In our daily lives, we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but the gratefulness that makes us happy. Albert Clarke

Gratitude for what we have and the people who have made a difference in our lives has been shown to raise satisfaction with life. There are many ways that gratitude leads to increased happiness. One is that it limits the effects of social comparison. Looking at those who have it better then we do is a great source of dissatisfaction. Realizing what we have in our lives decreases this sense of deprivation. By paying attention to the good in our lives we can relive positive feelings, which can help counter negative feelings. Remembering those who have helped us builds our sense of connection and puts us in touch with the kindness of others. Taking the time to appreciate what we have and those who have been there for us prevents us from taking things for granted. Focusing on what we appreciate and value in our own lives helps us see our lives as half full rather then half empty.

There have been a number of studies on the effects gratitude can have on our lives. In one study, Martin Seligman Ph.D., author of numerous articles and books including Authentic Happiness and most recently Flourishing, gave people an assignment to write a gratitude letter. He then had his subjects present this letter to the person they wrote it to. What Dr. Seligman found was that the people who carried out this assignment showed an improvement of their mood even a month later. This is a very powerful effect for a one time activity. The New York Times Magazine chose Dr. Seligman's gratitude letter exercise as one of the Top 100 Ideas of 2003.

I have the pleasure of teaching a Positive Psychology class to doctoral students in the Antioch New England Clinical Psychology department. Every year I have my students write a gratitude letter. I'd like to share a message I received from one student of mine who did this exercise by writing a letter thanking an Uncle who had been important in his life.

I .. wanted to thank you for the inclusion of the gratitude letter. I chose to mail mine because I was worried about the recipient dying before I got to say it to him. Unfortunately, I was right and he died on December 3. When I went to the funeral, my cousins explained that he had them read it over and over to him. It was one of the last things that he heard in this world. Words cannot explain how much this has meant to me. Thank you.

Is there someone who has made a difference in your life, who you have not had the chance to thank yet? Here is your chance. Below are the instructions for the gratitude letter exercise. If you do this and want to share your experience, let me know.

Think of someone who has been kind to you and to whom you have not expressed your gratitude. Write a letter saying specifically why you appreciated them and how it has effected you. Arrange a meeting without telling them about the letter. Read them the letter and give them a copy.

Until next time,

Taking Control of Our Destiny

The awareness that health is dependent upon habits that we control makes us the first generation in history that to a large extent determines its own destiny.” This was written by Jimmy Carter in his 1987 book, Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life.

George Vaillant MD in his book, Aging Well, examines the lives of over 800 adults from early adulthood to old age. He looked at those who were doing well later in life, who he calls the “”Happy-Well,” and compared them to those who were having more problems later in life- the “Sad-Sick.” He found that avoiding cigarette smoking and getting regular exercise were the best predictors of good physical health later in life. The best predictor of good mental health later in life was not drinking alcohol in excess. If we add to this the health effects of obesity, we have a recipe for a healthier and happier life. All we have to do is avoid cigarettes, not drink in excess, exercise, watch what we eat, and we will greatly increase our chances of being one of the “the Happy-Well.”

Sounds simple, but then why is it so hard to do? The main reason is that we tend to justify our decisions, even our bad decisions. Psychology explains this tendency using the idea of Cognitive Dissonance. The classic example of this is the old Aesop fable The Fox and the Grapes. In this story the fox sees some grapes hanging from a vine, but no matter how much he jumps he can't reach them. He gives up and tells himself that the grapes were probably sour. By telling himself this he justifies his decision not to continue trying to get the grapes. We do the same thing when faced with having to make a difficult choice, like quitting cigarettes, getting into an exercise routine or eating a healthier diet. We might make an effort to do one of these things but then encounter the reality that changing our habits is hard! Like the fox, we might then give up, and then look for reasons to justify giving up.

What are our “sour grapes?”

The following are some of the ways of thinking we use that get in the way of our making better choices:
  • Denial: We tell ourselves that there is no problem. We avoid looking at the evidence that we need to make some changes. Mad magazine's Alfred E. Newman famous saying, “What me worry?” captures this approach.
  • Minimization: We see we might have a problem, but tell ourselves that the problem is “no big deal.”
  • Rationalization: We give ourselves excuses not to change, “Everyone is going to die anyway,” or “I am too busy to make the effort to change now.”
  • Externalization: We deny personal responsibility, we see ourselves as victims of external forces. “The advertising industry keeps pushing these bad foods on us,” or “I would be out of place if I didn't have a drink.”
  • Internalization: We tell ourselves that we can't make a change, “I don't have any will power.”
All of these lead to the same result- we continue to put our futures at risk by not changing harmful habits.

How we can regain control

To make positive changes in our lives that can have long lasting effects on our health and happiness we need to recognize and combat the rationalizations and excuses we give ourselves to avoid doing what we know is right.

