How to be happy – 7. Don’t just ease the bad, boost the good too

Lesson: Happiness isn’t the opposite of depression

Before the growth of positive psychology, psychologists were mainly concerned with problems. Research focused on understanding what caused difficulties like depression, and on alleviating them. It was thought easing depression would bring about – well, happiness.

But newer research has shown that understanding what leads to depression doesn’t reveal the whole story about human experience – it doesn’t help people to thrive. Most people would like to know about the positive side of life too!

It turns out that easing suffering is not the mirror image of promoting happiness. You can’t just focus on fixing problems and expect to be happy. Happiness, it seems, needs a focus all its own.

Happiness strategy: Don’t just ease the bad, boost the good too

It certainly makes sense to address problems. But letting a problem dominate your thinking can give it a life of its own.

Take Sally, the perpetual dieter. She obsessed with calorie values, devours every new diet book and talks constantly about her weight. She’s had her career and love-life on hold for years as she waits for those pounds to push off.

Or Jake, whose long-term depression has become his whole life. There’s no room for friends, work, or hobbies. He talks about ‘my depression’ like it’s an old friend.

Fixating on problems can be exhausting and never-ending – after all, there’s always something else to worry about. It can be like a mountain without a peak. So it makes sense to put some energy into the flip side – not just the absence of bad, but the presence of good.

Perhaps Sally could learn a language on her iPod while taking walks – anything to boost her self-esteem and take the focus off her weight.

Maybe Jake could start a hobby that’s always interested him – like gardening or playing the guitar – and do one small thing each day to develop his interest. Before long he’d have something new in his life and would see himself in a more empowering light.

For the rest of us, building more good stuff into life could mean aiming for calm under pressure rather than avoiding stress (which is pretty impossible anyway), or eating more vegetables rather than forbidding chocolate (double ditto).

By all means, ease your pain, but don’t let that be all you do.

Research sources:

Cheng, H., & Furnham, A. (2003). Personality, self-esteem, and demographic predictions of happiness and depression. Personality and Individual Differences, 34(6), 921-942.

Duckworth, A. L., Steen, T. A., & Seligman, M. E. (2005). Positive psychology in clinical practice. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1(1), 629-651.

Sheldon, K. M., & King, L. (2001). Why positive psychology is necessary. American Psychologist, 56(3), 216-217.

How to be happy:
101 practical strategies drawn from positive psychology.

This post is part of a series covering simple, practical, research-inspired, happiness strategies you can use in your own life. For more information about the series, check out the 101 Happiness Strategies main page.

Image by fdecomite under Creative Commons.

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