This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, August 3, 2006

August 3, 2006 - follow the formula for happiness

Suppose that there were a simple formula for happiness?

Well, according to Jonathan Haidt, there is. In his book, "The Happiness Hypothesis," he just gives it away:

H = S + C + V

Any questions? I thought there might be.

H stands for "happiness."

S stands for "set point." That's the idea that you're more or less genetically programmed to have a range of responses to the world, broadly falling into either optimistic or pessimistic.

The cheerful, upbeat folks, according to Haidt, were "winners of the cortical lottery." The paranoid, suspicious, depressed folks, were not. The cheerful folks don't necessarily deserve praise for being positive, and the downbeat ones don't necessarily deserve blame for being negative.

The positive ones do tend to be healthier and happier, though. They respond to challenges more quickly, and do a better job of weathering times of adversity.

It turns out that there are three clearly demonstrated ways for even the pessimists to effect a change in their world view and feelings.

First is meditation. This technique is simple to explain but surprisingly hard to master. Usually, it involves little more than just sitting quietly for even 5-15 minutes a day, and trying to keep the attention focused on something like your own breathing.

Why does it work? Because you retrain the mind to break the autonomic train of associations. You learn to detach and notice, rather than just get swept up into a mental or emotional narrative.

A second technique is cognitive therapy. This, too, takes some effort.

Here's a simplified example. Let's say that every time you look at somebody, you feel a rush of paranoia or fear. If you're in cognitive therapy, you have learned to be alert to this, and have prepared an alternative.

For instance, when you feel that negative rush, you mentally pause, and summon a memory of something kind or good the other person did. This changes your feelings about that person.

You keep practicing this, day after day, until again, you retrain yourself.

But meditation and cognitive therapy take not just persistent effort, but time. The third way is Prozac. And there's something suspicious about just popping a pill and being better.

Psychologists still aren't altogether sure why or how it works. Yet Prozac has been clinically demonstrated to change not just attitudes -- it's neither a depressant nor a stimulant -- but the fundamental behavior of your whole body. Prozac begins working in surprising ways: with changes in the actions of your intestines to the rhythm of your sleeping patterns.

And for many people, it seems to have the same results of years of professional therapy. But overnight. That isn't to say, of course, that it's right for everybody.

C stands for the conditions of your life. Some of them you can't change: your age, your race, and for some people, your health. For instance, you might have been paralyzed, or been diagnosed with a difficult disease.

But there are other things that can be changed: your job, where you live, or your marital status. Interestingly, Haidt points out the importance of noise -- an intermittent but uncontrolled environmental condition that can eat away at your happiness, almost without you noticing.

V stands for voluntary activities. Haidt describes a set of experiments with some surprising results. One group of people was told to take some time every day to do something they really enjoyed, just for themselves. Let's say it's "have an ice cream." Then they had to record how they felt an hour later, a day later, and a week later.

Another group was given the assignment of doing something for somebody else -- so-called "random acts of kindness."

A similar experiment was done with seniors -- one group, who hadn't volunteered before, was given the assignment of visiting and assisting other seniors.

The finding? Doing something for somebody else, not yourself, was by far the most powerful voluntary activity, resulting in significant and long lasting improvements in health and happiness.

It turns out that scientifically speaking, it truly is better to give than to receive.

Psychology has gotten pretty interesting lately. I can recommend "The Happiness Hypothesis" as a fascinating overview of the field. And it's anything but formulaic.

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