- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 13, 2007

Is happiness all in your head? No. But we may be able to influence our own happiness more than we, well, think.

I first came across the academic study of “happiness research” when reading “The Progress Paradox,” a book by Gregg Easterbrook. The paradox, he writes, is that in the West we have ease of life, health, prosperity and leisure time unimaginable to previous generations. Yet our depression rate had gone up tenfold since the 1950s.

Yes, a good deal of this is due to better reporting, better recognition and less social stigma surrounding depression. But most experts believe there has been a significant rise in actual cases of depression during the last 50 years.

What’s going on? Mr. Easterbrook looked at the work of Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has pioneered the new interest in happiness research, in his 2003 book. He says Mr. Seligman believes that reasons for our rising depression rates include our country’s rampant individualism (if our setbacks become all about us, they take on huge significance), an overemphasis on self-esteem (there must be something wrong with me if I’m not happy at this moment), the teaching of “victimology and helplessness,” and runaway consumerism.

Well, Mr. Seligman and colleagues were back in the New York Times magazine in a spread titled “Happiness 101,” by D.T. Max, writing about the increased interest in positive psychology — particularly in colleges.

Mr. Max describes research into the “hedonic treadmill,” the situation in which feeling good only creates a hunger for more pleasure, whereas doing good, presumably then being “other” focused, is what can lead to lasting satisfaction. He recounts a class on positive psychology taught at George Mason University in Virginia. The students were first asked to do something they themselves found pleasurable. Then they were asked to do “good.” They gave blood, collected clothes for a woman’s shelter and so on, and generally reported more long-term satisfaction with the latter actions. The professor went on to focus on gratitude and forgiveness, close relationships and love.

Such courses are replicated around the country. “Positive psychology brings the same attention to positive emotions (happiness, pleasure, well-being) that clinical psychology always has paid to negative ones (depression, anger, resentment),” wrote Mr. Max.

Can such an emphasis lead to more personal happiness? Certainly common sense, as well as the early research, seems to say “yes.” Neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwartz shows in his 2002 book, “The Mind and the Brain,” that while it’s long been known that what we do can physically affect our brains, new research actually shows what we choose to think about can affect the physical wiring of our brains, too.

So, for instance, Mr. Schwartz found people who only thought about carefully playing a piece of music on the piano over time had the exact same physical changes in their brains, as measured by CT scans, as people who physically practiced the same piano piece over time. Mr. Schwartz determined with similar studies that we can sometimes choose to think differently about things, change the physical wiring of our brain and, in doing so create, a kind of “upward spiral” for ourselves.

None of this is to minimize the seriousness of depression, by the way, or to suggest there aren’t real physical causes of it that often need to be addressed. But it does seem our creative human fullness may be more at play in determining our own happiness than we thought.

As the article in the Times suggested, the growing study of human happiness suggests it is appropriate for us to deliberately focus our thoughts on what broadens us, elevates us and connects us to others. And the result may be that focus helps bring us the greatest satisfaction and happiness.

But, is this really news? Almost 2000 years ago the Apostle Paul wrote, as he instructed Christians to be joyful in all things, “Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy — meditate on these things.” (Philippians 4:8.)

No wonder. Scripture also tells us there is nothing new under the sun.

Betsy Hart is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of “It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting Our Kids — and What to Do About It.”

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