Psychologists put their heads together to discover how we can be happy for life

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Some of the brightest researchers in psychology met in London yesterday with one thing on their minds: the pursuit of happiness.

Some of the brightest researchers in psychology met in London yesterday with one thing on their minds: the pursuit of happiness.

They went to the Royal Society, the independent academy dedicated to promoting excellence in science, to discuss the science of well-being and the art of thinking positively. At the centre of the two-day conference is the philosophy and practice of Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and the guru of how to be happy through a positive approach to life. He turned the world of psychology and psychiatry upside down five years ago by suggesting scientists should study what was going right with people's lives rather than concentrating on what was going wrong.

He said: "Positive psychology is the study of positive emotion, positive character traits, positive institutions. It represents a sea-change in the social sciences, a change from an exclusive concern with healing damage and repairing weakness towards a psychology of understanding and building virtue and strength."

The psychologist Oliver James, author of They F*** You Up, said that most people in the developed world were no happier than peoplewere in the 1950s when they wereless affluent. He said: "A typical 25-year-old today is between three and ten times more likely to suffer major depression compared to the 1950s. It seems that once you reach a certain level of income, an annual salary of around £15,000, increasing affluence has no impact on whether you are likely to be happier. In fact, the more you earn, the less likely you are to be happy."

Randolph Ness, of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said consumer-ism and the pressure to succeed were creating an epidemic of unhappiness for people incapable of realising that certain desirable things in life were unattainable. "The inability to disengage from important but unreach-able life goals may be more common in modern societies and seems aetiologically crucial in many cases of depression," said Dr Ness, who studies happiness from an evolutionary standpoint. "This explains the fundam-ental disappointment of mod-ern life: the discovery that satisfaction of our desires for comfort, safety and material well being do not reliably lead to personal well being."

Nick Bayliss, a lecturer in positive psychology at Cam-bridge University, said there were ways of training your-self to have a feeling of well being, even for those people predisposed to pessimism. "The science of well being at its most elemental level is the systematic study of lives going well. Well being isn't just the absence of illness, it's very much a positive state," he said. "The single, most potent and richest source of happiness is the breadth and depth of our intimate relationships; not just sexual relationships, but companionship and love between friends and family."

Humans were highly social and craved the comfort of knowing they were valued members of a group that could share experiences and emotions. "The important thing is depth, the building up of intimate relationships with people you know or the place you know or the job you do," Dr Bayliss said.

One of the easiest ways of securing long-term happiness was to take up an activity that involved making friends. Dr Bayliss said playing football on Sundays was his way of fulfilling his "signature strength". The pursuit of wealth on its own would not work. "It takes a lottery winner a year for them to get back to the same level of happiness they were in before they became rich."

SELIGMAN'S THREE LEVELS OF HAPPINESS

The Pleasant Life: satisfying the visceral pleasures of the body such as having a glass of good wine, a hot bath or a snog in the park. Such pleasures are transitory and superficial and cannot produce true well being but can make life enjoyable for a moment.

The Good Life: engaging in activity, often social in nature, which causes vigorous enjoyment through a challenge - take up Sunday football or try writing a book.

The Meaningful Life: the highest level of sustained happiness comes when people can give a wider meaning to their lives. Helping others through politics, voluntary work or religion can help people to realise that there is something bigger and more important then themselves.

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