December 16, 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness

Psychologists and therapists have traditionally focused on alleviating misery–-making anxious people less anxious, angry people less angry, and psychotic people less psychotic–-and assumed that happiness was a byproduct. Researchers in a relatively new subfield of psychology believe that reducing suffering is not enough and that increasing happiness should be a separate and equally important objective.
Positive psychology is the study of positive emotion and human strengths, with the goal of identifying and building strengths, nurturing talent, and improving quality of life in relatively untroubled people. Positive psychology researchers study the traits and habits of happy people and, based on their findings, design interventions to increase happiness.
So what makes us happy?
·     Strong interpersonal relationships make us happy. The people in the highest percentiles of happiness are extremely social, have rich and meaningful friendships, are in a romantic relationship, and don’t spend a lot of time alone.

·     Knowing and using our personal strengths makes us happy. Positive psychology therapy clients complete questionnaires that identify their strengths and are assigned to, for example, use their key strengths in new ways three times per week. If your two greatest strengths are patience and teaching, things like helping your niece learn to read and showing your dad how to use HTML increase happiness. Likewise, couples in therapy with a positive psychologist are assigned to go on a “strengths date,” i.e., a date during which both partners get to use their strengths.

·     Meaning (using your strengths in the service of a greater good or to belong to a larger community) and engagement (the ability to get lost in what you’re doing, whether it’s stock trading, parenting, or making music) make us happy. Pleasure (the experience of positive emotion), on the other hand, is less relevant to happiness. 

The implications of positive psychology findings are considerable. People seeking happiness through pleasure can consider pursuing engagement and meaning instead. The known relationship between happiness and outcomes like better health and longer life can have a significant positive impact on larger systems such as health care and the economy. Finally, positive psychology is an exciting and validating option for future mental health professionals (ahem) who are less interested in severe mental illness and very interested in helping well people improve their quality of life.  


  1. Congratulations on your blog, Sarah.

    You ask "So what makes people happy?" and then answer with one example: "Strong interpersonal relationships make us happy." Although this is probably very accurate to today's world, consider the immense benefits that would become possible if we didn't rely on things to "make us happy", but rather if we focused our energies on simply creating happiness - from nothing.

    In your example, "strong interpersonal relationships make us happy", happiness is said to be conditional on strong interpersonal relationships. Therefore, if the bottom falls out of these relationships, that person would no longer be happy.

    The key to real happiness is when it is not based on the existence of some other factor that can be removed or disappear at any time. If happiness is created by the person themselves, it will exist as long as that happiness is nurtured. When it is born from inside sources, it can last as long as the holder wants it to, irrespective of outside influences.

    I don't know if you've seen my blog, but I cordially invite you to one particular post that may be of interest. - The post is called "What is real?"

    I look forward to your comments. Continued success with your blogging and your studies and have a wonderful new year!

  2. Great post Mark144, thank you!

    Happiness does often come from within as well as without, and it's a very empowering and deep experience to realize that happiness can come from a choice to interpret external circumstances in a positive way. However, I also believe that reality is not only internal but also external, and everyone's "real" happiness is based on their own mix from both sources.

    The happiness with oneself that is created by oneself provides the resilience and strength to deal with whatever unpleasant external circumstances that arise. It allows you to find the silver lining to the clouds, to accept people for their faults, to sing in the rain, so to speak. For sure, this is a source of happiness that's very personal and is something that can be seen as more constant.

    As valuable as inner happiness can be, humans are social creatures. The affirmation and connection that people experience in the context of a fulfilling relationships with other people is also very important to being happy. I think that the happiness experienced through external means is definitely more volatile than what you find inside yourself, but it is very important as well for a sense of well-being.

    At the root of what I am trying to say is that I believe that the concept of 'real happiness' comes down to a balance of things: internal-external sources of happiness, experiencing both happiness and sadness, making things happen-letting things happen, etc.

    Thanks to you both for making me think this morning...