I finished reading (one of) Martin Seligman’s book on Positive Psychology, Authentic Happiness, which was a fascinating, highly applicable and, at times, uproariously funny read. In a nutshell: Seligman outlines an evolutionary theory of positive emotion; identifies three types of happiness: happiness in the past, present and future; he lays out various ways to enhance happiness in each of these three dimensions: using gratitude and forgiveness to create positive emotions around the past, cultivating hope and optimism to increase happiness about the future and differentiates between the pleasures and what he terms “the gratifications” in the present. After reviewing some of the ways in which to enhance the pleasures in one’s life, he devotes the last few chapters of the book to finding ways to enhance the gratifications in the big arenas of life: work, love and parenting. Authentic Happiness is a treasure trove of intriguing findings and applicable insights on how to raise one’s happiness level, so I figured I would write about his findings on the blog over the next few weeks while I experiment with the many interventions he suggests and I’ll report on that after I’ve had a bit of time to reflect. Since there is so much I want to cover, I will now be posting about rethinked*annex twice a week–Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you’re interested in experimenting with Positive Psychology in your own life as well, please be sure to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) I would love to create a ‘support group’ to exchange ideas, insights and resources.
For today, I thought I would start where Seligman does, by laying out the theory of positive emotion through which he frames Positive Psychology. You will recall that Martin Seligman defines Positive Psychology as:
Positive Psychology has three pillars: First is the study of positive emotions. Second is the study of the positive traits, foremost among them the strengths and virtues, but also the “abilities” such as intelligence and athleticism. Third is the study of the positive institutions, such as democracy, strong families and free inquiry that support the virtues, which in turn support the positive emotions.
The first question to examine when thinking about a field of study focused on happiness is to ask where these positive emotions come from and whether they serve a higher purpose than merely making us feel good.
“Why has evolution endowed us with positive feeling? What are the functions and consequences of these emotions, beyond making us feel good?” (6)
DO POSITIVE EMOTIONS HAVE A PURPOSE BEYOND MAKING US FEEL GOOD?
The short answer is yes, they do:
“Feeling positive emotion is important, not just because it is pleasant in its own right, but because it causes much better commerce with the world. Developing more positive emotion in our lives will build friendship, love, better physical health, and greater achievement.” (43)
Drawing on the work of Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Principal Investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina, Barbara Fredrickson, Seligman highlights an evolutionary purpose for positive emotion:
Fredrickson claims that positive emotions have a grand purpose in evolution. They broaden our abiding intellectual, physical, and social resources, building up reserves we can draw upon when a threat or opportunity presents itself. When we are in a positive mood, people like up better, and friendship, love, and coalitions are more likely to cement. In contrast to the constrictions of negative emotion, our mental set is expansive, tolerant, and creative. We are open to new ideas and experience. (35)
BENEFITS OF POSITIVE EMOTION – A REVIEW
Seligman devotes the rest of chapter three to reviewing various studies done around the physical and mental benefits of positive emotion, here are some of them:
There is direct evidence that positive emotion predicts health and longevity. In the largest study to date, 2,282 Mexican-Americans from the southwest United States aged sixty-five or older were given a battery of demographic and emotional tests, then tracked for two years. Positive emotion strongly predicted who lived and who died, as well as disability. After controlling for age, income, education, weight, smoking, drinking, and disease, the researchers found that happy people were half as likely to die, and half as likely to become disabled. (40)
Positive emotion protects people against the ravages of aging. You will recall that beginning nuns who wrote happy autobiographies when in their twenties lived longer and healthier lives than novices whose autobiographies were devoid of positive emotions, and also that optimists in the Mayo Clinic study lived significantly longer than pessimists. Happy people, furthermore, have better health habits, lower blood pressure, and feistier immune systems than less happy people. When you combine all this with Aspinwall’s findings that happy people seek out and absorb more health risks information, it adds up to an unambiguous picture of happiness as a prolonger of life and improver of health. (40)
Research suggests that more happiness actually causes more productivity and higher income. One study measured the amount of positive emotions of 272 employees, then followed their job performance over the next eighteen months. Happier people went on to get better evaluations from their supervisors and higher pay. In a large-scale study of Australian youths across fifteen years, happiness made gainful employment and higher income more likely. In attempts to define whether happiness or productivity comes first (by inducing happiness experimentally and then looking at later performance), it turns out that adults and children who are put into a good mood select higher goals, perform better, and persist longer on a variety of laboratory tasks, such as solving anagrams. (41)
Positive Emotions Help Cope With Adversity. The final edge that happy people have for building physical resources is how well they deal with untoward events. How long can you hold your hand in a bucket of ice water? The average duration before the pain gets to be too much is between sixty and ninety seconds. Rick Snyder, a professor at Kansas and one of the fathers of Positive Psychology, used this test on Good Morning America to demonstrate the effects of positive emotion on coping with adversity. He first gave a test of positive emotion to the regular cast. By quite a margin, Charles Gibson outscored everybody. Then, before live cameras, each member of the cast put his or her hand in ice water. Everyone, except Gibson, yanked their hands out before ninety seconds had elapsed. Gibson, though, just sat there grinning (not grimacing), and still had his hand in the bucket when a commercial break was finally called. (41)
Positive Emotions Undo Negative Emotions. Barbara Fredrickson showed students a filmed scene from The Ledge in which a man inches along the ledge of a high-rise, hugging the building. At one point he loses his grip and dangles above the traffic; the heart rate of students watching this clip goes through the roof. Right after watching this, students are shown one of four further film clips: “waves,” which induces contentment; “puppy,” which induces amusement; “sticks,” which doesn’t induce any emotion; and “cry,” which induces sadness. “Puppy” and “waves” both bring heart rates way down, while “cry” makes the high heart rate go even higher. (41)
Happy People have more casual friends and more close friends, are more likely to be married, and are more involved in group activities than unhappy people. Routine psychological studies focus on pathology; they look at the most depressed, anxious, or angry people and ask about their lifestyles and personalities. I have done such studies for two decades. Recently, Ed Diener and I decided to do the opposite and focus on the lifestyles and personalities of the very happiest people. We took an unselected sample of 222 college students and measured happiness rigorously by using six different scales, then focused on the happiest 10 percent. These “very happy” people differed markedly from average people and from unhappy people in one principal way: a rich and fulfilling social life. The very happy people spent the least time alone (and the most time socializing), and they were rated highest on good relationships by themselves and by their friends. All 22 members of the very happy group, except one, reported a current romantic partner. The very happy group had a little more money, but they did no experience a different number of negative or positive events, and they did not differ on amount of sleep, TV watching, exercise, smoking, drinking alcohol, or religious activity. Many other studies have shown that happy people have more causal friends and more close friends, are more likely to be married, and are more involved in group activities than unhappy people. (42)
Happy People Are More Likely To Demonstrate Empathy & Altruism. Before I saw the data, I thought that unhappy people—identifying with the suffering that they know so well—would be more altruistic. So I was taken aback when the findings on mood and helping others without exception revealed that happy people were more likely to demonstrate that trait. In the laboratory, children and adults who are made happy display more empathy and are willing to donate more money to others in need. When we are happy, we are less self-focused, we like others more, and we want to share our good fortune even with strangers. When we are down, though, we become distrustful, turn inward, and focus defensively on our own needs. Looking out for number one is more characteristic of sadness than of well-being. (43)
Source: Seligman, Martin. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology To Realize Your Potential For Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press, 2002. Print.