Tag: Happiness

The secret of our happiness.

It’s both obvious, and yet it is not!

Anyone who has more than a single dog around them knows how a group of dogs, even just a couple, are fantastic companions. Extending that line of thought brings one immediately to the realisation that a person who lives on their own yet has a dog never experiences the loneliness of a person who lives on their own ‘sans chien’.

So hold that notion in your mind as I introduce an item that was recently published on the Care 2 Living Healthy blogsite. It was called, in part, What really makes us happy and is republished here within the terms of Care 2.

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A 75-Year Study Reveals What Really Makes Us Happy

1372622.largeBy: Becky Striepe, January 8, 2016

Robert Waldinger directed a 75-year study looking at what makes us happy. It boils down to three things, and they’re not the things we tend to think are going to make us happy. His TED Talk about the study findings challenges our most common life goals.

When you ask most people what would make them happy, their answers tend to cluster around achievement. Maybe they think they’d be happier if they were rich or famous. Or maybe they feel like success in their careers would bring them true happiness.

Unlike many studies on happiness, the Harvard Study of Health Development happened in real time. The researchers didn’t rely on memories of past events. Instead, this project—passed down from research team to research team for 75 years—followed a group of 724 men through their lives. They were interviewed every two years, and got complete physicals at every check-in.

When the project began, 268 of the men were sophomores at Harvard University, where the study took place. The other 456 men were inner-city Boston high school students.

Waldinger was the study’s fourth director and in his talk he explains some of the interesting findings about happiness. He says happiness boils down to three things, but if you wanted to sum it up even more succinctly, you could say this: What really makes us happy is social connection.

Jogging

Waldinger says there are three main lessons about what really makes us happy that come from this study:

  1. Social connections are critical to our mental and physical health. Whether it’s relationships with family, friends or neighbors, people who have social connection are happier and healthier. In fact, he says, loneliness is toxic. People who want these relationships but lack them are not only not as happy but they experience worse health.
  2. Your number of friends doesn’t matter. What matters most is the quality of your relationships, not the quantity. People with loving relationships in their lives, not just from spouses, but friends or other family members, had overall better health. Quality of relationships was a better predictor of later-life health than markers we tend to focus on, like cholesterol levels.
  3. Quality relationships are good for brain health. People who have quality relationships in their lives have better memory as they age. People without quality relationships were more likely to experience cognitive decline as they grew older.

He defines a quality relationship as one where you feel like you can count on the other person. He says that doesn’t mean never fighting. It means an overall sense of security.

When you hear these results, they sort of seem like a no-brainer, right? But when the study began, 80 percent of participants said being rich would make them happy. We know on some level that relationships are a key to happiness, but we tend to discount their full importance. Why? Waldinger gets into that in his talk, as well (at around 12:15, if you want to skip ahead). You can watch it in full right here:

Published on Nov 30, 2015

What makes us happy and healthy as we go through life?
If you want to invest in “the good life,” where should you put your time and energy? Robert Waldinger answers these questions with lessons learned from a 75-year-long study of adult life that started in the late 1930s and continues to this day.
Robert Waldinger is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and Zen priest. He directs the Harvard Study of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and teaches at Harvard Medical School.

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Thus while this study does not refer to dogs, nonetheless a dog or two (or nine!) does provide a wonderful social connection, as all those who know and love dogs will attest to.

As seen on BarkPost.
As seen on BarkPost.

These extraordinary minds of ours.

Serendipity at work.

Chapter 8 of my book is entitled: Behaviours and Relationships. It opens thus:

“It is all to do with relationships.”

I heard this many years before the idea of writing this book came to me. Heard it from J, who was referred to in the previous chapter. J was speaking of what makes for happy people in all walks of life. It’s one of those remarks that initially comes over as such an obvious statement, akin to water being wet or the night being dark, that it is easy to miss the incredible depth of meaning behind those seven words.

