Happiness comes from within and happiness comes from experiences we have with people we love. For thousands of years philosophers were asking about happiness and talking about happiness but without any scientific data. It has only been within the last 30 or 40 years that we have collected scientific data, rigorous data, measured happiness and started to begin to see what it is that leads to happiness. In happiness research they ask people how happy they are on a 1 to 10 scale. Ed Diener has gathered data on nearly a quarter of a million people and has found that people who are happy have better health, better relationships, better careers and better just about everything. The happiest people surround themselves with family and friends, don’t care about keeping up with the Joneses, lose themselves in daily activities and, most importantly, forgive easily.
A couple of years ago there was a buzz around Hollywood because of a film called “the Secret.” In it, they said that your thoughts determine your destiny. If you had positive thoughts, you would be attracting positive things into your life. Conversely, if you had negative thoughts you would be attracting negative things into your life. “The Secret” is just one example of a self-help program. Norman Vincent Peal is a well-known promoter of the Power of Positive Thinking, which is not only the title of a book but also a philosophy of living that basically says that what you can conceive and believe you can achieve. He was a very influential man in his time and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest honor bestowed upon a civilian in the United States. As a minister, his mantle passed to Dr. Robert Schuler who founded the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County and approached spreading the message of positive thinking with evangelistic zeal building a multimillion-dollar empire including The Hour of Power television show that was in its time the most widely watched hour-long church service in the world . The point is that the precepts of The Secret are nothing new.
Last year Americans spent about 10 billion dollars on self-help. The founder of Hay House claims to have cured herself of cancer. Her books have sold over 35,000,000 copies making her one of the best selling authors of all time. Hay believes that thoughts are the cause of all problems. She teaches that the thoughts we think can actually make us sick. She says she doesn’t believe in Science. She believes in her “inner ding.” Some hard scientist would look at that and reply, “She’s dingy all right.”
Social support is a key factor in becoming a resilient individual. We cannot do it alone. You need other people. Everybody needs a way of communicating with other people to establish friendships that are supportive and to establish relationships that provide a guidepost as you get through the tough times. Highly resilient people have a strong religious or moral belief, strong role models and a strong streak of optimism. You learn resilience by falling down and getting back up again. Adaptation is something that the mind does when there’s nothing else it can do. We adapt to misfortunes when we know we can’t change them but when we stand a fighting chance, we fight. That’s why we struggle so much with temporary misfortunes.
Being unemployed obviously makes us unhappy but the reasons aren’t entirely financial. When a person asks us who we are we often tell them what we do because work is a part of our identity. That’s why when we lose our jobs we lose a part of ourselves. The same is true of illness. Being sick makes us unhappy but the reasons are not entirely medical or even physical for that matter. Illness like unemployment can tear a hole in our identities and leave us wondering who we really are.
Self-help appears to be a simple and inexpensive alternative to therapy or counseling. Over the last 20 years psychology professor John Norcroft has engaged in a systematic study of the self-help industry. He says that we should be cheering the proliferation of the self-help industry. “Approximately 75% of those who successfully changed a behavior or relationship did so on their own without any professional treatment. At the same time there are limitations to self-help. More than 95% of all self-help books are published without any scientific research attesting to their effectiveness or safety and we estimate that nearly 99% of Internet self-help sites are launched without any scientific research attesting to their “value.” Self-help offers quick and easy solutions to complicated problems. One of the most popular self-help gurus is Dr. Phil who says that he’s not trying to keep people away from therapy but giving them a wake up call .
One of the more effective self-help groups is Alcoholics Anonymous, which is a free, peer-based support group offering meetings across the country. Researchers have found that AA is very effective and one of the things to which that success is attributed is social support or what AA people call “fellowship”. Besides going to meetings its members are encouraged to engage in service opportunities such as setting up for meetings, cleaning up after the meetings and sponsoring other alcoholics. One of the findings from the research is that people who “sponsor” others have a greater chance of success in the program because by helping others with their addiction, they are helping themselves. There are twelve steps in AA that its members are encouraged to follow. It starts with admission of powerlessness over their addiction and continues with such principles as turning to a “higher power” for help and guidance, taking a personal moral inventory, asking the higher power to remove defects of character, listing people who were harmed by the addiction, making amends to those you have harmed, accepting personal responsibility for any wrongs you may have done, continuing to take a personal moral inventory and to improve your conscious contact with a higher power and finally taking the message of AA to alcoholics who are still suffering. The theme in the end goes back to the idea that by helping others, you’re helping yourself.
After mulling over some of the research on happiness, reading some of the positive thinking and self-help literature, considering my own career choices and how personally fulfilling it is to do volunteer work it is clear that one of the greatest sources of happiness for myself is investing in others. Teaching is not something that people go into for the money. For myself and other colleagues the reward of teaching is seeking your students excel. The monetary compensation is secondary to the joy of watching your students develop and grow.
It wasn’t at all surprising to find that research on happiness affirms the notions that happiness is contagious, happiness can be reinforced by social support and maintaining a positive mental attitude.