You can learn to be happier

Depression now afflicts 10 to 12 percent of American adults, and that number has been growing steadily, according to organizations such as the National Institute for Mental Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 
Depression is a serious illness that causes mental anguish and physical pain, both of which wreak havoc on overall health and well-being. But there’s exciting new research regarding free will and the “science” of happiness.

While it may have a genetic component, happiness can be learned, a research team headed by University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman, an expert in the field of positive psychology, has determined.

Seligman’s landmark study, published in American Psychologist (2005), demonstrated that simple tasks, such as writing in a “gratitude” journal or thanking an important person in your life, can have powerful mood-enhancing effects.

Other researchers, such as Sonja Lyubomirsky from the University of California, Riverside, have determined that certain behaviors, like acts of kindness and forgiveness, taking care of your body (exercising, eating right and getting enough sleep), having religious faith and smiling or laughing all can contribute to a more satisfying life.

Contrary to popular belief, research suggests that once our basic financial needs are met, additional income and wealth don’t increase life satisfaction in the long haul (Diener, E., & Biswas-Diener, R., “Will money increase subjective well being?” Social Indicators Research, 2002). Even lottery winners revert to pre-payoff happiness levels after the initial excitement of winning has passed. What’s more, other desirables, such as intelligence, youth, education and more sunshine don’t make us happier (although personally, I’d have to disagree with that last one!).

Now, in no way am I pulling a Tom Cruise by suggesting that depressed folks should suck it up, not seek treatment and think happy thoughts. What I am suggesting is that, based on scientific research, a large slice of our life satisfaction is in our hands.

We can choose to take actions to help us feel happier, whether that means seeking professional help, beginning an exercise program or partaking of some of the mood-enhancing actions identified in Seligman’s study. The bottom line is that happiness is an attitude, a choice and a skill that needs honing.

Other sources:

Wallis, C. (2005). “The New Science of Happiness.” Time magazine, Jan. 17, 2005.