Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Importance of Happiness

One of the most exciting things to happen in the field of psychology in the past 12 years is the rise of the Positive Psychology movement. Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness and past president of the American Psychological Association, began his research career studying learned helplessness in an attempt to learn more about depression. Yes, brilliant graduate student that he was, he was the guy who put dogs in cages and gave them electric shocks in both escapable and non-escapable situations. The dogs given non-escapable shocks eventually just gave up.

When studying learned helplessness in humans, researchers began to realize that not all human reacted the same way. Explanatory style (optimism, pessimism) were identified as key factors in developing "learned helplessness". Seligman (likely feeling a bit guilty about those poor dogs) decided to turn his attention to the study of learned optimism, writing several popular books about the topic (Learned Optimism, The Optimistic Child, What You Can Change and What You Can't).

He realized that most of psychology was about studying people who were already unwell and the focus of all psychology was on what wasn't working or what was wrong with people. He decided he wanted to flip that and look for health and for what was working. He wanted to know how to help people created more fulfilling lives. He termed this new "branch" of psychology, Positive Psychology.  He was joined in his quest by researchers like Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, author of Flow and Creativity.

In 2000, Seligman and Csikszentmihaly (pronounced "Cheeks-send-me-high") published an article in the periodical American Psychologist titled, "Positive Psychology: An Introduction." In it, they stated:
We believe that a psychology of positive human functioning will arise that achieves a scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving in individuals, families, and communities.
Since that statement in 2000, the positive psychology movement has gained great momentum. It has become central to the psychology departments at several Ivy League universities, such as Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania (where Seligman continues to research and teach). If you'd like to hear Seligman talk about Positive Psychology, here is the link to his TED Talk.

I was thrilled to watch the following talk by Harvard researcher Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage. It's worth the 20 minutes or so it takes to listen to the whole thing, as the "how to" is given in the last three minutes. Achor is an engaging presenter and tells some charming stories and shares some compelling information. Besides, there's an anecdote about a unicorn (if you weren't already convinced).

Achor clearly says that the goal is not to be happy all the time (even Seligman admits there is a purpose for pessimism and that pessimists tend to be more realistic and practical than optimists). However, it is possible to raise your baseline for happiness and create a more positive "new normal".

Here's how:
  • Gratitudes: every morning, write down five things you are grateful for.
  • Journaling: write about a positive experience for three minutes once a day
  • Simplify vs. multitask: "you are happier if you do more things by doing one thing at a time"
  • Utilizing strengths: find out what your strengths are and use them
  • Exercise: provides the same relief from depression as medication
  • Meditation: focus on your breathing. "You are breathing anyway, you might as well watch it."
For each of these points, Achor explains how the research has shown how these simple actions physically change our brain as well as redirect our behaviour.

Of course, all of these things have tremendous applications in terms of learning. It is so important, for example, to help our children find their strengths and use them as their primary mode for learning as there truly is a ripple effect in terms of supporting areas of weakness without direct intervention. Also, if people are happy before doing a task, their performance goes up by 50%. This implies that we really need to pay more attention to creating a positive and happy learning environment for our kids than implementing curriculum or worrying about skill development.

There are many more gems in this talk that are so fantastic, so worth knowing about, it will be 20 minutes well-spent just to be able to bring this information into our daily interactions with our kids, our partners, and the world around us.