Monday, November 27, 2006

Happiness Is All in Our Brains

I've been fascinated by the recent research findings on happiness. As in so many other areas of neuroscience, scientists have assumed that our happiness quotient is hard-wired in our brains. We humans are sort of stuck with a glass that's either half-full or half-empty. Period. And for some people, there's nothing in the glass. We have a "happiness setting." And guess what? Just as researchers have found that our brains are plastic and capable of change in so many other areas--it's beginning to look like we can change our happiness settings, too--short-term and long-term.

For many years, the emphasis has been on finding a pill that will lift depression. Although many people have been helped enormously by these pharmacological palliatives, many others have not been helped or have had serious side-effects and complications from the drugs. Finally, neuropsychologists and neuroscientists are asking the other side of the question: what makes us happy? how can we feel happier? are there simple ways to lift our spirits to chronic happiness? optimism, even? And do we even need to discuss how critical these feelings are to our quality of life at every age?

The holidays are an especially good time to release the findings of these studies, given that so many people feel particularly lonely and depressed during this time of year.

OK, so what can we do? As psychologist Ed Diener of the University of Illinois says, "Set-point is not destiny." Promising methods coming out of the research include (l) focusing on "signature" strengths (through a questionnaire) and then using those strengths to choose more satisfying daily activities; and (2) thinking of three good things that happen each day just before going to sleep. According to Sonja Lyubomirsky from the University of California, Riverside, these two exercises made a significant difference in people's happiness when they regularly and consistently used them. Of course, as the pu-pu platter of happiness exercises that are proven to work increases, we will each need to experiment to find our own best method.

In other research on happiness, several researchers have been looking at the link between money and happiness. Most people seem to believe that money buys happiness. In fact, folks who move from abject poverty to a more comfortable relationship with money do become measurably happier. But as we move up the wealth scale, it appears that money becomes less and less important to our overall happiness. Makes sense.

I think Diener has it right when he points out that happiness is really all about "process and striving." What he didn't say, in my mind, is more important: happiness is all about feeling purpose in life.

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