Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

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How to Be Happy: A Handbook

I'm not generally that big a fan of psychology - especially not pop psychology, but to some extent probably even psychology in general, because I tend to prefer to look at things from a more sociological perspective. However, not only does this particular piece of psychology make good logical sense to me, but even if doesn't turn out to make you happier, it's still likely to make other people happier, and I can't see any harm in passing it on.
"[Martin] Seligman is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and a former president of the American Psychological Association. . . . Seligman has collected more than a hundred interventions, things people can do that someone claims will make them happier. He expects 90 percent of them have no effect, but he is testing them, one at a time, to find out what works, with the same random assignment placebo control procedures that are used in other scientific tests.

At the Web site you can register to try out a number of questionnaires gauging happiness and depression, he says, and then sign up for an intervention. 'We're going to randomly assign you to an intervention. You won't know if it's a placebo or not. And then you will carry out this intervention, and you will journal it, and then we will follow you for the next year.'

He won't disclose what the placebo intervention is, but he is eager to have people try one exercise, that, to his surprise, does work. It's called a 'gratitude visit.'

First, 'think of someone in your life who made an enormous positive difference, who's still alive, whom you never properly thanked.'

Next, write a brief testimonial to that person, about 300 words, 'telling the story of what they did, how it made a difference, and where you are now as a result.' Then ask that person if you can come by for a visit _ and if he or she asks why, say, 'It's a surprise.'

When you arrive, read the testimonial - everybody cries, Seligman says - and he discovered that people who have made a gratitude visit say they are happier and less depressed when they are tested, up to a year later, compared with people who were assigned the placebo intervention."

     from "Worrying About Being Happy"
I'd like to add that if you're not up for being quite that dramatic in expressing gratitude, doing nice things for nice people in other ways also tends to make people feel better about themselves. You wouldn't think this would be difficult to figure out, but in our culture I think there's a strangely prominent idea that happiness works like money and you can't ever give any to other people without losing it yourself. I don't mean that you should just devote all your energy to giving everybody everything they want, either - you have to actually be taking the initiative and choosing to do nice things for people because you decided on your own that they deserve it, instead of just giving in to pressure from people who decided on their own that they deserve for you to do things for them, in order for the things you do for people to be likely to increase your happiness instead of decreasing it.

Of course, this shouldn't be misinterpreted as meaning that if you're more unhappy than someone else, that means you're less nice. Depression is strongly associated with having less money, and other factors could also be involved. But doing more nice things for people might still help a bit.

Anyway, the end of that article was interesting too:
"For the first 30 years of his career, Seligman said, he worked on misery, especially on a phenomenon called 'learned helplessness.' Whatever the experiment, about a third of the subjects never learned to be helpless, 'and about a tenth of them were helpless to begin with and we didn't have to do anything.'

The people who gave up immediately thought that bad events they couldn't prevent were permanent, uncontrollable, pervasive and their own fault, while naturally optimistic people thought they were temporary, controllable, local and not their fault. Optimists do better in life by many measures (as well as enjoying it more) and there are interventions that help people learn how to be optimists if it doesn't come naturally to them."
I would like to delete the word "naturally" from "naturally optimistic" in view of the final sentence pointing out that optimism can be learned. Anyway, I know plenty of people who could benefit from some additional happiness and optimism, and I think his website is worth looking at.
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