Jul 13

Happiness Research: Books by Sonja Lyubomirsky

The happiness research of Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, But Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, But Does, has revealed some interesting facts. For instance, in an interview with Bret L. Simmons she named the biggest myths about happiness:

…(1) that happiness is genetic (i.e., you either have it or you don’t) and (2) that happiness can be found in circumstantial changes (i.e., I’ll only be happy when X happens). Research shows that a large part of happiness is explained by what people do and how they think. So even when X changes, if you’re an unhappy person, you’ll still remain an unhappy person, unless you change the way you think and the way you act.

One of her main theses (see her website) involves learning how to change one’s mindset:

The Myths of Happiness empowers readers to look beyond their first response, sharing scientific evidence that often it is our mindset—not our circumstances—that matters. Central to these findings is the notion of hedonic adaptation, the fact that people are far more adaptable than they think. Even after a major life change—good or bad—we tend to return to our initial happiness level, forgetting what once made us elated or why we felt that life was so unbearable.

Ten of the book’s best happiness research findings (culled from Sonja Lyubomirsky’s website):

  • “Marital satisfaction decreases after the first baby is born and soars after the last child leaves home.”
  • “…(P)arents reported more meaning and purpose in life when spending time with their children than during the rest of their days.”
  • “Is the saying true that ‘A mother can never be happier than her least happy child’? Yes. Psychologists have shown heartache from one child easily overwhelms pride over another.”
  • Every 90 minutes we have an “ultradian dip” (“20-minute periods of fatigue, lethargy, and difficulty concentrating.”)
  • “Money does make us happier (at least a little), but it does not lift our day-to-day emotions.”
  • “Having people in our lives we can rely on is as important a protective factor from chronic disease or death as are smoking, high blood pressure, and obesity.”
  • 90% of us have deep regrets. “People typically regret more the things they haven’t done than the things they’ve done.”
  • “Happy people make a point of noting how much better the present is than the past, while unhappy people do the opposite.”
  • The unhappiest time of life? Youth and emerging adulthood.
  • The older we get the more likely we view past things positively and overlook bad things.

Her book The How of Happiness (2008) similarly has important nuggets. A selection also taken from her website:

  • “Studies show that 50% of individual differences in happiness are determined by genes, 10% by life circumstances, and 40% by our intentional activities.”
  • Wealth and being married are two things that, contrary to popular opinion, don’t significantly increase happiness.
  • If marriage brings you happiness, those effects erode by the end of two years.
  • “Satisfied and stable couples are relatively more likely to idealize each other.”
  • “Hugs make people happier.”
  • “The practice of repetitively replaying your happiest life events serves to prolong and reinforce positive emotions and make you happier, whereas systematically analyzing your happiest life events has the reverse effect.”
  • “Exercise lifts depression just as well as medication.”
  • “Half of us feel worse, not better, when we exercise.”
  • “It’s maladaptive to be too happy.”
  • “Contrary to popular belief, most people who repeatedly try to kick habits are successful.”
Aug 19

“Permission to Feel”: Marc Brackett’s RULER Approach

New to paperback is last year’s Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive by Marc Brackett, PhD, founder and director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

On his website, Brackett notes that emotions influence the following:

  • Attention, memory, and learning
  • Decision making
  • Creativity
  • Mental and physical wellbeing
  • Ability to form and maintain positive relationships
  • Academic and workplace performance

The architect of the RULER approach to social and emotional learning in schools across the country,  Brackett believes emotional intelligence is as important as academic intelligence. And, “Think about it: how many of us had a comprehensive emotion education?” asks Bracket (Maria Shriver website).

RULER stands for the five skills of emotional intelligence: Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating emotions. And it’s not just for kids; it’s for all of us.

Tara Well, PhD explains RULER in a Psychology Today post. Excerpts are featured below:

  • Recognizing emotions in oneself and others. This is not just in the things we think, feel, and say, but our facial expressions, body language, vocal tones, and other nonverbal signals…
  • Understanding the causes and consequences of emotionhelps us make better predictions about our own thoughts and more informed choices about our behaviors.
  • Labeling emotions with precise wordsPeople with a more developed feelings vocabulary can differentiate among related emotions such as pleased, happy, elated, and ecstatic. Labeling emotions accurately increases self-awareness, helps us to communicate emotion more effectively, and reduce misunderstandings in social interactions.
  • Expressing emotions, taking context and culture into consideration. By expressing our feelings in accordance with cultural norms and social contexts, we can inform and invite empathy from listeners…
  • Regulating emotions effectively to achieve goals and well-being…(I)nvolves monitoring, tempering, and modifying emotional reactions in helpful ways, in order to reach personal and professional goals…

Selected Quotes from Permission to Feel:

My message for everyone is the same: that if we can learn to identify, express, and harness our feelings, even the most challenging ones, we can use those emotions to help us create positive, satisfying lives.

