03 June 2006

Authentic Happiness

Recently I've been reading Martin Seligman's book Authentic Happiness. Seligman is a psychologist (as opposed to a psychotherapist) which is to say that he is a scientist who studies the psyche. Psychology typically focuses on dysfunction and negative emotions, but Seligman had a change of heart about 10 years ago and started studying positive emotions, and has developed what he calls "Positive Pscyhology".

Something that has stood out for me is Seligman's summary of what scientific (ie controlled, double blind etc) studies have shown is the importance of nature and the environmental factors, and in particular the way past experience, especially childhood experiene, impacts on the adult psyche. Freud famously associated adult unhappiness (I'm going to use this term very loosely!) with childhood unahppiness - the events of our childhood, so the theory goes, shape the person that we are. This approach assumes that we are all born as a tabula rasa on which events write out the person that we will become.

And so eventually, after decades of just accepting this on face value - because after all it sounds quite reasonable doesn't it? - some psychologist went looking for the effect. They studied children, followed them into adulthood, and most interestingly searched out twins that had been raised apart, and adopted children. And what they found is the events, the traumas even, of childhood are actually very poor predictors of adult success and happiness. Seligman says: "The major traumas of childhood may have some influence on adult personality, but only a barely detectable one. Bad childhood events, in short, do not mandate adult troubles". [Authentic Happiness p.67]. The studies seem to show that rather than events and upbringing (ie nuture), our response to past events is highly correlated to how our parents responded, suggesting a genetic (ie nature) link. This is reinforced by stydying mono-zygotic twins raised apart who are always more alike to each other than to other siblings however they were raised, and by studies of adopted children who are always more like their birth parents than their adopted parents.

This genetic link is important because it is how we respond to our memories, how we think, reflect on, and consider, our memries which is a strong conditioning factor in whether we are happy or not. We are born with a predisposition to dwell on the past in positive or negative ways. However Sleigman's whole book is predicated on the premise that it is possible to change this response. Scientific studies, again, show that it is possible to recognise that dwelling on painful past events is causing us to suffer, and that by changing our focus - Seligman highlights the importance of gratitude for instance - we can change our experience of that past and be happier. So depsite being born with certain tendencies we have the capacity to over-ride these and substitute more positive tendencies.

Now this rave is written by a Buddhist and with Buddhists in mind, and anyone who knows a bit about Buddhism is going to be finding this quite a familiar idea. There's no suggestion that Seligman is a Buddhist, he's working this out from studying people. Interesting, eh?

Seligman goes on to discuss other things that do or don't make for happy people. More money, material possessions, more education, gender, class and geography are poor predictors of happiness. Some of the poorest people in the world report being no less happy than some of the richest, although there is some geographical variation in this: the poor in the third world, and typically happier then the poor in the first world.

One factor which is a good predictor of happiness is religosity. Religious people do tend to be happier, and the more religious they are the happier they report themselves to be. There is some objective evidence for this as well since they tend to be healthier and more long lived, and to have lower levels of "mental illness". So why should religious people be more happy? It turns out to be related to hope. Religious people aremore optimistic about the future - and isn't a lot of religion aimed at this? Buddhism too is soteriological and teleological in it's outlook. We practice in order to experience less suffering, in order to have more meaningful life. And we achieve it, so we are happier. Well more or less and on average anyway.

This aspect of hope is one that interests me and one that I'd like to come back to at some point. Because one school of Buddhist thought suggests that thinking about the future at all is counter productive and that we just need to live in the present moment and be fully accepting of whatever is happening. Pema Chodron, perhaps a little tongue in cheek, goes so far as to suggest that we adopt the aphorism: Abandon hope [in When Things Fall Apart]. Although I rate the Ven Pema highly, I'm not so keen on this approach. I think if there is something we can reasonably do about our pain and suffering then we should go ahead and do that. Simply staying in pain and being equanamous about it seems eminently impractical. If you are on fire it makes more sense to jump in a lake, than to stand there reflecting that from the ultimate point of view there is no fire and no pain (or whatever).

Anyway I'm enjoying Authentic Happiness. The book is backed up by a good website where you can take the myriad psychological tests that appear in the book, and it keeps track of your responses over time to see if things do actually change. His other book Learned Optimism also sounds intriguing.
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