Humans are fascinating. Every aspect of who we are can be seen in our relationships. How we relate to people around us, whether it be a thirty-second exchange with a stranger or a long natter with friends whom we have known for decades, including our partners and family relations. The core relationship, of course, the relationship that drives so many of our behaviours is the relationship that we have with ourself. That being rooted in our relationship experiences with the adults around us when we were young people.

When one looks at the performance of successful companies one often sees, nay one always sees, people being valued. The directors and managers of those companies understand that if people are valued then a myriad of benefits flow from that approach to relationships. Moving out of the workplace, the relationships that people have are always stronger and happier if those individual persons know they are valued. Moving beyond people, our dogs, and many other animals, are always stronger and happier if they feel valued. It’s the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Recently over on Mother Nature Network there was an essay presented by Russell McLendon who is science editor for MNN. It is about happiness.

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Happiness is all in your head

Scientists say they’ve found where happiness happens in the brain. What does that mean?

By: Russell McLendon, November 24, 2015

Understanding how our brains generate happiness could help make it less elusive, researchers say. (Photo: Andrew Vargas/Flickr)
Understanding how our brains generate happiness could help make it less elusive, researchers say. (Photo: Andrew Vargas/Flickr)

Everyone wants to be happy. Yet despite all our efforts in pursuit of this prized emotion, it can be a surprisingly nebulous goal. What is “happiness,” exactly?

That question has puzzled philosophers for thousands of years, and it’s still tricky for anyone to tackle. But recent advances in neuroscience have finally begun to shed light on it, and now a new study claims to have found an answer. Being told happiness is “all in your head” may seem both obvious and dismissive, but in this case the specifics are also empowering. The more we know about how (and where) happiness happens, the less helpless we’ll be to summon it when we need it.

By comparing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) with questionnaires about emotional states, researchers from Kyoto University in Japan say they’ve traced the experience of happiness to a specific part of the human brain. Overall happiness, they conclude, occurs when positive emotions combine with a sense of life satisfaction in the precuneus, a region of the medial parietal lobe that’s linked to important brain tasks like episodic memory, self-reflection and consciousness.

Psychologists already distinguish between broad life satisfaction and “subjective well-being,” since happiness often seems to fade during bad moods without necessarily plunging us into deeper existential despair. But by revealing the neural mechanics of how these feelings combine to create overall happiness, the authors of the new study hope to make it easier to objectively quantify this mysterious and elusive emotion.

“Over history, many eminent scholars like Aristotle have contemplated what happiness is,” lead author Wataru Sato says in a press release. “I’m very happy that we now know more about what it means to be happy.”

Scientists used MRI brain scans to identify happiness in a brain region known as the precuneus. (Photo: Kyoto University)
Scientists used MRI brain scans to identify happiness in a brain region known as the precuneus. (Photo: Kyoto University)

To pinpoint the location of happiness, Sato and his colleagues first used MRI to scan the brains of their study subjects. Those participants then took a survey, which asked about their general sense of happiness, the intensity of their emotions and the degree of their overall life satisfaction.

After analyzing the data, the researchers discovered that those who scored higher on the happiness survey also had more gray matter mass in the precuneus. That means this brain region is larger in people who feel happiness more intensely, feel sadness less intensely and who are better able to find meaning in life.

“To our knowledge, our study is the first to show that the precuneus is associated with subjective happiness,” the researchers write in the journal Scientific Reports.

Complex phenomena like happiness rarely boil down to a single brain region, but other recent research also points to an outsized role for the precuneus. A study published this month links impaired connectivity in the precuneus to depression, for example, and a 2014 study suggests the region is a “distinct hub” in the brain’s default-mode network, which is active during self-reflection and daydreaming.

All this may seem like an esoteric quest for neuroscientists, but it’s about more than just academic curiosity. By knowing which parts of the human brain generate our sensation of happiness, we might develop more accurate ways to test methods of becoming happier, like travel, exercise or meditation.