Most of us are unaware of how important vocabulary is to emotion skills. As we’ve seen, using many different words implies valuable distinctions—that we’re not always simply angry but are sometimes annoyed, irritated, frustrated, disgusted, aggravated, and so on. If we can’t discern the difference, it suggests that we can’t understand it either. It’s the difference between a rich emotional life and an impoverished one. Your child will inherit the one you provide.

In one study, sixth graders who went five days without glancing at a smartphone or other digital screen were better at reading emotions than their peers from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their phones, tablets, computers, and so on.

Emotionally intelligent individuals had an intuitive understanding of one of the central conclusions of happiness research: Well-being depends less on objective events than on how those events are perceived, dealt with, and shared with others.

…(T)he necessary skills: The first step is to recognize what we’re feeling. The second step is to understand what we’ve discovered—what we’re feeling and why. The next step is to properly label our emotions, meaning not just to call ourselves “happy” or “sad” but to dig deeper and identify the nuances and intricacies of what we feel. The fourth step is to express our feelings, to ourselves first and then, when right, to others. The final step is to regulate—as we’ve said, not to suppress or ignore our emotions but to use them wisely to achieve desired goals.

Feb 07

Rick Hanson: Brain Science for Self-Fulfillment

Psychologist Rick Hanson, PhD, has authored several popular books that emphasize how to rewire your brain to achieve increased happiness and fulfillment. The most recent, Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happinesscame out last March.

The following are quotes from a few of his previous books.

I. Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (2009)

When you identify with something as “me” or try to possess something as “mine,” you set yourself up for suffering, since all things are frail and will inevitably pass away. When you stand apart from other people and the world as “I,” you feel separate and vulnerable—and suffer.

If compassion is the wish that someone not suffer, kindness is the wish that he or she be happy.

The point is not to resist painful experiences or grasp at pleasant ones: that’s a kind of craving—and craving leads to suffering. The art is to find a balance in which you remain mindful, accepting, and curious regarding difficult experiences—while also taking in supportive feelings and thoughts.

Positive experiences can also be used to soothe, balance, and even replace negative ones. When two things are held in mind at the same time, they start to connect with each other. That’s one reason why talking about hard things with someone who’s supportive can be so healing: painful feelings and memories get infused with the comfort, encouragement, and closeness you experience with the other person.

[K]eep in mind the big picture, the 1,000-foot view. See the impermanence of whatever is at issue, and the many causes and conditions that led to it. See the collateral damage – the suffering – that results when you cling to your desires and opinions or take things personally. Over the long haul, most of what we argue about with others really doesn’t matter that much.

II. Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time (2011)

There are three fundamental phases to psychological and spiritual growth: being with difficult material (e.g., old wounds, anger); releasing it; and replacing it with something more beneficial.

People recognize that they’ve got to make an effort over time to become more skillful at driving a truck, running a department, or playing tennis. Yet it’s common to think that becoming more skillful with one’s own mind should somehow come naturally, without effort or learning. But because the mind is grounded in biology, in the physical realm, the same laws apply: the more you put in, the more you get back. To reap the rewards of practice, you need to do it, and keep doing it.

Getting excited about something together is bonding; shared enthusiasm makes a movie, concert, political rally, conversation, or lovemaking a lot more rewarding.

III. Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence (2013)

Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.

Our ancestors could make two kinds of mistakes: (1) thinking there was a tiger in the bushes when there wasn’t one, and (2) thinking there was no tiger in the bushes when there actually was one. The cost of the first mistake was needless anxiety, while the cost of the second one was death. Consequently, we evolved to make the first mistake a thousand times to avoid making the second mistake even once.

I think the sweet spot in life is to pursue your dreams and take care of others with your whole heart while not getting fixated on or stressed out about the results. In this place, you live with purpose and passion but without losing your balance and falling into a sense of pressure, strain, or depletion. This sweet spot is very valuable, so take it in whenever you experience it.

Aug 09

Sue Johnson: “Hold Me Tight”/”Love Sense”

A founder of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT), clinical psychologist Sue Johnson is considered an expert on what keeps romantic relationships going. Below are notable quotes from her books Hold Me Tight and Love Sense.

I. Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love (2008) by Sue Johnson

Love is our bulwark, designed to provide emotional protection so we can cope with the ups and downs of existence. This drive to emotionally attach — to find someone to whom we can turn and say “Hold me tight” — is wired into our genes and our bodies. It is as basic to life, health, and happiness as the drives for food, shelter, or sex. We need emotional attachments with a few irreplaceable others to be physically and mentally healthy — to survive.

When love doesn’t work, we hurt. Indeed, “hurt feelings” is a precisely accurate phrase, according to psychologist Naomi Eisenberger of the University of California. Her brain imaging studies show that rejection and exclusion trigger the same circuits in the same part of the brain, the anterior cingulate, as physical pain.

Sociologist James House of the University of Michigan declares that emotional isolation is a more dangerous health risk than smoking or high blood pressure, and we now warn everyone about these two!

