Resolving the Happiness Problem

The Invisibilia episode “High Voltage (Emotions Part Two)” featured the story of a twenty-six-year-old woman with an interesting happiness problem. Worrying about whether or not she was happy made her throw up.

She theorized that by virtue of her class, race, and social status, she grew up, like many in her generation, with her parents telling her, “We just want you to be happy.”

Parental expectations like taking over a family business, marrying into a good family, completing a college degree, or becoming a doctor or a lawyer, all have guideposts and metrics. Growing up with the prime directive of “being happy” constantly left this woman wondering if she was meeting her parent’s expectations.

If the woman were to make it a New Year’s Resolution to “be happier in 2018,” what would be a practical way to resolve that problem?

Be Curious

A little less than a year ago I was reading Brené Brown’s Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution where she mentioned that The Greater Good Science Center at The University of California, Berkeley was one of her “favorite online stomping grounds.”

Brown cited GGSC for the definition of mindfulness that resonated with her most.

Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them— without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune in to what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.

Since that also seemed like a good definition of mindfulness to me, I was curious about what else they had to say over at the website.

Try Stuff

One of the things available to try at their website was The Science of Happiness.

The Massive Online Open Course offered through the edX platform “explores the roots of a happy, meaningful life.”

It’s structured as an eight-week course, but it’s self-paced.

It’s free (except to earn continuing education credits or a certificate of completion).

Since there seemed to be a possible correlation between well-being and happiness (whatever definition they were using for that), I decided to give it a try.

The next session starts January 8, 2018.

In addition to research that supports why various happiness practices work, there are plenty of exercises to try out for yourself, and you can track your happiness progress along the way.

Reframe Problems

Treating depression with antidepressants adjusts brain chemistry without calling into question the reason that the brain chemistry went out of kilter in the first place.

When I went off my antidepressant medication, many of the same problems came back because I had changed my mood without changing the kind of thoughts and actions that had created that mood in the first place.

Problem: The initial onset of my depression wasn’t caused by the deficiency of antidepressants in my diet.

Reframe: Instead of (or in addition to) taking antidepressants, I need to examine my beliefs about what constitutes happiness.   

Know It’s a Process

Like the woman in the Invisibilia story, I can’t blame my parents for not giving me better guidance in how to be happy. My father was a psychology major, but the field of positive psychology didn’t exist when he went to college.

Advances in neuroscience and the discovery of neuroplasticity have dislodged older beliefs about permanent personality traits. It used to be thought that we are born with fixed traits (like the predisposition to be happy) that never changed throughout a lifetime. There was no reason to study what how to be happier because it wasn’t thought we could become happier.

According to the course video introduction, much of the information presented is rooted in research conducted during the past decade.

Our own long-held beliefs and long-established habit patterns take time to change, too. Hopefully, not as long as it took science to change.

Ask for Help

The Science of Happiness course is structured with happiness teams you can join and invitations to discuss the material and ask questions.

Minor spoiler alert, much of the research shows that we build happiness with other people, so if you can find friends, family, co-workers, or romantic partners to take this course with you, all the better.

If you can’t find people willing to invest that much time, get together and share what you’ve learned while taking a walk together, or over coffee, lunch, or dinner.

Identify Dysfunctional Beliefs

Dysfunctional Belief: I’m a grown-up, I should already know how to be happy.

Reframe: I may think I know how to be happy, but I’m willing to see what people who have spent far more time studying the subject have to say.

Three Minute Exercise

Watch the course introduction on YouTube here.

Sign up for the course if it interests you.

Bonus Twelve Minute Exercise

The Invisibilia story I mentioned at the beginning is very sweet and brought a big smile to my face. It runs from (23:10 – 34:46) and it’s available here.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.