-esteem, empathy and trust, writes University
of Virginia professor Jonathan Haidt in "The Happiness Hypothesis"
(Basic Books, 2005).

I guess I am no longer a chronically dispirited newspaperman, partially
because of my form of breathing meditation. But I've also managed to
interview scores of pastors, religious converts, historians and authors
without taking sufficient note of what a wonderful thing it is to move
through the world with the grace of a lighthearted spirit.

All of this flashed through my mind and soon I was looking on Web sites
and in libraries and bookstores to discover what positive psychology had
to say.

The best piece of news I have to impart is that there is a wonderful
little book that's engaging and helpful. Called "Happier" (McGraw-Hill,
2007), the book by professor Tal Ben-Shahar summarizes the syllabus of
one of the most popular courses at Harvard University.

As a 16-year-old, he won the Israeli squash championship, thinking if he
won that would make him happy.

It didn't. Not only was there no sense of sustained well-being, he felt
a letdown. And his search for "the why" led him to positive psychology.

Today he teaches that there are many ways to walk around the elephantine
topic of happiness, which Ben-Shahar defines as "the overall experience
of pleasure and meaning." And each way of gazing at the beast has
something to reveal.

Fleeting pleasures -- an ice cream cone on a hot day, the excitement of
going to settlement on a new house -- can't provide lasting happiness,
though we often delude ourselves into thinking they will, says Harvard
professor Daniel Gilbert.

Actually, says Ben-Shahar, there's more satisfaction to be derived from
figuring out what we're good at, what we enjoy doing and where the two
intersect and in learning how to stretch ourselves to accomplish
something worthwhile. "When we derive a sense of pleasure from what we
do our experience of pleasure is intensified," writes Ben-Shahar.

Or, to quote John Gardner, former U.S. secretary of health, education
and welfare: "We are designed for the climb, not for taking our ease,
either in the valley or at the summit."

We're also designed to be social. And there's good evidence to show that
people who cultivate empathetic connections are happier than those who
do not.

Mutual caring deepens "our experience of meaning, consoles us in our
pain, deepens our sense of delight in the world," writes Ben-Shahar.

Furthermore, we get the question wrong when we ask: "Are you happy?" For
Ben-Shahar, the better question is: "What can I explore to make me happier?"

As a result, I've concluded most of us could benefit from a Happiness
Project. I borrowed the phrase from Gretchen Rubin, a New York City
blogger who is writing a memoir about a year (2006) she spent
"test-driving every principle, tip, theory and scientific study" she
could find on what would make her happy.

Her Happiness Project was such a rewarding year that she has kept up the
research. And she posts it on her blog, now visited by 100,000 people
each month.

One misconception, she says, is that people think they have to overturn
their lives, and maybe go on a pilgrimage, a la Elizabeth Gilbert in her
book "Eat, Pray, Love" (Viking, 2006).

But months of travel is out of reach for most of us. So it's a good
thing that positive psychology tells us that we don't have to leave our
kitchen, Rubin says.

And it's one of her core principles: That a great way "to make yourself
happy is to make other people happy. One of the best ways to make other
people happy is to be happy yourself."

She also believes that we can all benefit from getting to know ourselves
better, just as Socrates suggested. Look at what it means to "feel good,
feel bad and feel right" she says.

And, if she's right, maybe we could all benefit from happiness projects
to think well about the moments when life is most full.

"And why not?" Rubin asks. "Isn't greater happiness something we all want?"

I think it is.

Staff writer Chuck Darrow contributed to this report.
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