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The science of happiness

Researchers have found the keys to happiness and they don’t include money, youth or education.

“People want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play,” says Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., the father of Positive Psychology, a new type of therapy that focuses on mental health, rather than mental illness. Its goal is to help individuals find happiness, not just relief from their disabling conditions.

Seligman is Director of the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center and past President of the American Psychological Association. His research has found ways for people to be happier, feel more satisfied, be more engaged with life, find more meaning and have higher hopes. Positive psychology interventions can also lastingly decrease depression symptoms.

What makes us happy?
Positive Psychology identifies three paths to happy lives:

  • getting more pleasure out of life by savoring sensory experiences,
  • becoming more engaged in what you do and
  • finding ways of making your life feel more meaningful.

What are some of the steps we can take to increase our happiness?
Surprisingly, they’re very doable steps: Feeling grateful for the positive aspects of our lives, performing acts of kindness, and recognizing the things that went well at the end of each day.

To be seriously happy, Seligman says, we have to set our sights on a meaningful life. To do this we need to identify what he calls our signature strengths, which could be anything from perseverance and leadership to a love of learning. To gain insight on these strengths, our emotions and other factors associated with happiness, we can complete any of more than a dozen questionnaires and evaluations online.

Optimism and hope create better resistance to depression, along with better performance at work and better physical health. Optimists can go about their lives, even when one important aspect of it is crumbling. On the other hand, people who “catastrophize” find that when one thread of their lives breaks, the whole fabric unravels. Hope allows a person to stand back from his pessimistic beliefs and verify their accuracy by asking: What is the evidence for this belief? Which of the causes of this belief is changeable? Even if this belief is true, what is the worst case scenario?

“Positive Psychology is not remotely intended as a replacement for psychology-as-usual,” he says. “Clinical psychology and biological psychiatry have amply demonstrated that they can make the lives of suffering people less unhappy.

“We overcome our suffering not only by healing damage and repairing what is broken within ourselves. More commonly we overcome troubles by doing end-runs around them, by deploying our highest strengths as buffers against the setbacks of life. And these domains–buffering, strength, pleasure, and meaning–long neglected by psychology-as-usual, are the subject matter of Positive Psychology.”

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