If I appeal to you for emotional connection and you respond intellectually to a problem, rather than directly to me, on an attachment level I will experience that as “no response.” This is one of the reasons that the research on social support uniformly states that people want “indirect” support, that is, emotional confirmation and caring from their partners, rather than advice.

In insecure relationships, we disguise our vulnerabilities so our partner never really sees us.

II. Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships (2013) by Sue Johnson

Happiness experts, such as psychologist Ed Diener of the University of Illinois, tell us that our relationships are the strongest single predictor of human joy and well-being. Ever since social scientists started systematically studying happiness, it has been resoundingly clear that deep and stable relationships make for happy and stable individuals. Positive relationships also make us more resilient, advance our personal growth, and improve our physical health.

Distressed partners no longer see each other as their emotional safe haven. Our lover is supposed to be the one person we can count on who will always respond. Instead, unhappy partners feel emotionally deprived, rejected, even abandoned. In that light, couples’ conflicts assume their true meaning: they are frightened protests against eroding connection and a demand for emotional reengagement.

The most functional way to regulate difficult emotions in love relationships is to share them.

“There is no such thing as constructive criticism,” says John Gottman. “All criticism is painful.” He is correct. We never like to hear that there is something “wrong” with us, or that something needs changing, especially if this message is coming from the loved one we most depend on. 

It’s important to emphasize that misattunement is not a sign of lack of love or commitment. It is inevitable and normal; in fact, it is startlingly common. Ed Tronick of Harvard Medical School, who has spent years absorbed in monitoring the interactions between mother and child, finds that even happily bonded mothers and infants miss each other’s signals fully 70 percent of the time. Adults miss their partner’s cues most of the time, too! We all send unclear signals and misread cues. We become distracted, we suddenly shift our level of emotional intensity and leave our partner behind, or we simply overload each other with too many signals and messages. Only in the movies does one poignant gaze predictably follow another and one small touch always elicit an exquisitely timed gesture in return. We are sorely mistaken if we believe that love is about always being in tune.

May 30

“The Happiness Curve”: Beyond Midlife Transition

Like adolescence, the happiness dip at midlife is developmentally predictable, and can be aggravated by isolation, confusion, and self-defeating thought patterns. Like adolescence, it can lead to crisis, but it is not, in and of itself, a crisis. Rather, like adolescence, it generally leads to a happier stage. Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50

What exactly is this “happiness curve” that journalist Jonathan Rauch has written his new book about? It’s “a common, U-shaped path from youthful idealism, through middle-aged disappointment, to eventual happiness” (Publishers Weekly) that various studies, including his own, support as a common part of the human life cycle:

In researching the topic, Rauch gave interviewees a questionnaire about their satisfaction level at the present and at earlier ages, finding that those in their 40s often describe feeling profoundly dissatisfied, even when there seemed no compelling reason to be so. Older subjects reported feeling the same demoralization during their 40s, but also increased satisfaction at their present age and even a ‘rebirth of gratitude.’ What’s the reason for that return to contentment? It can be multilayered, Rauch says; it may surface as ‘a sense of mastery.’ Or it may be that ‘settling increases our contentment.’

“It’s important to remember that the happiness curve is just the effect of aging all by itself,” Rauch told Mary Elizabeth Williams, Salon. “It’s independent of income, education, employment, health, children, marital status and everything else. It’s actually something time is doing all by itself.”

Not everyone, of course, experiences that sense of midlife discontentment, but time and aging do take their toll on many. Furthermore, those who feel the toll aren’t necessarily having what’s commonly called a “midlife crisis”—it could be more of a “slump” or a “transition.”

“One thing I try to get away from in the book,” Rauch tells Parade, “is the use of the term midlife crisis because it’s misleading. In fact, it’s a long gradually sloping curve in which you gradually find it harder to be contented in your thirties and forties and then you gradually find it gets easier to be contented for the rest of your life.”

Rauch’s own 40’s-ish “general sense of malaise that didn’t match the positive place he was in his life as a successful writer, with a generally satisfying life” was the life challenge that spurred him to research this topic (Marci Alboher, Next Avenue). “(H)e refers to ‘an accumulated drizzle of disappointment which can become self-sustaining but is quite unlike clinical depression or anxiety’.”

Now 58, Rauch learned that becoming happier post-50 involves a few factors: more realistic expectations, values that start to lean further into cooperation and community, and brain changes that contribute to increased emotional well-being.

As Rauch writes in the New York Post:

In our later decades, we experience less stress, regret and emotional volatility; we become better at balancing mixed emotions and more inclined toward a positive outlook (a so-called positivity effect); our interpersonal skills and experience help ourselves and others navigate social complexities. Older people are not more inclined to depression; in fact, evidence suggests that the positivity effect of aging helps protect us from the emotional downside of physical decline. ‘The peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade,’ writes Laura Carstensen, a psychologist and the director of the Stanford University Center on Longevity.

But does everyone get happier after 50? Of course not, “because factors such as divorce, unemployment or illness can counter this. But, other things being equal, the U-curve holds” (Lucy RockThe Guardian).