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Happiness: A Conversation With the Emotion Machine

Posted Feb 22 2010 8:06am

Clinical Psychologists have recently received criticism, not unfairly, for their hyperfocus on pathology. In other words, we are trained to direct our energy mainly (sometimes almost solely) on what is ‘wrong.’ Hence the push for the movement of Positive Psychology. Therapists and practitioners need to help patients identify not just what is wrong with their lives, but also what is right. What is working for them? What are their strengths and potential? This mind set can help clients to see their lives in a broader, more balanced perspective.

A large number of people who read this site are college-aged people. I get my share of emails asking about happiness. How do I become happier? What’s the key to having a better life? You were so amazing on television, Rob, when can I see you again? And the like.

Many of my posts are about happiness in a broad sense, but today I thought I’d bring on another voice, one not of a colleague (honestly, do you really want to hear Dr. Pete’s thoughts on happiness?), but of a younger, well-informed and, most importantly, self-reflective man. His name is Steven Handel, author of the TheEmotionMachine.Com. I’m very impressed with this young man’s approach to life. He reminds me of my writing colleague Ryan Holiday in that they both appear to be well ahead of the curve in terms of insight and wisdom.

Dr. Rob: You’ve written multiple articles on happiness and how to obtain it. Part of the problem I’ve seen with research on happiness is that not only is it difficult to measure, it’s even difficult to define. Therefore we tend to see boatloads of theories and hypotheses about what makes people happy and how they can achieve happiness. What do you see as the best explanations out there regarding the phenomenon of happiness.

Steven H: Well, modern psychology follows a bio-psycho-social model for determining the origins of mental activity. I tend to agree…our genes and environment can play a big role in our happiness. But, the most inspiring view of happiness that I have come across is the one proposed by Buddha and many similar philosophers of the East. And that goes like this: the origins of your suffering are completely psychological, and if anyone can learn how to change the way they feel, think, and view the world – they will find happiness. To me happiness is a lens to look out at the world from, not an outcome.

Dr. Rob: I agree. I think certain people have purely organic/biological
difficulties that prevent such shifts in cognition, but most are capable of generating that lens you speak of. That’s the premise of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, and its track record suggests it’s a viable model.

Some research has suggested that happiness as a function of age looks like an upside-down “U” shape; that is, people tend to be very happy at younger ages with a decrease around age 40, then a positive climb into old age. This would suggest that you are a pretty happy guy and I’m about to step in front of a train carrying dynamite and cyanide. However, minus a few bouts of moodiness (nothing that the light box can’t handle), I see myself as a reasonably happy person. I’ve written before that older people tend to be happier because they are wiser. Do you see these phenomena (happiness and wisdom) as causal or could it be argued they are essentially the same thing?

Steven H: Yes, I definitely believe that wisdom contributes to happiness. It goes back to what I said about how you view your world, and older people have a much more mature and developed perspective. But there are also those old people who are always stuck, arrogant and pissed off. I’m reminded of the typical old guy sitting on his lawn all day, yelling his brains out at any kid who comes within 6 feet of his precious green grass. So years of unhappiness can also condition you towards more and more unhappiness.

Dr. Rob: This is exactly why I live in the concrete jungle.

Steven H: In some ways kids have the very best shot at being happy. You don’t need to learn anything to be happy, and that is part of the wisdom of it. If anything you need to unlearn all your stresses, anxieties, worries, fears, and feelings of hate before you can make room for happiness. You have to empty your mind to the moment. Kids are great at doing that. But then we send them to schools and insist they cram all this information in their heads. Nothing wrong with education, but we put some very unproductive ideas in those little skulls. There are a lot of things to reprimand our current educational system for….

Dr. Rob: I’ve always been a huge advocate of bringing the Cognitive-Behavioral philosophy into the school system. Not as a treatment model per se, but as a way of life. When people really come to understand that it’s not what happens to them, but rather how they view what happens to them that dictates their emotions, the results can be profound and positive.

On your site, you’ve shared your experiences with mood difficulties. Many of the readers of this site are college-aged people like yourself. What advice would you give to them regarding their ability to achieve happiness?

Steven H: Even the feelings of happiness and pleasure are transient. Emotional maturity is recognizing the impermanence of all mental states. No matter how down, depressed, and lonely you may become…no matter how stuck you may feel…it won’t last. The same is true for all states. Acknowledge this and you can live in the moment better. I even recommend people dive into their depression – really observe it – and you will see that it is always changing. Sometimes the more aware you are the quicker it purges itself. So my advice boils down to one piece of advice when dealing with mood: practice watching impermanence. Things are always changing, always evolving and your depression, sadness, frustration, anger, fear, hate, is all part of that process. Don’t latch onto any of them – let them evolve with you. In many ways, when we are aware, these states change us for the better. So even chronic depression can be seen as a kind of blessing – a seed for new beginnings.

Dr. Rob: Many patients hate hearing this because they want the quick-fix, and I certainly appreciate that, but awareness and observation will always serve you better over the long haul. I had a supervisor in graduate school who said to me that being healthy isn’t about being symptom-free. It’s about stepping back and observing your own psychology. If we can’t do that then we are, essentially, acting solely on subconscious or even unconscious impulses. That’s not freedom, that’s being controlled by what we could observe and modify.

Steven, thanks for coming on. Do yourself a favor and check out his site. He has some great ideas about psychology, happiness, depression and self-awareness. And if you are interested in Steven’s thoughts about impermanence, I would recommend reading the very short but useful book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Tich Nat Hahn. It’s a great read.

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