Monday, December 26, 2011

Does Happiness Reside in the Head? If I Am Unhappy, Is It My Fault?

Does Happiness Reside in the Head? If I Am Unhappy, Is It My Fault?

By Sandeep Gautam / Source: Psychology Today

Happiness as a creative rather than an interpretative process.

Raj Raghunatahn, in a recent post implies that happiness resides within our heads and that all we need to do, to become happy, is to change our outlook/ interpretation of events.

I'm quite sympathetic to this point of view in as much as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been shown to be pretty effective for depression; and Learned Optimism (a form of CBT), wherein one changes ones attributions, is shown to be causal in maintaining/ increasing happiness and well-being measures.

In both CBT as well as Learned Optimism, the trick is to reinterpret your situations, break your chain of negative automatic attributions and at first effort-fully, and later automatically, start seeing external events, over which one may have little control, in a positive framing. Reinterpreting events does lead to increased happiness and well-being and increased resilience and ability to cope with adverse situations and traumas.

Much of the eastern philosophies and many of the other religions/ philosophies also suggest a similar route to satisfaction, contentment and happiness- change your interpretation / attitude.Change the lenses through which you see the world and the world changes to accommodate your vision.

Raj exhorts us to take responsibility for our happiness and suggests that reinterpretation is the way to go. I have two quibbles with this.

The first is, that taken to an extreme degree, this interpretation that happiness is entirely in our head/ hands, may lead to blaming-the-victim. Consider an extremely unhappy/ depressed person, whose sadness/ depression, is a result of clearly identifiable external factors; say post -partum depression or death of a near and dear one. In the above situation, if he is sad, due to external conditions over which he has little control, we, being prone to a well-known bias, may start attributing this to his disposition- his lack of responsibility towards himself – rather than be considerate of the fact that his unhappiness/ depression may be an entirely justifiable response to his situation. This is similar to blaming an addicted person, to lack moral responsibility, assuming that he can just pull out of his addiction by his force of will, irrespective of what physical afflictions he may be harboring. To assume that a person is in a particular state of mind due to his irresponsible actions comes naturally to us – and doing that is simply denying the powerful role of situations/ other factors that are external to/ beyond control of the person.

The second quibble I have is that much of happiness research over the past decades, especially that of Sonja, has shown that happiness set-points are 40 % genetic/heritable, 10-20% affected by socio-demographics and the rest are due to activities that one engages in on a daily basis. These activities include pursuing hobbies, helping others, meditating, and even cultivating positive attitudes or reinterpreting events. Happiness, as per this view, would reside not just in passive reinterpretations, but in active engagement with the world.

Research by Fordyce, for example shows, that just by acting in a similar manner as happy people usually act – makes one happy. Thus happiness as per this view is a very active mechanism- it arises from what you do.

Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, aptly sums up the issue as the tension between one interpretation assuming Happiness lies within (in our heads) and the second interpretation assuming happiness lies without (in our activities and the external world) and resolves the dilemma by proposing that Happiness lies between.

That Happiness lies between is a beautiful thought with which we should stay for a minute. It alludes to the relational nature of happiness, the construction/ creation of happiness rather than a pursuit / seeking of happiness and also alludes to the fact that like Love/ happiness may in the end be make-believe- but a make -believe that has power to become true.

The idea that happiness neither is a re-interpretative phenomenon (total responsibility lies on yourself) nor is it totally dependent on the external world (and the opportunities it provides to engage positively with it) is liberating. While still making us feel responsible for our Happiness, it takes a best efforts view of things – and is in line with the serenity prayer- God give me the courage to indulge in activities that can bring forth happiness; the serenity to re-interpret situations and events beyond my control and the wisdom to know what is what.


Edited by: Lawyer Asad

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