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One Woman's Opinion

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Positive Psychology

Urbanna, Va.— The holidays are almost upon us and the question for the day is . . . Are we happy? I don’t mean “busy,” because the hectic pace and stressful schedule that come about in the weeks before Christmas do not count as true happiness.

It is a good time to stop and think. Are we really happy?

by Mary Wakefield Buxton
There is a new college course available today titled “Positive Psychology,” a far cry from Psychology 101 that I took so many years ago. It teaches how to attain  happiness in life. Students are encouraged to form positive habits that lead to contentment at a young age in the hopes that such habits will remain in place for a lifetime.

What a good idea. I wonder why wait for college to teach it? A course that would benefit every American should be taught to everyone starting at elementary age and continuing all the way through school.

The basic tenet is exactly what we have heard over and over again in home and church: the road to happiness is getting our mind off ourselves and doing something good for others.

There are many other helpful suggestions as to how to lead a happy life: learn to count blessings rather than complain about things gone wrong, and think every day on good things that have happened and reasons to be grateful. In other words, “ruminate” on what is good in life and not what is bad.

Another suggestion is work or play every day in a special strength or gift in life. If you love to paint; paint. If you love to garden; go out and work in the garden. If you love to cook; spend the morning in the kitchen.

The key is to do each day what you are good at doing. If learning to play the piano is not fun, but you do it every day as a “stretch,” that’s fine. But this exercise will not count as a happiness-producing activity if it is still difficult to do.

Another idea from Positive Psychology is to spend some time each day thanking people for the good things they have done for you. An exercise asks students to go back and look up teachers from yesteryear, the ones that really made a difference, and thank them. Wow! Think of all the teachers that would make happy. Expressing gratitude is a basic ingredient of happiness.

Most important to happiness, however, is maintaining a positive attitude. Positive Psychology even suggests that staying positive is so important to happiness that even if one does not feel positive on any particular day, pretend to be positive. It can become an acquired habit and a positive attitude will eventually come about.

A famous University of Kentucky study of nuns born before 1917 and who wrote essays upon entering Notre Dame were later compared to their longevity. A startling finding was that 9 out of 10 of the women who wrote the most positive essays at 18 years of age were still alive at age 85. Of the women who wrote the most negative essays, however, only one third of the women were still alive. The research determined that positive people can live as much as 10 years longer than their negative counterparts.

A course assignment in college is to keep journals describing their feelings after two kinds of activities. The first activity is one that seeks pleasure, such as sex, eating, basking in Florida sunshine over spring break, drinking, or shopping trips. The other activity is one that helps others, such as giving blood, volunteering or tutoring students. Students were amazed to find (though their parents could have told them!) that hedonistic pleasures delivered only short-term happiness, whereas altruistic acts provided long-term satisfaction.

Other factors that contribute to happiness are continuing to learn and broaden views, developing a spiritual life, maintaining close and loving relationships, and keeping an active connectedness to society.
Other advice is to live your own life and not try to fit into another’s idea of a good life. As theologian Joseph Campbell advised, “Follow your dreams.” Another idea was to take responsibility, as much as possible, for yourself and hold onto independence as long as possible.

Eating a healthy diet and getting exercise every day are also important to well-being as is limiting the use of alcohol, especially now when there are more parties than usual, and other addictive substances. As Aristotle advised even before the birth of Christ, be moderate in all things.

But how can one be happy during dark times? What happens when a spouse or dear friend passes away or when illness robs us of peace of mind, or war, natural disaster or economic woes come about? This is a question that mankind has considered since the beginning.

My experience with grief suggests that life can be lived on separate planes. On the positive side, we can be cheerful as we go through each day, incorporating a manner of gratitude and optimism while, at the same time, still feel whatever sadness that we carry within. The challenge is not to let despair take over the brain. “Think cheerful thoughts when you feel blue,” a friend once advised. It will eventually become a habit.

It helps to turn off TV and stop dwelling on bad news. Never participate in gossip. There may be something to the old adage that “ignorance is bliss.” The less one obsesses on sad things, the better chance one has to be happy.

It is good fortune to live in America, which is a nation that values happiness. The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is even included in our Constitution.

Abraham Lincoln once said that people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. That may be true. But in my mind, we have the opportunity for holding the greatest promise for happiness right in our own lap.

Get a dog. Two dogs; ecstasy.


posted 12.18.2008

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