Best Health - - CONTENTS - by Sydney Loney

Search­ing for hap­pi­ness? Stop! A coun­ter­in­tu­itive ap­proach could ac­tu­ally help you find it

Re­mem­ber that song from child­hood? It was such a no-brainer to belt it out at the top of your six-year-old lungs. Happy was easy as a kid. But as we move into adult­hood, we grow less sure about hap­pi­ness — what it is or even how to find it. Here’s what you need to know for a new year that truly sparkles with joy. |


It seems it’s a ques­tion we’ve all been pon­der­ing — and, nat­u­rally, we’ve been turn­ing to the In­ter­net for an­swers. Just plug “how to be happy” into Google and you’ll get about 5,220,000,000 re­sults. Scroll down a lit­tle and you’ll find “Peo­ple also ask,” fea­tur­ing sim­i­lar, hap­pi­ness­re­lated ques­tions: “How can I be happy right now?” (for the im­pa­tient among us), “How can a per­son be happy? (for the gen­er­al­ists) and “How can we be happy?” (for those who take a more in­clu­sive ap­proach).

Just how far will those five-bil­lion-plus search re­sults get you in your over­all pur­suit of hap­pi­ness? Not very, ac­cord­ing to Dr. Dean Bur­nett, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist, au­thor and stand-up co­me­dian in the U.K. “When there are so many peo­ple out there of­fer­ing the so­lu­tion, the un­der­ly­ing as­sump­tion is that you have to be happy all the time and that any­thing less than that means fail­ure,” he says.

Dr. Bur­nett’s new book, The Happy Brain (an entertaining, light-hearted ex­plo­ration of how the brain ex­pe­ri­ences hap­pi­ness), arose out of a gen­eral an­noy­ance at all the pseu­do­sci­en­tific self-help stuff that crowds the In­ter­net and over­sim­pli­fies this elu­sive emo­tion and how best to achieve it. Dr. Bur­nett wor­ries that our col­lec­tive ob­ses­sion with be­ing happy is not only coun­ter­pro­duc­tive be­cause it stresses us out and makes us less happy but also self-de­struc­tive. Hap­pi­ness, he says, be­comes more of an am­bi­tion than a state of be­ing — a re­quire­ment as op­posed to an in­dul­gence.

All of this, Dr. Bur­nett says, puts us at risk of be­com­ing less well-rounded emo­tional be­ings. “The brain is ca­pa­ble of so many emo­tions, and to fo­cus on one at the ex­clu­sion of oth­ers can lead to emo­tional in­com­pe­tence,” he warns. “A full range of emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence is nec­es­sary for well-be­ing.” Well-be­ing and cop­ing. If we don’t rec­og­nize (and value) sad­ness, we’ll be ill equipped when bad things hap­pen. And, of course, bad things hap­pen. Or, as Dr. Bur­nett says, “The world is not a soft, play­ful bub­ble.”

Even so, he’s not sug­gest­ing that we aban­don the idea of be­ing happy al­to­gether; we just need to re­cal­i­brate our ap­proach. For starters, we need to an­a­lyze our cur­rent ob­ses­sion and re­think what it means to be happy.


Philoso­phers from Aris­to­tle through the ages have mused about hav­ing more hap­pi­ness, but no one has been as pre­oc­cu­pied with the idea as us or pur­sued it as re­lent­lessly as we have. In Jan­uary, Yale Univer­sity even be­gan of­fer­ing a course de­voted to help­ing stu­dents be hap­pier — they had to change lec­ture halls to ac­com­mo­date ev­ery­one who rushed to en­roll (1,200 com­pared to the 600 that typ­i­cally con­sti­tutes “large” classes at the univer­sity).

Lau­rie San­tos, who cre­ated the course, says fo­cus­ing on hap­pier prac­tices can have plenty of ben­e­fits be­yond how we feel. “Re­search sug­gests that be­com­ing hap­pier not only in­creases our health but also af­fects how much we help oth­ers,” she says. San­tos de­vel­oped the course to ad­dress the fact that her un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents seemed “way more un­happy/stressed out/wor­ried about the fu­ture” than ever be­fore.

“I was re­ally sur­prised by the de­mand,” she says. “I never ex­pected it to turn into the big­gest class ever at Yale, but I think the level of in­ter­est speaks to the fact that this is a topic that col­lege stu­dents want to ad­dress. They don’t like the cul­ture of stress and over­work they’re fac­ing and they want to do some­thing about it.” (But it’s not just col­lege stu­dents — the gen­eral pub­lic got wind of it and wanted in, so now it’s be­ing of­fered on­line to ev­ery­one.)