“Several studies have shown that meditation increases grey matter mass in the precuneus,” Sato says. “This new insight on where happiness happens in the brain will be useful for developing happiness programs based on scientific research.”

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It’s an unscientific opinion from me but I truly believe that humans have a bias towards happiness. And if there’s one animal that we can learn happiness from, it’s the dog!

Photo: Kiuko/flickr.
Photo: Kiuko/flickr.

Lessons in contentment.

Welcome to July!

A young Pharaoh already embracing contentment. September, 2003.
A young Pharaoh already embracing contentment. September, 2003.

Sidney Bloch, who is Emeritus Professor in Psychiatry at the University of Melbourne, recently published an essay over on the blogsite The Conversation. (Greatly recommended, by the way.)

His essay was about happiness versus contentment and certainly touched a few spots in this old Englishman’s psyche, contented as I am in this rural part of Oregon. However, until now I had never stopped to think about the difference between being happy and being contented.

So, I think you are going to enjoy Professor Bloch’s views, that now follow. His essay is republished, with permission, just as it was presented on The Conversation.

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Happiness is an illusion, here’s why you should seek contentment instead.

June 29, 2015 4.07pm EDT

Feeling content means having a deep-seated, abiding acceptance of oneself and one’s worth, together with a sense of self-fulfilment, meaning and purpose. James Theophane/Flickr, CC BY-SA
Feeling content means having a deep-seated, abiding acceptance of oneself and one’s worth, together with a sense of self-fulfilment, meaning and purpose. James Theophane/Flickr, CC BY-SA

I want to share a personal view of what it is to be happy and how it differs from feeling content. Let me begin with a clinical story.

They met at a party; it was love at first sight just like one reads about in romantic novels. They married following an exhilarating courtship, and since they shared an eagerness to raise a family, Jennifer soon announced the joyful news of her pregnancy. They called their baby Annie after Adam’s late mother.

They felt blessed; every moment since their first encounter had been nothing but pleasurable. Everyone who knew them concurred that their lives as a couple had been replete with happiness.

Tragically, it was not to endure. Their first setback occurred only days after Annie’s birth. She was sleeping fitfully and her colic stubbornly persisted. Jennifer felt utterly demoralised as a new mother. Her mounting sense of guilt and melancholy led to her admission to a psychiatric ward (her first ever encounter with psychiatry); the fear of her harming Annie or herself spread through the family and circle of friends.

And then, quite shockingly, despite the most diligent medical and nursing care, Jennifer met her death after jumping off a second floor balcony. Her family and friends plunged into deep grief; the medical professionals who had looked after her were similarly bereft.

An elusive goal

Having worked as a psychiatrist for over four decades and got to know dozens of men, women, and children of diverse backgrounds and with unique life stories, I have witnessed many a sad narrative, although suicide has mercifully been a rare event.

These experiences, in tandem with a lifelong fascination with what makes people tick, have led me most reluctantly to the judgement that while we may savour happiness episodically, it will invariably be disrupted by unwelcome negative feelings. Still, most of humankind will continue to harbour the expectation of living happily and remain oblivious that this wishful fantasy is an unconscious way of warding off the threat of psychic pain.

Rather than confront and demoralise those who have sought my help, I have gently but honestly responded to their plaintive yearning (“all I want is just to be happy”), by highlighting an inherent human sentiment. Namely that clinging to the fiction of being able to avoid suffering and enjoying a continuing state of pleasure is tantamount to self-deception.

I have offered them the hope – but not a guarantee – that they have the potential to lead a more fulfilling life than hitherto by participating in a challenging, and at times even distressing process of self-exploration whose purpose is to enhance self understanding and acceptance of the reality-bound emotional state I call contentment.

You may retort: “But you treat people who are miserable, pessimistic and self-deprecating, surely you must be hopelessly biased.” I would readily understand your reaction but suggest that all of us, not just those in treatment, crave happiness and are repeatedly frustrated by its elusiveness.

