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3/11/09

You Can Improve Your Life (And That's Not A Platitude)

Back when I was in college, back in the days of the Cold War and foreign policies based on MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction, I was introduced to the wide world as a rather dismal place. Camus told me that life was meaningless and that, like Sisyphus, all I could do was heroically roll a boulder to the top of a mountain for the rest of my life. Fred Hoyle had me believing that the universe had no origin, was in a steady state, without beginning and end, and was therefore godless. Because Einstein had shown that Newton's matter was not the basic stuff of gravity, like others I was persuaded that all was determined, including the course of my life. B.F. Skinner told me that I was like a pigeon in one of his boxes, governed by stimulus and response, devoid of any inner meaning, including freedom and dignity. Freud said my unconscious was a snake pit of repressed desires to sleep with my mother, and urges to kill my father. He said that I, and civilization with its discontents, could only hope to escape neuroses and find ordinary unhappiness.

Current wisdom has each of these perspectives as out-of-date. I learned slowly, painfully, to question the intellectual fashions of the day. Platitudes are never fashionable and some contain important truths.

Like others of my college generation, I was not inclined to look on the world as warm and cozy. That is still the case for undergraduates today, and right they are, although they can find a counterpoint that was not available to me. It is available to everybody, not just them.

I speak of positive psychology, which holds that one trouble with the world is that people do not work to make their lives happy. I don't speak here of Pollyanna and Panglosse, but of reasonable optimism. Reasonable in that we expect our lives will encounter trials and tribulations, but that we eventually will leave them behind.

Martin Seligman, a major spokesman for the movement, points out studies showing that people who dwell on negative experiences become increasingly negative. In contrast, others experience an improved sense of well-being when they keep "gratitude journals" in which they remind themselves of all they're thankful for.

Happiness requires steady and habitual plugging away at it. Negative feelings are easy to fall into, a path of least resistance. The more we dwell on them the more we return to them and the deeper we sink. Freudian analysis encouraged patients to introspect but they did not improve. The more they looked inward, the more they looked inward, despite insights into their behavor.

Still, for all his wrong-headedness elsewhere, Freud did acknowledge that "unhappiness is much less difficult to experience." He could not see his psychoanalytic method as a cause of discontent, which it was.

Those of an intellectual bent may expect meaty ideas in the teachings of positive psychology, but they would be disappointed. In part, happiness research finds truth behind age-worn platitudes and shows that their significance can become elements of a working program. (Research has found that life satisfaction is unusually high in Ireland, where people remind one another to "count your blessings.") Remember your mother telling you to stop feeling sorry for yourself. Your father told you to stop crying over spilt milk. You may say that's nothing new and that you already observe some platitudes.

Something new is here, and it is available to anybody willing to make the effort. In studying and applying positive psychology, you begin to understand more than what your parents used to tell you. You see more than the platitudes.

Check out a Time Magazine article on the subject, The Positive Psychology Center, "The Pursuit of Happiness" with interesting links at U. Alabama, Birmingham, and Martin Seligman's site, Authentic Happiness.

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