San­tos says the course uses the def­i­ni­tion of hap­pi­ness that psy­chol­ogy uses, which is a def­i­ni­tion based on sub­jec­tive well-be­ing. “Sub­jec­tive well-be­ing has a cog­ni­tive com­po­nent — how we eval­u­ate our lives and our sat­is­fac­tion with our lives broadly — and an emo­tional com­po­nent, which is how many positive ver­sus neg­a­tive emo­tions we feel,” she says.

Yet, pin­ning down a def­i­ni­tion of hap­pi­ness proves tricky when you talk to more than one psy­chol­o­gist. Dr. Randy Pater­son, a reg­is­tered psy­chol­o­gist in Van­cou­ver, has an­other, slightly more coun­ter­in­tu­itive­take (his book is, af­ter all, called How to Be Mis­er­able: 40 Strate­gies You Al­ready Use). Ac­cord­ing to Dr. Pater­son, hap­pi­ness, in gen­eral, is the ex­pe­ri­ence of one or an­other of the positive emo­tions. “When we ask, ‘Over­all, are you happy?’ the ques­tion is not whether you ex­pe­ri­ence only the positive end of the spec­trum in ev­ery mo­ment, as this isn’t at­tain­able,” Dr. Pater­son says. “A bet­ter met­ric is whether you ex­pe­ri­ence these sen­sa­tions on a rea­son­ably reg­u­lar ba­sis, and that can vary by per­son.”

Dr. Pater­son also points out that, while we

have many names for un­hap­pi­ness (anx­i­ety, dis­ap­point­ment, grief, sad­ness), we tend to dif­fer­en­ti­ate less when we talk about hap­pi­ness it­self, even though there are just as many names for it (ex­cite­ment, sat­is­fac­tion, con­tent­ment, love, en­joy­ment, buoy­ancy). “It helps to con­sider the var­i­ous flavours that hap­pi­ness comes in and fo­cus on what pro­duces each in one­self,” he says. “One of our big­gest prob­lems is that our ideas of hap­pi­ness have sim­ply be­come less ac­cu­rate and less hap­pi­ness in­duc­ing.”


Are you happy and you (don’t) know it? It’s pos­si­ble, says Dr. Pater­son. Just be­cause we’re not happy ev­ery minute doesn’t mean we’re not ac­tu­ally happy. “We be­lieve that we should feel happy all the time and that feel­ing un­com­fort­able emo­tions is ab­nor­mal and says some­thing about our own fault­i­ness,” he says. “But hu­mans are sim­ply not de­signed for 24-hour hap­pi­ness.”

We also tend to fo­cus too much on the end goal. “We em­pha­size our mood rather than what we want to ac­com­plish or con­trib­ute in life,” Dr. Pater­son says. “Hap­pi­ness is most of­ten the re­sult of do­ing some­thing. By fo­cus­ing di­rectly on its production, we miss out on the ac­tual path.”

San­tos believes our big­gest mis­con­cep­tion about hap­pi­ness is the idea that we have to change our life cir­cum­stances — our salary or the stuff we have or some­thing else about our lives — to be hap­pier. “In­stead, re­search sug­gests that we can be­come hap­pier with­out chang­ing any of our cir­cum­stances but rather through our in­ten­tional prac­tices,” she says.

Dr. Pater­son agrees. “Our cul­ture is mo­ti­vated to give us in­ac­cu­rate maps to hap­pi­ness in the pur­suit of profit: ‘If you buy this car, you’ll be happy.’ The re­search is pretty clear that there are few con­sumer goods that re­sult in a last­ing in­cre­ment in hap­pi­ness.” Same goes for “suc­cess” in gen­eral, he adds, where many peo­ple be­lieve they can’t be happy with­out a cer­tain in­come, bank bal­ance, cor­ner of­fice or po­si­tion. “Clin­i­cians like me of­ten see peo­ple who have achieved all of these goals, and hap­pi­ness is most def­i­nitely not in the ben­e­fits pack­age.”

Over­all, we’re just wast­ing too much of our time and en­ergy wor­ry­ing about how to be hap­pier. “Vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing we do, ev­ery de­ci­sion we make, is de­signed at some level to ma­nip­u­late our mood in the fu­ture,” Dr. Pater­son says. “But still, most of us re­main un­sat­is­fied with our level of hap­pi­ness.” Part of the prob­lem, he says, is that our so­ci­ety pushes non­sen­si­cal, even de­struc­tive, ideas in the guise of try­ing to help us. “En­thu­si­asts over­state the case

(‘we now know how to be happy; you can be happy all the time’), and oth­ers at­tempt to mon­e­tize the topic (‘buy my work­shop!’). All of this tends not to be use­ful and typ­i­cally leads in the wrong di­rec­tion or makes peo­ple feel worse.”


From get­ting fit to find­ing hap­pi­ness, we inevitably over­think both prob­lem and so­lu­tion and are eas­ily lured by the idea of the quick fix.