Most of humankind continues to harbour the expectation of living happily and remains oblivious that this wishful fantasy is an unconscious way of warding off the threat of psychic pain.  Kate Ter Haar/Flickr, CC BY-SA
Most of humankind continues to harbour the expectation of living happily and remains oblivious that this wishful fantasy is an unconscious way of warding off the threat of psychic pain. Kate Ter Haar/Flickr, CC BY-SA

As the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud emphasised in his 1930 essay, Civilization and Its Discontents, we are much more vulnerable to unhappiness than its opposite. That’s because we are constantly threatened by three forces: the fragility of our physical self, “doomed” by ageing and disease; the external world, with its potential to destroy us (through floods, fires, storms and earthquakes, for example); and our unpredictably complicated relationships with other people (regarded by Freud as the most painful source of unhappiness).

So, am I simply a misanthrope? I hope not but I am inclined to agree with Elbert Hubbard, the American artist and philosopher, who said, “Life is just one damn thing after another“.

We only have to think about the 50 million people who are currently displaced and unlikely to find a secure haven anytime soon, or the 2.2 billion people – including millions of children – who live on less than US$2 a day to appreciate the validity of that remark.

A better option

Given the formidable obstacles to chasing after happiness or promoting its sustainability if we are lucky enough to come by it, what options do human beings have? I have not come across any meaningful approach to this question, even from the unswervingly confident proponents of the contemporary school of positive psychology.

So, I espouse the following: given that we have the means to distinguish between happiness and contentment, we can examine how they differ and, in so doing, identify an alternative to the futile pursuit of happiness.

Happiness, derived from the Norse word hap, means luck or chance; the phrase happy-go-lucky illustrates the association. Many Indo-European languages similarly conflate the feeling of happiness and luck. Glück in German, for instance, can be translated as either happiness or chance, while eftihia, the Greek word for happiness, is derived from ef, meaning good, and tixi, luck or chance.

Thus, a mother may have the good fortune to feel ecstatic when responding to her infant’s playfulness, only to see it evaporate a couple of years later and be replaced by the initial features of autism. In the story we started this article with, Jennifer may have persevered had her baby slept peacefully and not been assailed by colicky pain in her first few weeks of life.

Contentment is derived from the Latin contentus and usually translated as satisfied. No multiple meanings here to confuse us. In my view, feeling content refers to a deep-seated, abiding acceptance of one’s self and one’s worth together with a sense of self-fulfilment, meaning and purpose.

And, most critically, these assets are valued and nurtured whatever the circumstances, or even especially when they are distressing or depressing.I have had the privilege of knowing men and women who suffered grievously as children in the ghettoes and concentration camps of Nazi Europe but emerged from their nightmare to face the challenge of seeking strengths, emotional and spiritual, within themselves. With the passage of time, many succeeded in achieving a sense of deep-seated contentment.

What these survivors have clearly demonstrated is that accepting and respecting oneself, coupled with determining what is personally meaningful, stand a greater chance of accomplishment, even if never completed, than a relentless and ultimately futile pursuit of happiness. What’s more, contentment has the potential to serve as a robust foundation upon which episodes of joy and pleasure can be experienced and cherished.

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I read the essay on The Conversation out aloud to Jeannie yesterday morning and we both found it a very wise and insightful reflection.

Seems to me that there’s another aspect of life that we could learn from our wonderful dogs!

Hazle and Cleo demonstrating mutual contentment!
Hazle and Cleo demonstrating mutual contentment!

Happy lives!

Happiness.

I guess that it would be difficult to find a greater change in topic than going from America’s relationship with war to the secret of happiness!  But that’s what’s on offer today!

All as a result of reading a recent article on the Grist blogsite written by one of the Grist staff writers, David Roberts.

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The secret to a happy life: revealed!

By David Roberts
10 Sep 2014

I don’t want to brag, but while I was on sabbatical I discovered the secret to happiness.

