Finding happiness in tough times with positive psychology

Finding happiness in tough times with positive psychology

The following wonderful article appeared in today’s newsletter from the International Positive Psychology Association. I hope you find it interesting and useful…

By Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener

We are in the midst of tough financial times, and many people are focused on mortgage problems, oil prices, dwindling savings accounts and the plummeting stock market. By coincidence, the last several years have also seen an explosion of scholarly books on happiness. The question naturally arises, “Do these books have any useful suggestions for people to follow in these scary economic times?” With the threat of unemployment, delayed retirement, college tuition struggles and diminished discretionary money, most people will need to curtail their spending and will want to make sure to get the best possible happiness dividends for their dollars. It is not surprising, then, that a number of journalists have contacted us, seeking advice about how to cope with these tough economic times?

The books on the science of happiness do indeed have implications for adaptation to tough conditions. We would like to briefly note some of the most important advice based on several of the current books on happiness. First, let’s take Dan Gilbert’s book, ‘stumbling on Happiness.” One recommendation that follows from Gilbert’s analysis is that we should not succumb to the “focusing illusion.” Attention, it turns out, is like a spotlight, and can be focused in an intense beam on a single topic or widened to cast light on many things. We should take care not to focus our attention exclusively on the economic crisis and the problems it will create for us. Instead, we should widen the light and continue to note the other factors that will benefit our lives, such as our relationships, engaging work, and so forth. Also, Gilbert’s research on “affective forecasting” suggests that people make the common mistake of underestimating their ability to adapt to new conditions. The economic crisis might indeed harm our happiness, but it is important to realize that we will probably adapt more, and more quickly, than we might predict.

In his book, “Authentic Happiness,” Martin Seligman suggests that there is more to happiness than pleasure – that engagement and meaning are also components of the good life. What does this idea say about adapting to tough financial times? It says that people must look beyond those pleasures that might decrease in life, such as eating at expensive restaurants or foreign travel, and keep in mind the importance of meaning and engagement, which are much less likely to decline because of a bad economy. People’s meaningful goals for relationships, achievement and spirituality are likely to be left entirely intact despite the recession, and the same is true for many engaging and interesting activities.

The popular, but scholarly, “The How of Happiness,” by Sonja Lyubomirsky is a good example of very specific recommendations for banking on happiness, even in tough times. A primary feature of this book is that it makes a number of suggestions for interventions and activities, all based on research, for increasing happiness. For example, it recommends cultivating more gratitude by participating in activities that enhance mindfulness of everyday joys and successes. Being thankful for your dishwasher or your children’s health can open your eyes to blessings you might otherwise take for granted. Sonja also recommends savoring life’s pleasures. Savoring is particularly relevant to today’s economic turmoil because it is the psychological process of drawing out a pleasurable moment and making it last. In fiscal terms, this means that we can use anticipation and reminiscence to make pleasurable expenditures last and last.

Finally, our own “Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth,” dovetails with messages from those other authors. For example, in our book we present the model of “psychological wealth,” which includes all the resources a person needs to live a good life. Besides money, there are a number of other resources that are essential for a good life, and which people must possess to be considered truly wealthy, such as positive spirituality (the experiencing of positive emotions that link you to things larger than yourself), supportive relationships, and a favorable outlook for the future. Thus, we agree with Gilbert that if people will see the broader picture-looking at their entire “portfolio” of psychological wealth rather than just their bank statement– it will help them see that they are not quite so poor after all. Our advice also converges with Lyubomirsky’s message in that it suggests that emotions such as gratitude can be helpful. Rather than thinking of happiness as an emotional “finish line” in the race of life, positive feelings are actually an emotional currency, that can be ‘spent” like money on work, health, and other outcomes you value. Furthermore, we list meaning as a component of complete wealth, and therefore our recommendations would converge with those of Seligman, in suggesting that we can continue to be wealthy despite a financial downturn if we have ample meaning in life. In all, our model of complete wealth suggests that although people might have become poorer because of the stock market crash and other financial problems, they are not nearly so poor as long as they focus on their entire balanced portfolio of resources.

Another suggestion that is easily derived from our book is adjusting one’s aspirations or expectations regarding income and spending. In our chapter on money and happiness, we describe how poverty can come either from having too little money or from too much spending. Thus, one can be much less poor simply by ratcheting down spending. If this seems difficult, it might be. But consider this-many of us once had a budget when we were young adults that was much smaller than our current spending. Our lives were no less happy when we had that two bedroom apartment or only owned a single car. Sure, moving to this simpler state of lower income will require a few difficult adjustments, but it need not necessarily bring less happiness in the long run. Indeed, it is even possible that there could be some unexpected positive side-effects, such as spending more time with friends, taking picnics and driving trips rather than flying to the Seychelles.

It turns out that the happiness books do indeed have many suggestions about remaining upbeat in difficult times. Importantly, reading the books will not help readers unless they really take the advice to heart and make changes. We have found that one problem when we discuss the implications of our book with some journalists is that they simply do not seem to want to change. They seem to want to cling to the fear and depression, and not make the effort to see things in the way our book describes. Clearly, the changes suggested in all of the books require effort on the part of readers, and a decision on the part of readers that they do indeed want to be happy. Once this commitment is there, we believe that many helpful hints can be garnered from the popular but science-based books on happiness.