- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Has your family been hammered by layoffs? Does someone you love suffer from depression or a stress disorder? Is an emotional malady — anger, fear, despair — wreaking havoc in your world?

In other words, are you unhappy?

In a remarkable three-part series “This Emotional Life,” which continues Tuesday night, PBS tackles these issues and concludes with a timeless truth: We need each other.

The secret to happiness was “never very secret,” says narrator Daniel Gilbert, a social psychology professor at Harvard University and author of “Stumbling on Happiness.”

Social relationships matter, from cradle to grave, says Mr. Gilbert, who is known to students as “Professor Happiness.”

“We’re connected to each other. We belong to each other; we are made for each other,” he says.

The PBS series, which can be found at pbs.org/thisemotionallife, takes viewers through family scenarios that will be all too familiar to some:

• A teenage son, adopted as a toddler from an orphanage, still struggles to “attach” to his new family.

• A young man with Asperger’s syndrome faces the job market and adult life.

• A young woman drives friends away with her hair-trigger temper.

• A military veteran can’t get past the memory of a man dying in front of him.

• A high school graduate can’t face going to college because of a debilitating depression.

“This Emotional Life” looks at the latest research on these kinds of conditions and explores different treatment approaches, including ones that spark clinical disputes. It does so with compassion and optimism that is sorely missing in these days of recession, unemployment and political cynicism.

The teen with depression, for instance, finally decides to try electroconvulsive therapy after exhausting other remedies. Viewers with loved ones who fight depression will find her story interesting and hopeful.

With post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), viewers see one military veteran escape it, while another vet does not, at least not yet. To help families, PBS offers resources on PTSD and early-childhood attachment on its Web site.

I think the timing of this series is spot on.

Research on the brain is galloping ahead — neuroscientist Dr. Jay Giedd’s research shows how critical it is to have positive brain development in adolescence, while psychiatrist Dr. Norman Doidge explores neuroplasticity, which says people can affect and improve their own brain functions, even into old age. We are learning that human beings have a lot more brainpower than they realized, and that how we live, even from childhood, matters more than we ever knew.

Second, happiness is derived from our love relationships and experiences, not cars, furniture or bank accounts.

“Science has revealed three important facts about happiness,” Mr. Gilbert says. “You can’t be happy alone; you can’t be happy all the time; you can be happier than you are.”

One of the most powerful stories in the PBS series is that of Navy pilot and Vietnam War prisoner of war Robert Shumaker. Shot down, captured and tortured, Mr. Shumaker, now a retired rear admiral, spent eight years as a POW, three in isolation.

He survived by mentally designing the house he would build when he came home to his wife and baby. He also developed a “tapping code,” which allowed him and other POWs to communicate via the walls in their concrete, windowless cells.

“I could have thought ‘Why me, God? Why me?’ But I didn’t,” Mr. Shumaker wrote recently on the Huffington Post. “The worst thing I and my fellow POWs could have done under the circumstances would have been to clam up and withdraw,” he said. Instead, they “focused on supporting each other, trying to make life a bit more bearable, and dreaming.”

Mr. Shumaker made it home and built that house with his family. If life has you down, turn to stories like this and remember that, one way or another, we are all in this together.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.