Happiness, Mental Wellness and Positive Psychology

Patient Expert

Over the last four or five weeks, we have been exploring the topic of happiness. It is fair to say that the guru on the topic is Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania. In his 1998 Presidential address to the American Psychological Society, Dr Seligman challenged his colleagues to focus on the things that go right in human nature rather than what goes wrong.

Dr Seligman came of age in an era when Freud ruled the roost and BF Skinner and his behavioralism were au courant. According to Dr Seligman, both Freud and Skinner took an overly determinist approach to human behavior. In the Gospel of Freud (as Seligman sees it), our present and futures are governed by our past. We are literally prisoners of our earlier traumas and buried memories. Thinking barely enters into it.

Similarly, according to Skinner, our behaviors are conditioned by our environment. We essentially react rather than act. Thinking barely enters into it.

Freud and Skinner were responding to the fallacy that we are rational beings governed by rational thinking. A simple look at the world around us offers ample evidence that the two have a point, but, obviously they went too far.

Dr Seligman was heavily influenced by Aaron Beck, founder of cognitive therapy, based on the simple proposition that - by reframing issues to reflect reality rather than imagined catastrophe - we could indeed think our way to wellness. But how do you define "well?" Ah, there's the rub. As Dr Seligman told his colleagues in 1998, psychology and psychiatry are so preoccupied with the negatives that they have basically lost sight of their real mission.

Here's the deal: You are depressed. You seek meds or therapies to "undepress" you. Then what? Mainstream psychiatry and psychology are content to leave us in a state of "undepression," then fend for ourselves.

Dr Seligman is the founder of "positive psychology," which focuses on mental wellness rather than mental illness. Over the years, with his colleagues, Dr Seligman has established a scientific basis for what goes right rather than wrong. Yes, we may be smart about avoiding what can go wrong, but it also makes sense to plan our lives to optimize what can go right. The discipline is now taught as a graduate course at UPenn.

In 2002, Dr Seligman published the best-seller, "Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment." A few weeks ago, I finally got around to reading it. From the first page, I realized it was going to take me a long time to get through the book, notwithstanding its easy readability. Every paragraph is loaded with nuggets of insight, which means no quick skimming.

I will be referring to Dr Seligman quite a bit in shareposts to come - whether writing about happiness or not. In the meantime, let's close (for now) with this intriguing proposition:

In his book, Dr Seligman cites data that indicates that the incidence of depression in the US has increased ten-fold since 1960 (as well as striking at a much earlier age), in sharp contrast to every objective indicator of well-being (such as purchasing power) greatly improving over the same period. Dr Seligman suggests that part of the cause may be that our society is good at building shortcuts to pleasure.

Pleasure (which is fleeting), maintains Dr Seligman, is not the same as gratification (which is long-lasting). Typically, gratification involves effort. Thus, we prefer settling back in the warmth of our homes with the TV clicker to venturing outside in the cold. But the exhausted mountain-climber freezing on an exposed ridge doesn't want to be anywhere else.

What we tend to overlook is that two seconds after turning off the TV, we forget just about everything we've viewed, ready to drag our comatose selves to bed for yet another unsatisfactory conclusion to yet another day. Meanwhile, that frozen mountain climber's sense of exhilaration is going to stick around for a long long time.

True gratification involves effort, such as cooking a meal from scratch (preferably for the enjoyment of others, as well) rather than popping something in the microwave. Yes, shortcuts are useful, but our near-exclusive reliance on having our pleasures spoon-fed to us, Dr Seligman maintains, is what is making us unhappy and depressed.

Of course, once we're caught in a depression, the last thing we want to do is cook a meal from scratch. Even popping something in the microwave may be too much effort. So maybe - if you are in this situation right now - it's best to go the traditional meds-therapy route to "undepression."

But opting to stay in "undepression," if I read Dr Seligman correctly, sets the scene for yet more depression. At any rate, "undepression" is only slightly better than being "undead." We need to feel alive, and that isn't about to happen by journeying through life along the path of least resistance.

In this context, my earlier sharepost about putting in the effort makes a lot more sense. The piece describes the horrors of long-distance travel, only to experience the unbounded gratification of holding my grandson in my arms for the first time.

In a similar fashion, my piece on Gretchen Rubin's "The Happiness Project," also comes in way more loud and clear. Gretchen's book places a lot of emphasis on making resolutions and following through. The catch is we are creatures of habit. But the point of both Rubin and Seligman is that we actually feel better when we put in the effort. And how does that make us feel?

Well, happy?
More to come ...