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Happiness need not be elusive, a review of Martin Seligman's What you can Change and What you Can't

By Edited Feb 4, 2014 0 0

Some methods that effect happiness are actually proven by science. According to the author of the book Authentic Happiness, Martin E. P. Seligman, people are born with a set point of happiness, and while they may move a little bit above or below their norm they don't do wide swings. That explains our friends who seem to be addicted to therapy and workshop junkies. Although you may think you have so much new information to help them, year after year, they don't change much in their demeanor. People with high set points, like my friend Pam Jansen, remain upbeat no matter what life hands them. She is featured in a book called "Fearless" women, because that's what she is. She has accomplished far more in life despite some physical disabilities than most people. She is encouraging to others and fun to be around. Other people by contrast, including some of my writer friends remain stubbornly pessimistic no matter what life hands them. Good health? It may go bad they argue. Good job? What if I lose it? And so on.

Workshop junkies often had an authentic desire to escape their misery. They seem as perplexed as anyone as to how they can continue to read so many books and take up so many practices and not feel better. Upon closer examination I noticed that many of those people have a pattern of not following through on their practices. For example, they are willing to spend in excess of $100 to see the Dalai Lama speak at some huge venue. The day after the lecture they will be exhibiting a certain glow. No doubt they HAVE picked up some useful information. A week later however, they are doing life the same as they ever were, and are already saving money for a weekend drum circle retreat. Contrast that behavior with a person who routinely practices the simple habit of communing with a nature, a half hour walk every day. Or the person who sets aside half an hour of a daily meditation. The consistent practitioners seem to have more personal growth. One could ascribe the difference in the two groups of people to the differences in their mental practice. What Seligman is suggesting is more subtle. The first group, the workshop junkies, are that way because they have a lower set point to begin with for happiness. They fail to commit to life affirming practices because they lack the capacity initially. Advise them for fun and profit if you are a life coach, don't hold your breath on lasting change.

I had a very depressed friend once and I offered him the book to read by Seligman entitled "What you can change and what you can't" which unlike the average self help book was bolstered by plenty of studies, statistics and hard science. The book offered that an attitude of gratitude is found in happy people. This attitude can be cultivated by choice. It is in fact a 12-step practice to write out a gratitude list every day. You can be grateful for material things such as your home or car or more subtle things such as courage. The important thing is to do it daily, and to do it in writing.

In his book Seligman spoke about a study where participants were asked to send hand written thank you notes. After the study was completed many of the participants admitted they would continue to write thank you notes because it clearly brought them joy. I mentioned to my friend, who did not want to read the book, that I enjoyed writing thank you notes myself. It was a habit my father had taught me as a kid. Like the people in the study I continued the habit by choice. It's pleasant, and makes both the sender and receiver feel good. "OOOOh I want a thank you note!" my depressed friend cooed in gleeful anticipation. I noticed he feel short of ever writing one. That was his choice, he tends to remember being slighted with a much higher frequency than being promoted. Although I praised him in front of others, he would respond by negating whatever I had said.

I slowly came to realize he was a happiness vampire. He sucked the living blood and energy of whomever was around him. I had to back off for the sake of my own happiness. Reading Seligman's book and finding out about the set-point was such as relief. I knew then there was nothing else I could do for this friend.

In another part of the book Seligman wrote about something I had intuited myself from much observation of workshop junkies, and that is the lack of value in reliving horrific experiences. Calling it catharsis some therapists encourage patients to recall their abuse, "open the door, see what's behind it, don't be afraid" I was told. With my eyes closed I painfully remembered a traumatic experience. For about an hour afterwards I felt glow and a physical decompression in my chest. Your heart chakra opened up, a new age friend would say knowingly. But the open air effect didn't last, and the sad part of reliving the trauma is dwelling on it seemed to keep me trapped in the past. My first husband was fond of defining me by my traumas in lieu of celebrating my successes. He once visited the church I was trying to attend with my high school journal in hand. He told the pastor I shouldn't be allowed to worship there because of the "sins" I had committed, which good ole "Bob" had noted from my 30 year old journal!

I have since thrown out all the journals. Instead I write gratitude lists on a daily basis. When the notebook is full I throw it away immediately. I have found that by following the advice of Elizabeth Smart, former kidnap victim, my life works better. She suggested you not spend another moment of your life thinking about the bad things that happened. Look forward, and do thing that bring you happiness.


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