The crazy thing is, it was lying right there in the open. It’s been revealed dozens, hundreds of times over the course of human history. It’s revealed every day in ordinary human affairs, if you’re paying attention.

What is it? Let’s ask George Vaillant.

Vaillant is a Harvard psychologist who has been working for over 40 years on the Grant Study, one of the longest-running longitudinal studies in scientific history. It began tracking a set of 268 (white, physically and mentally healthy) men when they were sophomores at Harvard in 1939 and has been tracking them ever since, for 75 years, with exhaustive regular physical and psychological tests. It has followed them as they’ve grown, gone to war, married, divorced, worked, been fired, gotten sick, found God, and so on. (The ups and downs of the study’s history are recounted in this classic Atlantic piece, one of my favorite magazine stories ever.)

Vaillant has spent most of his adult life analyzing the data from the study, attempting to determine which factors most reliably correlate with well-being. He’s probably studied happiness longer, and in greater depth, than any other single human being. So what is it, George Vaillant? What’s the secret to a happy life?

“That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

Wow. That’s pretty straightforward. But can you boil it down just a little more?

“Happiness is love. Full stop.”

All right then! There you have it. The secret to happiness, revealed. It’s love.

If you want to break it down a little more, there’s plenty of social science research on it. We live longer, healthier, happier lives when we are at the center of overlapping social networks, when we have a devoted life partner, close family and friends (and pets), extensive “weak ties” with acquaintances and colleagues, peer and professional networks that value our skills, and a sense of autonomy balanced with a sense of involvement in something larger than ourselves. We are happiest when we have a place in the world, when we love and are loved, when we make the most of our gifts.

This is all obvious, of course, and has been said a million times. But that’s the point. People want there to be a what of happiness, a secret, an epiphany that once you learn it changes you forever. But the what of happiness is banal. It’s been confirmed by research. It’s in a kajillion self-help books. It’s cliché.

The what of happiness is not the hard part. The how is the hard part. As a million deathbed testimonials have taught us, when we look back on our lives, we won’t wish we’d worked harder, maintained Inbox Zero, finished those reports on deadline, gotten more promotions, owned a nicer car. We’ll wish we’d spent more time appreciating the ones we love and who love us, that we’d done more meaningful work, that we’d traveled more and had more memorable experiences.

We all know this. But it is no easy matter to translate that knowledge into action. Why? Vaillant is insightful about that, too, as The Atlantic explains:

Vaillant [says] positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.

Gratitude and joy are emotions we can muster when we don’t feel threatened, when our lizard brain calms and our prefrontal cortex takes over. But it’s very difficult when our egos feel under siege. Relationships are more meaningful the more we open and extend ourselves (and are reciprocated), but our degree of openness is also our degree of vulnerability. Often we close off, deciding, consciously or not, that it’s not worth the risk of getting hurt; our lizard-brain fear overpowers us.

We cannot control this dynamic entirely. As the Atlantic piece explains, researchers believe that about 50 percent of our happiness is determined by our internal “set point,” which is shaped by genetics and early childhood and mostly fixed in place. About 10 percent is determined by circumstances. But that other 40 percent comes from how we react to circumstances, and over that we do have some control.

We can learn to detach from fear and anger, to let them go, to take deep breaths, return our focus to the present, and choose positive emotions. That, as I wrote yesterday, is what mindfulness is all about. It’s what the entire discipline of positive psychology (which counts Vaillant as a founding father) is about: strengthening the prefrontal cortex so that it’s more able to override instinctual fear and anger. The more inclement the circumstances we face, the more we need it. That’s why mindfulness training is catching on in low-income communities, the military, and elderly care.

So when people ask, as they have many times in the last week, “What did you learn over your break?” … the honest answer is, nothing. I already knew the what of happiness, just as you already know it. The break was about more consciously practicing the how, and on that score I’m afraid I have no grand epiphanies, only a few baby steps down a road I’ll be walking all my life.

