A lesson from ‘Dr. Happiness’Joseph R. Smiley prof to lecture on benefits of ‘subjective well-being’
Happy? Want to be happier? Ed Diener believes he can point the way to a happier you, and he will be in Grand Forks on Saturday to explain how.
By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald
Want to be happier?
Ed Diener believes he can point the way to a happier you, and he will be in Grand Forks on Saturday to explain how.
Diener, keynote speaker at this weekend’s Northern Lights Psychology Conference, is co-founder of what’s been called positive psychology. Considered by many to be the world’s foremost expert on the science of happiness and life satisfaction, he is the Joseph R. Smiley Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois.
That’s right. He holds the Smiley chair.
“I will be talking about the benefits of subjective well-being (happiness) for health, relationships and work,” Diener said in an e-mail, “and also some of the causes of subjective well-being, such as relationships and culture.”
His lecture, at 3 p.m. Saturday in the UND Memorial Union Lecture Bowl, is free and open to the public.
Aiming above zero
Martin Seligman, a former president of the American Psychological Association, pioneered the idea and study of positive psychology.
“I realized that my profession was half-baked,” he said in a 2005 Time magazine article. “It wasn’t enough for us to nullify disabling conditions and get to zero. We needed to ask, ‘What are the enabling conditions that make human beings flourish? How do we get from zero to plus five?’ ”
Mental health should mean more than the absence of mental illness, he said, and one colleague who seized on the idea was Diener, who has come to be known as Dr. Happiness. His research since has focused on examining what makes people satisfied with their lives.
What makes people happy? It isn’t having a lot of money or all the toys great wealth can buy, Diener says. His research “has shown that once your basic needs are met, additional income does little to raise your sense of satisfaction with life,” Time reported.
Neither education nor a high IQ guarantees happiness, he maintains, nor does youth. He cites results of an extensive survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people in their 60s and 70s tend to be more satisfied with their lives and “less prone to dark moods” than people in their 20s.
The effect of marriage on a person’s sense of well-being is harder to analyze, Diener says. “Married people are generally happier than singles, but that may be because they were happier to begin with.”
And while religious faith “seems to genuinely lift the spirit,” he says, “it’s tough to tell whether it’s the God part or the community aspect that does the heavy lifting.”
But there is no denying the happy influence of a good social life.
In a 2002 study that Diener participated in at the University of Illinois, students with the highest levels of happiness and fewest signs of depression shared one key characteristic: strong ties to friends and family.
“It is important to work on social skills, close interpersonal ties and social support in order to be happy,” Diener said.
But there’s more to the science of happiness than putting on a happy face and surrounding yourself with friends. Genetics, too, plays a role — and maybe a large one.
The 2005 Time report cited the work of David Lykken, a University of Minnesota researcher who studied 4,000 sets of twins born in Minnesota from 1936 to 1955.
“He concluded that about 50 percent of one’s satisfaction with life comes from genetics, influencing such things as having a sunny disposition, dealing well with stress and feeling low levels of anxiety and depression,” Time reported. “He found that such factors as income, marital status, religion and education contribute only about 8 percent to one’s overall well-being.” The rest he attributed to “life’s slings and arrows.”
The notion that one can nurture happiness has spawned a huge industry of self-help books, motivational speakers, “life coaches” and the ubiquitous yellow Smiley faces on car bumpers, billboards, Facebook messages and T-shirts.
You can make yourself happier, more satisfied with your life, Diener says, if you put real effort into getting more pleasure out of life, becoming more engaged in what you do and finding ways to make your life feel more meaningful.
Keep a record, a “gratitude journal,” of the things for which you are thankful. Perform acts of kindness: visit a nursing home, write to a grandparent, mow a neighbor’s lawn. Later research has shown, however, that such actions lose their effectiveness if they’re done routinely or out of a sense of duty.
Time noted that the field of psychology includes skeptics, such as Julie Norem, a professor at Wellesley College and author of “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking.” Newsweek magazine made the same point in a 2008 article headlined “Happiness: Enough Already.”
That report cited the findings of Jerome Wakefield, a professor at New York University and author of the 2007 book, “The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder,” and Eric Wilson, an English professor at Wake Forest University and author of “Against Happiness.”
Wilson, Newsweek reported, tried the happiness-boosting techniques for a time, then “embraced his melancholy side and decided to blast a happiness movement that ‘leads to half-lives, to bland existences.’ ”
An obsession with happiness fosters “a craven disregard for the value of sadness,” Wilson wrote. “The happy man is a hollow man” who fails to appreciate the fullness of the human condition.
Or, as Time’s Sharon Begley wrote, quoting Flaubert, “to be chronically happy one must also be stupid.”
Diener hardly disputes the value of occasional “melancholia” for jump-starting the heart, for feeding curiosity and creativity. When you’re in a negative mood, he says, “you become more analytical, more critical and more innovative,” and he has warned against pop culture’s tendency to distort or over-simplify the science and pursuit of happiness.
With such over-simplifications in mind, Begley wrote in her Newsweek piece that “the most damaging legacy of the happiness industry” may be “the message that all sadness is a disease.”
It’s appropriate to feel sad at times — at the loss of a friend, a spouse, a job — critics of the pop happiness movement argue. “We have attached a stigma to being sad,” Wakefield, the NYU professor, says in the Newsweek article, so that “depression tends to elicit hostility and rejection. … ‘Get over it; take a pill.’ ”
Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.