Archive for Change

Pleased to be Happy to create Contentment (Positive Psychology Part I)

Fairly recently, some researchers in psychology have become less focused on the negative stuff such as mental disorders, aggression, and emotionally hurting others. Instead these researchers have been focusing on positive psychology; they’re viewing behavior and mental processes (psychology) from a positive rather than a negative view. They’re asking questions like the following:
– “Why do we help others? How can we get more people to help others?”
– “What makes people happy? Do they really know what makes them happy?”
– “How can we help people with depression to not just decrease their symptoms but decrease their symptoms and then enjoy their lives?”

I tend to reference music a lot in my thinking – for some reason I think in music, and I see things in snapshots (thus why I take lots of pictures). Talking about positive psychology reminds me of something Petey Pablo said on his 2nd album – “Had a little vacation, enjoyin’ life; but that’s what you’re supposed to do when you get there, enjoy your life. You know [what I] mean, ‘cuz this ain’t promised to us tomorrow, we can lose this shit tonight, ya understand what I’m sayin’?” (“Part 2”, 2004). If you don’t speak Petey, he’s saying that every day that we have of our life is when we’re supposed to be enjoying it – not tomorrow, not once I finish my degree, not once my kids are out of the house – NOW. And that’s a big question of positive psychology – how can we help people to recognize this and think/behave accordingly?

Over the next few months we’re going to talk about that. We’ll start off small. But I have to say, there’s no learning without participation. So if you want to read my blogs and disregard them, go ahead – but my thought is, couldn’t you be doing something with that time that you enjoy rather than sitting here reading something that you don’t enjoy? But anyway, I digress. I’ll ask you to do some stuff. It may or may not be eye-opening, depending on whom you are. I will promise though that somewhere along the way, you will learn about yourself and/or someone you know, and that will help your way through life. A lot of what I’ll talk about is based on the writings of Don Lucas (2010). Reading Don’s book and working with him every day has definitely influenced my ways of thinking about positive psychology and life in general. I will also talk a lot about where Don and I disagree though (and he would love to have that conversation).

So let’s get started. Today’s topic? Name that emotion. “Huh?” you may be asking. Well, thanks for asking (at paying attention enough to wonder WTF). As children we’re taught some very basic emotion labeling. Some kids’ emotion labeling is so basic it only includes “happy” and “sad.” If that’s the case, that I can only label how I’m feeling as “happy” or “sad,” then how do I experience the world? I experience it only through the lens of these two emotions. What’s that like, you may wonder. “Not very fun,” I would answer. Now sometimes parents and teachers (those who give us our emotion labels) teach us some more descriptive words. “Angry,” “disappointed,” “scared,” starting to notice something? We learn a lot more negative emotion descriptors than we do positive ones. In fact, think about some positive emotion descriptors. I’m betting you could come up with a lot more negative than positive ones.

Typically, we learn that “happy” is where it’s at; it’s where we want to be. People forever lament, “I just want to be happy!” But here I pose a question – do you know what that means? Honestly. What does “happy” mean? How can you define it? Most of our definitions are going to involve a high level of a positive emotion and a lack of negative emotions. What Lucas (2010) has found is that when people talk “happy,” they’re really referring to three different emotions: pleasure, happiness, and contentment. Warning: reading on may turn what you think about yourself and what you do every day on its ear. Or you may completely reject it. But read on anyway.

As I said before, today we’re just working on recognition. In order to recognize something within yourself though, you have to know what it is. Pleasure can be seen as something small that gives us what I think of as that “positive spike” in our brain. It’s Homer Simpson’s “Whoo hoo!” It’s short term, but when it happens, it feels like a whoo hoo. It can last longer as well, but that’s the major point of pleasure – it is short term. What brings each of us pleasure can be pretty “individual;” most things that bring you pleasure may not give others that “positive jolt.” Lots of people learn from examples, so I’ll give you some examples from my own life that were pleasure-inducing (remember, short-term). – Realizing my favorite show is on TV and being able to watch it (“What?! A Law & Order marathon?! YES!!!!”). Eating a good dinner. Playing with my dogs. Smoking a cigarette. Listening to music that puts me in a good mood (if you ever need a pleasure jolt, Phish’s “Sparkle” always works for me). Watching a movie we enjoy (and especially one that makes us laugh – “Jackass” and “Jackass 2” always do this for me, as does “PeeWee’s Big Adventure”). Yesterday I got some iPhone covers that I ordered in the mail – “Whoo hoo!” Even just getting personal mail, for me, is a whoo hoo experience. – So these are all things that give us that pleasure jolt – we feel good while doing them, but typically the positive feelings decrease quickly after we’re done experiencing them.

