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Happiness Connected to Thankfulness, Not Pleasure

Teresa Neumann : Sep 16, 2010  Claudia Wallis - Time

"Taking the time to conscientiously count their blessings once a week significantly increased subjects' overall satisfaction with life over a period of six weeks, whereas a control group that did not keep journals had no such gain."

"To the man who pleases Him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness"-Ecclesiastes 2:26

happinessTime magazine recently published a report on the "Science of Happiness." The report began with a challenge put forth by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman in 1998 to his peers in which he suggested that rather than focusing on what troubles their patients, mental health practitioners should focus instead on what will make them "flourish."

"I realized that my profession was half-baked," said Seligman of his new vision for psychology. "It wasn't enough for us to nullify disabling conditions and get to zero. We needed to ask, What are the enabling conditions that make human beings flourish? How do we get from zero to plus five?"

Ultimately, the Templeton Foundation in England became involved with his research. The studies revealed some interesting facts about happiness. Among them were:

  • Even the happiest of people feel blue at times, and even the bluest have their moments of joy. 
  • Once your basic needs are met, additional income does little to raise your sense of satisfaction with life.
  • Youth doesn't make one happy because, in fact, older people are more consistently satisfied with their lives than the young, and less prone to moodiness.
  • Married people are generally happier than singles.
  • A sunny climate doesn't affect happiness.
  • Religious faith "lifts the spirit."
  • Friends are important to happiness.
  • And, lastly, happiness can be an afterthought. The example given: "If you were to randomly beep someone on vacation in Italy, you might catch that person waiting furiously for a slow-moving waiter to take an order or grousing about the high cost of the pottery. But if you ask when it's over, 'How was the vacation in Italy?,' the average person remembers the peak moments and how he or she felt at the end of the trip."

As a result of his research, Seligman reportedly found three components of happiness: pleasure, engagement [in life], and meaning. Of those three, he insists pleasure is the least consequential.

"This is newsworthy," he said, "because so many Americans build their lives around pursuing pleasure. It turns out that engagement and meaning are much more important."

What I found most interesting in this secular-based article were some of the conclusions and suggestions some of the researchers made to help people become "happy." Some of them could come straight out of the Bible.

For example, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California at Riverside is studying the effects of keeping a "gratitude journal." According to the article, "she has found that taking the time to conscientiously count their blessings once a week significantly increased subjects' overall satisfaction with life over a period of six weeks, whereas a control group that did not keep journals had no such gain."

Seligman took the concept a step further and suggests making "gratitude visits," in which people express their thanks in person to people they are grateful for. He also recommended an exercise called the "three blessings" - taking time each day to write down a trio of things that went well, and why.

Lyubomirsky summed it up nicely by quoting Oprah, which she says she normally doesn't do:  "She [Oprah] was asked how she runs five miles a day, and she said, 'I recommit to it every day of my life.' I think happiness is like that. Every day you have to renew your commitment. Hopefully, some of the strategies will become habitual over time and not a huge effort."

As a Christian, I know I don't need to do any of these things to be happy. Being dissatisfied, however, is another thing. Since giving thanks in "all things" can be a challenge in the best of times, the take away lesson for me in this report is that the next time I feel like whining about the weather, or money problems, I may just sit down and write a list of blessings or go make a "gratitude visit."

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