“Once we start think­ing about it, our minds au­to­mat­i­cally fo­cus on lim­i­ta­tions, mis­takes and neg­a­tive in­ter­ac­tions with oth­ers,” says Gor­don Flett, Canada Re­search Chair in Per­son­al­ity and Health and a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at York Univer­sity in Toronto. “‘Why aren’t I happy?’ is where our think­ing goes. Peo­ple sim­ply be­come ex­hausted — cog­ni­tively, emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally.”

“At a time when the big­gest health buzz­word is ‘mind­ful­ness’ , there’s a lot to be said for ‘mind­less­ness,’ Dr. Flett ar­gues. “Hap­pi­ness has to nat­u­rally come out of daily ex­pe­ri­ences and events,” he says. “Some­times it is bet­ter to be mind­less and not think too much to be hap­pier.” For Dr. Flett, hap­pi­ness is a day that’s filled with positive ef­fects, and hav­ing the abil­ity to bounce back af­ter a bad day. “Happy peo­ple are those who can fol­low a bad day with a good day,” he says. “They’re typ­i­cally peo­ple who find a way to main­tain positive moods and find ways to have some level of con­tent­ment.”

As for the quick fix, sadly (truly no pun in­tended) there’s no such thing. Dr. Bur­nett is par­tic­u­larly piqued by those five-bil­lion-plus search re­sults and the im­pos­si­ble prom­ises they of­fer. Among the page-one re­sults: Psy­chol­ogy To­day of­fers “23 Ways to Be Hap­pier”; Huff­in­g­ton Post of­fers 45 (bet­ter yet, they’re “45 Ways to Be Happy In­stantly”); and Real Sim­ple gives us a seem­ingly more rea­son­able 10. Un­for­tu­nately, the truth is nei­ther in­stant nor sim­ple.

“I’m not very tol­er­ant of all those ‘Five tips for be­ing happy,’” Dr. Bur­nett says. “It’s such a sub­jec­tive thing that de­pends on your brain’s neu­ral

path­ways, on your cul­ture, on how you were brought up, on the things that you’re geared to­ward. And a lot of peo­ple are un­happy for good rea­son, for things that are be­yond their con­trol.”

Dr. Pater­son says that rather than try­ing to “cheer­lead” peo­ple about how they can feel bet­ter, he has in­vited de­pressed peo­ple in the past to con­sider what they would do if they wanted to feel worse. “This they could do with gusto and in the process re­al­ized that they were al­ready do­ing many of these things,” he says. “We usu­ally say that mood pro­ceeds from our cir­cum­stances, our be­hav­iour and our thoughts, and if these are neg­a­tive, then our mood will be too. But causal­ity also goes the other way. When we feel low, our mo­ti­va­tion is to do pre­cisely what will make it worse in the long run (stay in bed, eat junk food, not ex­er­cise, with­draw, think of all the neg­a­tives in our lives).”

To find fu­ture hap­pi­ness, Dr. Pater­son rec­om­mends look­ing at our past ex­pe­ri­ences (What has proved ful­fill­ing? What ex­pe­ri­ences would we be re­luc­tant to have for­gone?) but also be­ing open to nov­elty rather than just re­peat­ing past ex­pe­ri­ences. “We don’t know if we’ll like ice skat­ing, a new restau­rant, a yoga re­treat, or vis­it­ing Maine, so it’s tempt­ing to just do re­peats of the past,” he says. “But our lives ex­pand when we go be­yond our zone of com­fort and fa­mil­iar­ity, not when we stay within it.”

On the whole, Dr. Pater­son says he con­sid­ers him­self to be happy. “Yes, I have sick friends, frus­trat­ing things hap­pen to IT sys­tems at the clinic, it rains more than I would like in Van­cou­ver and there is of­ten more on my plate than I can han­dle, but these are as­pects of a nor­mal life,” he says. He uses the strate­gies he rec­om­mends to clients: con­sciously re­mind­ing him­self of pos­i­tives, hav­ing a few things planned in the fu­ture to look for­ward to with­out en­tirely liv­ing for them, prac­tis­ing grat­i­tude, mak­ing de­ci­sions based on knowl­edge of how things have worked in the past rather than on lazy im­pulses like switching on a tele­vi­sion.

“More im­por­tantly, I take to heart the idea that hap­pi­ness is of­ten an out­come of some­thing else, so I need to fo­cus on the ‘some­thing else,’” says

Dr. Pater­son. “What do I want to con­trib­ute? How can I spend my time in a way that helps achieve that? If I fo­cus not on hap­pi­ness but on liv­ing my life in a way that is mean­ing­ful to me, I don’t have to worry much about hap­pi­ness — it ar­rives more or less on its own.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.