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The original Grist article was headed with a picture of a group of happy dogs and it seemed almost an automatic response from me to close today’s post with a picture of happy dogs here in Oregon. But rather obvious, don’t you think!

Instead, I’m going to use a photograph of me being ‘loved’ by Ben so soon after he came to us in April; Ben being one of the two horses (Ben and Ranger) to come here that were rescued by Darla Clark, as explained here.

P1140593

Now going to offer my own reflection on happiness.

Animals that are comfortable being around us readily display unconditional affection to humans.  All that these dogs, cats, horses, and others, require is trust in us.  The knowledge that we are there to care for them, to comfort them, to cuddle them, to love them for the majority of the interactions between the person and the creature.  That doesn’t rule out chastisement, far from it, just that it comes from a heartfelt desire to care for the animal.

I now have a life surrounded by loving animals.  It has been that way since I started living with Jean back in 2008. Yes, I had had Pharaoh in my life since 2003.  Still have him; the precious animal. But the one-on-one bond that existed between Pharaoh and me hadn’t previously opened my heart in the way that all 14 dogs and 5 cats did that were living with Jean when I joined her.

The unconditional love shown by those animals in my life for the last six years has profoundly affected me.  We are now ‘down’ to 9 dogs and 4 cats plus we have the 4 horses (2 rescue quarter-horses and 2 miniature horses). Still there are very few moments in the whole of my day, either day or night, where I am not in the company of, or in contact with, an animal that offers me unconditional love.

Recall earlier in the David Roberts article: “We are happiest when we have a place in the world, when we love and are loved, when we make the most of our gifts.

Of course, I have ‘off’ days!

But down to my core, I know that being loved by Jean and all the animals and returning that love provides me with a deep happiness unimaginable prior to 2008.

It is better to have a heart that makes love than a mind that makes sense.” Robert Keck

Thomas’s smile

What even a lovely boy, just one year old, can offer the world.

I’m writing this around 5pm UK time on the 8th June.  A little over 4 hours ago, at 1230 give or take, I witnessed a tiny event, something that for many of us wouldn’t have been seen as anything but trivial, albeit lovely.

Here’s what happened.

I had been to an introductory meeting with Richard White of The Accidental Salesman fame.  We met in Pall Mall, just by Trafalgar Square, at the offices of The Institute of Directors.

Shortly before 1230, after Richard and I had said our goodbyes, I jumped on a Bakerloo train at the London Underground station at Piccadilly Circus heading north for Baker Street.

Bakerloo line train at Piccadilly Circus station

I think it was one stop later that into my carriage entered parents with their small son.  They sat down and the father, who had been carrying the young lad, was clearly beautifully bonded (not my favourite word, can’t think of a better one just now) with the small boy.  The love and joy of the parents and their child just poured out into the ‘ether’ of the carriage. Result?

One man, middle-aged, sitting opposite to one side of the family beamed smiles in the direction of the young boy.  You could sense that his emotional outlook had been transformed by the unencumbered joy flowing across the carriage.  He really smiled more or less non-stop until I and this family got off at Baker Street station.

Another man, my guess upper middle-aged, was formally dressed in the business suit, tie and polished black shoes.  He was reading a newspaper.  But the boy’s joyful infectiousness touched him.  He put the paper to one side and discretely looked across at the child bouncing on his father’s lap and a private smile crossed his face.

I was standing observing all of this and, of course, seeing the truth of something so core to the needs of humans.  That is, the power of living beautifully in the present and how it demonstrates what my colleague Jon Lavin so often says, “The world reflects back what we think about most”.

Why do I write ‘of course’?  Because what was so natural for this boy at the tender age of one is so natural for dogs throughout all their lives; wonderfully enjoying the present.

In a most un-English manner, I briefly caught up with the parents and established that the young boy’s name was Thomas.

Well done, Thomas, and may that joy in you be with you and all those around you for ever and ever.