One of the founders of Positive Psychology is Martin Seligman who is famous for his experiments and theory of learned helplessness. If you’ve taken Psychology 101, you’ll remember this slightly disturbing but fascinating study he conducted on dogs:
In Part 1 of this study, three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses. Group 1 dogs were simply put in a harnesses for a period of time and were later released. Groups 2 and 3 consisted of “yoked pairs“. Dogs in Group 2 were given electric shocks at random times, which the dog could end by pressing a lever. Each dog in Group 3 was paired with a Group 2 dog; whenever a Group 2 dog got a shock, its paired dog in Group 3 got a shock of the same intensity and duration, but its lever did not stop the shock. To a dog in Group 3, it seemed that the shock ended at random, because it was his paired dog in Group 2 that was causing it to stop. Thus, for Group 3 dogs, the shock was “inescapable”.
In Part 2 of the experiment the same three groups of dogs were tested in a shuttle-box apparatus (a chamber containing two rectangular compartments divided by a barrier a few inches high). All of the dogs could escape shocks on one side of the box by jumping over a low partition to the other side. The dogs in Groups 1 and 2 quickly learned this task and escaped the shock. Most of the Group 3 dogs – which had previously learned that nothing they did had any effect on shocks – simply lay down passively and whined when they were shocked.
This ground-breaking experiment really lay the groundwork for creating a more positively-focused psychotherapy modality because in essence, it showed that when we feel we have no control over our circumstances, we become depressed, helpless and give up. Seligman and his contemporaries adamantly disagree with this worldview and want to empower people to take ownership over their moods; and to ultimately see that they cancreate their own happiness, despite whatever difficulties they may have experienced throughout their lives.
My favourite book of Seligman’s is Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being In this excellent book, he gives many real-life examples of how ordinary people turned their lives around and created their own happiness. It’s a quick and uplifting read.
Another book on the topic I recently read is: You Can Be Happy No Matter What: Five Principles for Keeping Life in Perspective By Richard Carlson, PhD. He wrote one of my other favourite books I’m sure you’ve heard of or read: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and It’s All Small Stuff
In You Can Be Happy No Matter What, Carlson points out the following:
Dwelling on our problems makes us unhappy: especially when we’re in a low mood. I’m sure you can relate to this one- I sure can! That’s when I suggest to clients to creating a gratitude list on the spot-science shows that this practice can turn things around, especially when in a low mood.
We make our best decisions when we are in a higher mood. I have found this to be true personally and professionally- when we’re in a low mood, everything seems dark and gloomy and dismal and psychologically speaking, we can’t “see straight”. I make a point of suggesting to clients that they make all of the big decisions in their lives when that low mood lifts and they have more perspective.
Many recovery programs and therapy theories focus on dwelling on traumatic pasts and make us feel worse in the present. It’s better to live in the moment and dwell on feeling good because that is always a choice we have, no matter what happened to us in the past. I couldn’t agree more with Carlson on this one and think it’s a brilliant observation and one we can use to transform the way recovery programs and psychotherapy are delivered. I must admit, I used to believe that this way of dwelling on the negatives and traumas in our lives way the way to go- that’s how I was trained as a therapist! But after being a therapist for over 20 years and having gone through my fair share of personal challenges, I no longer believe in this perspective. Especially since studying and practicing mindfulness on a daily basis where the focus is on being here now; in this moment and cultivating peace right where we are; regardless of what has happened to us in the past.
The Science of Happiness
Another fun read I found is called What Happy People Know: How the New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Life for the Better by Dan Baker who is the Director of the Life Enhancement Program at Canyon Ranch. Baker, who is a Psychologist with a great sense of humour, writes beautifully about his sessions with some of the richest and most successful people on the planet who have come to his program because they are absolutely miserable. If you need to be reminded that money and possessions aren’t the key to happiness, this book is a must-read. In it, Baker lovingly but firmly challenges his clients to take a deeper look into their souls and hearts and to find what really matters to them. What they discover is that the things that actually bring them joy and happiness don’t cost money or the need to make the exhausting climb up the corporate ladder- things like positive and loving relationships, appreciation, hobbies, exercise, and good health.
Another great book I read on Positive Psychology I thoroughly enjoyed was: Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment by Tal Ben-Shahar. Interestingly, He taught the most popular course in Harvard on Positive Psychology. The goal of the course? To teach his students how to be happy. Each semester, over 1,400 students signed up for the course! In this gem of a book, the author emphasizes the importance of pursuing a life of both pleasure and meaning. And to top it off, his teachings are backed up by hard science.
Happiness at Work
And finally, along similar lines as the last book, I devoured The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work by Shawn Achor. The author was a Teaching Assistant to Tal Ben-Shahar’s Happiness course at Harvard! This book focuses specifically on finding/creating happiness in the workplace. In essence, Achor shares the latest research findings from Positive Psychology: Happiness fuels success and not the other way around- which is what we have been taught for eons. The basic take-away- we need to start off creating our own happiness and positive attitude towards what we are doing, and the success will come as an after-thought. And when it does come, we may not be so obsessed with having it which can alleviate the feeling of disappointment which usually comes when we are successful at something.
A Cognitive-Behavioural Approach to Achieving Happiness
To end this musing on Positive Psychology- of which I am a huge fan and proponent of- I want to add an homage to one of my favourite approaches to helping people create happiness and contentment within themselves- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy; otherwise known as CBT. Here’s what I’ve gleaned from CBT over the years and I teach my clients who struggle with feeling low and/or anxious:
Our thoughts create our feelings so work on creating happy thoughts
We need to change our thoughts from negative to positive- I help clients do this by having them write out all the negative thoughts they tell themselves and then we come up with how they can turn them into positive messages they can say to themselves to feel more empowered and uplifted. This “positive self talk” is life-changing!
For example, a client struggling with depression might be saying to themselves:
“I’m just a negative person who can’t be happy”
They would start to feel a whole lot better if they changed it to:
“I choose to be positive and hopeful and focus on the good things in my life”