Next up in terms of positive feeling longevity is happiness. “Happy” lasts longer than pleasure. Things that make us happy may be things that we describe as bringing us “joy, enjoyment, jubilation, glee, and delight” (Lucas, 2010, p. 108). Some things that create happiness (remember, a longer-term emotion than pleasure) are things like getting a new job (and expecting to enjoy it), setting a goal and working toward attaining it (but after attaining it the positive feelings seem to decrease, ever notice that?), meeting a new friend (or potential significant other) and building a relationship with them, getting married (but again, notice how the positive feeling does eventually decrease?), and spirituality/religion. What we notice with happiness is that eventually, we get used to that positive feeling, and it decreases in how positive it feels to us. This is what psychologists call habituation – our brain gets used to the positive effects of stimuli, and the effects of those stimuli decrease over time. In my mind, “happy” starts with “pleasure” – so a longer-term venture that creates happiness starts with that “jolt” or whoo-hoo moment.

Now for some examples and applications of these concepts. – When I met my husband, I experienced pleasure. We enjoyed each others’ company on an ongoing basis, making each other happy. But habituation will occur, and so in order to deal with that you first have to know to expect it, then recognize ways to deal with it. This is why marriage therapists are always telling people to “inject a little something different into your relationship.” If you don’t, you’ll see that people will habituate and then create other pleasure inducing activities (hello, adultery or trial separation “to figure out what I want”).

Another example – last year I knew I needed a new laptop. Mine was going slower and slower (and I was getting more and more frustrated with it – I had habituated to how happy my old laptop was making me). So I did some research, and saw that HP had created a “tablet PC” that you could use as a laptop (obviously) but also it had a touch screen that you could “write on” with the supplied “pen.” I so coveted it. I did some more research, realized that was what I wanted (and justified the purchase because I was back in school), and bought one. Whoo hoo! I brought it home and played with it; I showed everyone how I could “write” on my screen and save notes. I imagined myself bringing it to work and conferences and utilizing its features. I was happy with my purchase. This was last August. Now, don’t get me wrong little laptop (that I’m currently typing on), but I have habituated. I don’t use the freaking tablet AT ALL. I’m trying to find new ways to do so (to rejuvenate my happiness with it), but it’s not really working out that well. So what has happened? I now covet a Macbook. Laptop adultery!

One further example. I love dogs. I love puppies especially, but I love watching them grow. I love watching them learn. I love watching their personalities develop over time. I love that they give you unconditional attention and love. I got my first dog (of my very own, not Mom’s Shih-Tzu) and she was a Chihuahua whom I named Lily. Bringing Lily home and buying her “puppy stuff” created the “whoo hoo!” experience. Then she peed on the carpet – yeah, we won’t talk about that. But I played with her (pleasure-inducing), we took walks (exercise is pleasure inducing because it releases “happy brain chemicals”), we snuggled on the couch (physical touch releases those same sorts of happy brain chemicals), she learned to pee outside (whoo hoo!), and I loved her very much. For about a year and a half, I was happy with just a Lily. Then…habituation (insert bad movie noise)! So what did I do? To my husband’s chagrin, I brought home another puppy! Whoo hoo! She was named Ivy (animals are named after plants in our house). She was…let’s just say, different from Lily. Maybe it was “second child syndrome,” who knows, but Ivy’s a grumpy pet slut (i.e., wants to be an only dog, wants your full attention, wants all the toys to herself, AND wants to be up in your face getting pet 24/7). About a year and a half later? I wanted another dog (and got one). You can see where this is going. If I continued in this way, there would be more dogs than…well, anything else in my house. Happy leads to habituation which leads to behaviors to search out more happiness (and repeat).

If this is the case, that happiness is really short-lived and we habituate to it quickly, then what is that “lifelong positive feeling” that we’re all searching out? That, my friends, would be contentment. Now you’re probably thinking, “No, contentment is complacency. It’s not good, it’s settling.” And I would say, “You know, up until a few months ago, I agreed with you.” But if pleasure is short-term, happiness is longer (but still not life-time), then what? Do you want to be happy? Or do you want something longer? Now granted, contentment is not as high intensity as pleasure or happiness. I will give you that, and that is one thing about contentment that I dislike. But to me, contentment involves that feeling of being at peace. All of your needs are met, you don’t have to worry about this or that, and you can really just…enjoy. As Petey Pablo said, you can “enjoy your life.” Contentment allows us to look up at the clouds with a kid and imagine where those clouds have been (and use them as Rorschach cloud-blots). It allows you to lay on the floor with the dogs in the sun spot they have found and take a nap with them (and get woken up to kisses or a paw in the face, as I often do). It allows you to see the colors of life, and enjoy them for what they are: nature’s art show. It allows you to enjoy being “in the moment.”

Do these things (pleasure, happiness, and contentment) exist completely separately from each other? No, not at all. Hell, we can experience all of them in one day (especially regarding different topics or areas of our lives like work, relationships, friends, etc.). So this is what I want you to do – start noticing when you’re feeling what. What brings you pleasure? What things are making you happy right now? When do you experience contentment? This is your homework until next time. What could it hurt, right?

References

Lucas, D. (2010). Being: your happiness, pleasure, and contentment. Plymouth, MI: Hayden-
McNeil.

Palbo, P. (2004). Part 2. Still writing in my diary: second entry. Jive.

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