  • Denial: We need to allow ourselves to look at the facts, look at the potential risks of maintaining unhealthy behaviors. There a many feelings that support denial, such as the worry that if we face a problem we will have to face the shame of having that problem or the fear we will not be able to do anything about it. It may be helpful to recognize that change takes time and the first step is learning about the problem, and not put pressure on ourselves to change immediately.
  • Minimizing: Similar to denial we need to open ourselves up to information, to learn about both the risks of having unhealthier habits, and also the benefits of changing those habits.
  • Rationalization: We need to develop arguments to counter these rationalizations. For example, “Yes it is true we are all going to die of something, but why speed the process up or make the last years of our lives less enjoyable?” Or, “Yes there is a lot going on in our lives and it is hard to find the time to do something new, but don't we usually find time for the things that are really important to us, maybe we need to look at our priorities.” If we are having trouble coming up with counter arguments we think about what we would say to a friend who presented the same rational we are using, or ask other people how they would respond to our rationalizations.
  • Externalization: There are many powerful influences on our behavior, both on a large scale and in our immediate lives, but in the end it is our life and we need to take responsibility for it.
  • Internalization: Just because we don't have the will power now doesn't mean we cannot develop it. There are a number of things that we can do to improve our will power, for example: building our commitment to change by looking at the benefits, having a good plan for how we are going to make positive changes, increasing social support, and many others that I will be looking at in future blogs.
We do not have to be slaves to our bad habits. By recognizing and challenging the thinking that holds us back from making positive changes in our lives, we can as Jimmy Carter said, take control of our destiny!

Until next time,

Pleasure the Spice and Bane of Life, and What Goldilocks Teaches Us

Pleasure, the Spice of Life
When we think of happiness we often associate it with pleasure. Pleasure is the spice of life.  We are all drawn to pleasurable activities. One way of defining something as pleasurable is that you would want more of it. Pleasures comes in may different forms. There are the raw sensual pleasures associated to taste, touch, or smell. We all enjoy tasty foods; we are turned on by gentle physical touch or sexual stimulation; we are drawn to the smell of a flower or freshly baked bread. Other pleasures are less physical, like the enjoyment of a beautiful sunset, hearing great music, or remembering a special moment with a loved one. Life without pleasure would be dull.

The problem with pleasure is that it is fleeting. Human beings are designed to adapt to their environment. If we live in a big city we learn to tune out the many background noises.  If we are traveling the same road all the time we stop paying close attention to the scenery and go on automatic pilot. Adapting is a good thing in many ways, as it allows us to free up attention to focus on other things. However, it also creates problems for us when it comes to pleasure because we adapt to that too. The tenth spoonful of ice cream is not going to be as sweet as the first one was. Buying the new car, the new flat screened TV, and the big house are nice- for awhile. But then we start taking them for granted and need to get something else to have the same experience again. This leads to something called the hedonic treadmill: having to do more of something to continue to get pleasure.

The Dark Side of Pleasure
The dark side of pleasure is addiction. Because we tend to adapt to pleasures, to continue getting pleasure from an activity we need more and more of it, or more intense versions. People who are addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, overeating, shopping, etc, all started out getting pleasure from their activities. Over time, to counter the effects of adaptation, they had to do more and more to get the same level of pleasure. David J. Linden in his book, The Compass of Pleasure, describes that with addictions things get to the point where the person's capacity to experience pleasure gets worn out, they are less capable of experiencing simple pleasures, and need increasing amounts of whatever they are addicted to to feel any pleasure at all. This leads to needing to do more and more but getting less and less from it. Eventually the addicted person needs their addiction just to feel normal, and this only lasts as long as they are using.

I believe that few of us would want to experience only pleasure all the time. Many of the things we value require postponing immediate pleasure to achieve a later reward. If we only sought pleasure our lives would eventually become devoid off all activities we normally see as meaningful. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 are two novels that explore a world focused on pleasure and I believe few of us would want to end up in the societies these stories describe. A life of only pleasure would probably be pretty dull too.

What Would Goldilocks Do?
In the classic fairy tale, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Goldilocks ventures out and come upon the home of the three bears. She goes inside and sees three bowls of porridge on the table. She tries each one and discovers that one is too hot, another is too cold, but the third is just right, and she enjoys that one. She goes on and practices the same approach to deciding on a chair to sit in and a bed to sleep in. What does this teach us? First of all, venture out! Do different things. Having variety in our lives counters the tendency to adapt to our pleasures. Second, we need to pay attention, notice what we are doing. Goldilocks was mindful of what she did, she took the time to taste the different bowls of porridge. We need to slow down and pay attention. Our lives are filled with potentially pleasurable experiences if we just stop to notice them. Lastly we need to seek some moderation in our pleasures. We don't want to eliminate pleasure but we also don't want to over-do it either. We need to look for what is “just right” for us.

Future Directions
Martin Seligman Ph.D., one of the leading researchers and champions of Positive Psychology, in his book Authentic Happiness talks about how we can expand what he calls the Pleasant Life. He suggests that we can learn how to take the sting out of the past through forgiveness, increase our enjoyment of the present through mindfulness and gratitude, and improve our perspective of the future through cultivating optimism. So stay tuned, I will be covering these approaches and much more in future blogs.

