The Pursuit of Happiness

September / October 2015

By Michael Olson, Ph.D.

As a licensed marriage and family therapist, I was trained to assess, diagnose and treat mental and emotional illnesses in individuals, as well as relational patterns/problems in couples and families. The standard reference for classifying diseases (nosology) is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-V).1 This manual provides a standard system for naming and categorizing (nomenclature) mental and emotional illnesses.

Competence to make sense of complex physical, emotional, and psychological symptoms in a manner that can lead to successful treatment is of paramount importance in healthcare. There is, by necessity, a place for the deductive and circular reasoning that guides professionals in helping clients.

This approach, while critical to the formation of an accurate clinical picture, is insufficient. What do I miss when I only wear the glasses of pathogenesis and psychopathology? I may miss some of the key factors that can lead to health, wellness, and ultimately, happiness. The term “salutogenesis” is a term coined by Aaron Antonovsky, a professor of medical sociology. He used this term to describe an approach that focused on factors that support human health and well-being, rather than on factors that cause disease. He also argued against falsely dichotomizing or separating health from illness but rather thought of this as a continuum.2 Antonovsky pointed that more than just disease and illness need to be considered in our scientific approaches to help others. The pursuit of happiness is a multi-billion dollar industry in the U.S. An article published by Forbes revealed that Americans spent 11 billion dollars on self-improvement books, CDs, seminars, coaching, and stress management programs in 2008, alone, a 13.6% increase from 3 years previous. We are clearly looking for happiness in a lot of places, but is there a science to uncovering it? A branch of psychology, called “positive psychology,” is beginning to shed light on this question. In a “Psychology Today” post by Christopher Peterson, Ph.D., he states “positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. It is a call for psychological science to be as concerned with strength as with weakness; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst; and as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with healing pathology.”3 Positive psychology, he points out, is not to be confused with untested self-help, footless affirmation, or secular religion, no matter how good these make us feel. Peterson cites a few of the findings from positive psychology science, which include:

1. Most people are happy.

2. Happiness is a cause of good things in life and not simply along for the happy ride. People who are satisfied with life eventually have even more reasons to be satisfied.

3. Most people are resilient.

4. Happiness, strengths of character, and good social relationships are buffers against the damaging effects of disappointments and setbacks.

5. Crisis reveals character.

6. Other people matter mightily if we want to understand what makes life most worth living.

7. Religion matters.

8. Work matters if it engages the worker and provides meaning and purpose.

9. Money makes an ever-diminishing contribution to well-being, but money can “buy happiness” if it is spent on other people.

10. As a route to a satisfying life, eudaimonia (Greek origin, referring to a state of having a good indwelling spirit or being in a contented state of being healthy, happy and prosperous) trumps hedonism.

11. The “heart” matters more than the “head.” Schools explicitly teach critical thinking; they should also teach unconditional caring.

12. Good days have common features: feeling autonomous, competent, and connected to others.

13. The good life can be taught.

This last point speaks to the reality that one can learn to be happy and it is not simply, as Peterson put it, “the result of a fortunate spin of the genetic roulette wheel.” A physician colleague of mine often starts his conversations with his patients with a simple question, “What do you want your health for?” or “What gives your life meaning or purpose?” What a brilliant and simple way to change a focus in a system that often starts with “What seems to be the problem?” I’ve thought about practical ways to introduce this into my own life and family. An easy starting point for me was asking my children, “What was the best or most meaningful part of your day today?” This doesn’t mean we don’t talk about issues/problems that have come up and work to develop solutions for them; it just means I intentionally shift our focus to the good, the resourcefulness, the beauty, and the strength that lies within each of us and those around us.