So enjoy, until next time,

How Can I Get Myself To Live Healthier?

There is a growing awareness that lifestyle choices are leading to serious health problems. We have long known the risks associated to smoking and drinking in excess. More recently the news has been full of stories about the epidemic of obesity in America and the burden this is putting on the healthcare system, let alone the personal toll this problem takes on the individual.

Many of us have been given news by our doctors that we need to make some lifestyle changes to ensure continued good health. These changes can include:

· Losing weight
· Exercising more
· Stopping smoking
· Reducing stress in our lives
· Reducing drinking

All of these are great suggestions and could improve our health. The problem is that making these changes is hard. Because of this we might just ignore the warnings or we might try to change, for example, start a diet, sign up for the gym, throw away our cigarettes, and then end up abandoning our efforts after a short while.

Prochaska, Norcross and DiClemente, in their book, Changing For Good, cite research that only 20% of the people needing to make healthy life style changes are ready to make these changes. This is the problem. We often know what we need to do but we cannot get ourselves to do it!

Why might this be? Prochaska, Norcross and DiClemente's research suggests there are a number of stages we typically need to go through before we can successfully make a change. As cited in the above examples, after encountering an experience that makes us aware of our problem, eg our pants aren't fitting, we are out of breath after a short flight of stairs, we read another study showing that our habits are going to kill us, we then jump into action but without doing the important work that would make our action sustainable. Prochaska, Norcross and DiClemente say people who make successful lifestyle changes usually go through the following stages:
  • Precontemplation: We either don't see the problem or are ignoring it.
  • Contemplation: We see the problem but are conflicted about changing. For example, we know we need to change our diet but are not ready to give up the freedom to eat what we want.
  • Preparation: We are ready to do something and are making a plan for how we are going to do it.
  • Action: We are implementing our plan.
  • Maintenance: We are continuing our change efforts.
Efforts to make positive lifestyle changes are going to be more successful if we do each stage. Prochaska, Norcross and DiClemente suggest we are more likely to be successful if we start by identifying the stage we are currently in and then do the work necessary to move to the next stage. So when we have broken out of Precontemplation and realize there is a problem we need to change, we shouldn't move immediately to Action, but must first work through our ambivalence about changing in Contemplation. Then after convincing ourselves of the importance of change we need to make a plan for how we are going to change in Preparation, and only after that do we start taking Action. Finally, after we take action we need to prepare to continue our action over time in Maintenance.

How do we know what stage we are in? Below is quick way to identify which stage we may currently are in:
  • Precontemplation: Others are talking about changes we need to make but we never bring these issues up or we get defensive when others do.
  • Contemplation: We know we need to make a change but don't see ourselves doing it in the next six months.
  • Preparation: We see ourselves making the change in the next month.
  • Action: We are actually doing a plan we have made to make changes.
  • Maintenance: We have been doing our plan for awhile.
There are many things we can do in each of these stages to successfully move through them, and I will be covering those in future blogs. Prochaska, Norcross and DiClemente have shown that people often make a number of attempts to change before they suceed. So remember, just because you have not been able to make a lifestyle change does not mean it will never happen, you are just not ready...yet!

Until next time,

Why be happy?

This may seem like an odd question, after all who doesn't want to be happy, and the pursuit of happiness is even guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. However, happiness is often seen as superficial, "don't worry be happy," implies ignoring the serious problems of life. But what if being happy isn't just an escape from problems but actually an important factor in dealing with problems? Researchers who have studied happiness are showing that happiness doesn't just feel good, but is also important in making us better people.

Being unhappy is not necessarily bad for us. Fears and anxieties help us focus us on potential threats to our well being. Sadness alerts us to losses that threaten our security. Anger mobilizes us to deal with potential dangers. Unfortunately, too often we see threats where there aren't any, and magnify dangers in ways that cause us to overreact- think road rage. What's more, negative feelings tend to narrow our perspective and make us focus in on things that are wrong, promoting further negative feelings. Again, this isn't all bad, we need to prepare for and be able to handle threats and dangers. But life isn't only about avoiding problems. There is much more to life, and that's where happiness and positive feelings come in.

Positive feelings have many desirable benefits. They make us feel good and bring out best of us. Positive feelings promote taking on challenges, and make us better at learning from the challenges we face. Positive feelings point us to the things in life that are truly worthwhile. When we are feeling positive we want to connect more with other people and we can better handle our relationships. Having positive feelings makes us better citizens, we are more accepting of other people, we see purpose and meaning in our communities, and we are more likely to actively contribute to our society.

Barbara Fredrickson Ph.D., author of Positivity, states that positive emotions help us broaden and build our psychological resources. They are signs of flourishing, and they promote flourishing in the present and over time. Having positive feelings are not just a goal in themselves, but help us achieve psychological growth and well-being.

My goal for this blog is give information, based on scientific research, on the value of having good feelings, on what we know about being happier and more satisfied in life, and how this can enhance our health, our personal capacities, our relationships, our work and our community.

Until next time, be happy, it's good for you!