Top psychologist's tips for happiness

05:42, Feb 01 2014
Paul Jose
Appreciating the little things – such as walking his dog Ginger – makes psychology researcher Paul Jose happy.

Seven years ago Paul Jose won a $600,000 grant to study happiness. Nikki Macdonald asks the Victoria University associate professor what he discovered, and if he’s now perpetually positive.

Every time he eyes the thickets of green outside his Wilton window, Paul Jose tries not to take the view for granted. And when his head hits the pillow each night, he mulls the experiences of the day for which he is grateful.

WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY? To complete a short questionnare for Paul Jose's happiness research, click here. We'll report back when the results are in.

Happy woman
There are few indisputably happy events. What counts most is how you react to them.

After seven years of studying happiness, the psychologist must surely have learnt to banish negativity altogether. Hell, no, says Jose. Perpetual happiness might be some people’s vision of heaven, but it’s his idea of Hades.

‘‘That’s lunacy. If you are 100 per cent happy all of the time, you would never appreciate it.’’

Instead his recipe for happiness focuses on amplifying the good bits without trying to block out life’s inevitable pain and disappointments.

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Oh, and eating icecream.

The 61-year-old traces his interest in psychology to his childhood on an isolated dairy farm in Missouri, where he spent more time with animals than people. He pondered what made them tick, and how human behaviour was similar or different. ‘‘It sensitised me to different ways of looking at the world.’’

Take pleading-eyed Ginger, Jose’s labrador/poodle/retriever cross. Any fool could divine what makes her happy – tucker, attention, barking at the courier and w-a-l-ks.

But humans turned out to be a rather more complex bunch. Why,  Jose wondered, were the black kids at school treated differently? And why did different cultures deal with problems in different ways?

After completing a doctorate at Yale in developmental psychology – how people change with age – he went to work at Chicago’s Loyola University, where he spent 15 years and where he met Professor Fred Bryant.

Bryant was at the forefront of the emerging area of positive psychology. Traditionally, psychologists focused on problems and ways of coping with them. But Bryant and others reasoned scientists should also examine how people deal with life’s joys.

The study of happiness isn’t new – the ancient Greeks differentiated between pleasure-seeking happiness (hedonism) and that which makes life worth living (eudaimonia). But positive psychology aims not just to characterise happiness, but to find ways to increase it.

For Jose, the field epitomised the reasons he began psychology research. After moving to New Zealand in 2001, in search of a more family-friendly upbringing for his three young boys, he applied for a prestigious Marsden grant to conduct happiness experiments. In 2007 he was awarded $600,000 to do so.

The first step to improving happiness is understanding what makes people happy. Which isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.

Ask most young people their dream of a happy life and it probably involves sex, world travel and a superyacht.

What they don’t realise is that humans have an extraordinary ability to adapt. The slum-dweller scrunched on a dirt floor and the multi-millionaire lounging on their four-poster will both tell you their life is OK. 

‘‘A middle class person automatically thinks ‘if I were to get a brand new car that would make me happy for such a long time’, but the truth is you get used to it.’’

Which is why Jose asks his family to give him experiences rather than things for Christmas. 

‘‘To some extent I think we’ve been duped by the capitalist system to think that giving other people material objects is really the only way to make other people happy. It’s a lie.’’

And, of course, different things make different people happy. His co-researcher Bryant is happiest conquering 4000-metre peaks in the Rocky Mountains; Jose is afraid of heights. His ideal weekend is a quiet one with his wife, Mary, reading, and walking Ginger in the nearby bush; his 16-year-old son Easton’s perfect day involves throwing himself down a steep hill on a piece of wood with wheels.

Which explains Jose’s agonising over the music choice for one of his Marsden grant experiments, which involved devising pleasurable events to tickle the senses.

Eating chocolate, placing a warm wheat pack on your shoulders and watching funny video clip Where The Hell Is Matt? all seemed inherently pleasant experiences. But one man’s perfect tune could be another’s egregious earworm. In the end he settled on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which he admits is ‘‘an old person’s choice’’.

The experiment found that those who tended to savour good moments in their lives enjoyed the experiences more, irrespective of their base level of happiness. Which underlines the critical fact that there are few events that are indisputably happy. What’s more important than the event itself is how we react to it. And that’s where savouring comes in, a concept pioneered by Bryant. The idea is to take time to appreciate and amplify good experiences in the same way as you’d appreciate a well-made latte (see sidebar).

Take an event such as morning tea with a friend, which could be either banal or memorable, Jose says. ‘‘It might turn out to be a wonderful enriching funny time and you look back and think: ‘Man, that was the best thing that happened to me all day’. 

‘‘Another person could have met the exact same person and had a perfectly dreadful time. Maybe partly because of your savouring techniques you made it fun. There are people who are  very good at making mundane situations more fun – you  know who they are probably. And then there’s this wet-rag friend of mine who always drags me down and is never really fun.’’

In another joint study with Bryant, reported in the Journal of Positive Psychology,  Jose asked 101 New Zealanders to keep a daily diary for a month documenting positive events and the way they affected their mood. He found that people who savoured the day’s good moments maintained higher levels of happiness irrespective of the frequency of positive daily events, whereas the mood of those who failed to savour the good was more dependent on the number of positive moments in their day.

‘‘Each of us has within us the capacity to make our life happier if we employ the right savouring strategies at the right time.’’

One of the most common misconceptions Jose encounters is that happiness means banishing negative feelings and that positive psychology is the pursuit of perpetual happiness. Not so, he says.

‘‘If you ever try to deny, avoid, push away the negative, it will come back with a vengeance. Whatever you feel, you better acknowledge it, because for you it’s real and you need to come to grips with it.’’

And trying to average out the sad and happy, or numb the brain with alcohol or drugs to block out the negative, is also unhelpful, Jose says. We need the contrast of negative feelings to appreciate feeling happy – just ask a person with bipolar disorder, whose medication flatlines their emotional peaks and troughs.

One bi-polar patient wrote: ‘‘Sometimes I want to hurt myself just to make sure that I can feel on a consistent basis and remind myself that I’m still human.’’ 

But while you shouldn’t deny the negative, you can pump up the positive, Jose says. Take a bittersweet experience, such as a father attending his daughter’s wedding. He’s torn between happiness for his daughter and a sense of impending loss. Jose’s solution is to acknowledge the sadness, but to make a conscious effort not to let that diminish the day’s happiness.

‘‘Then the following day I will have those memories of potent happiness at the same time as I think about my loss.’’

If all else fails, there’s always icecream. Yes, the advertisement is true – icecream really does make you happy.

So what better way for Jose to provide jobs for his three sons – Ben, 18, Easton, 16 and Isaac, 15 – than to start up a gelato franchise? The couple opened Zuzu’s gelato at Queensgate Mall last year to help put the kids through university. And to spread a little cheer.

‘‘I love food, I love wonderful flavours and I get a big kick out of seeing people eat their gelato. The expressions of pleasure really is gratifying to me.’’

While savouring an icecream is the ultimate in fleeting hedonism, Jose hopes to work with prominent positive psychologist Ken Sheldon to study enduring happiness. That’s likely to bring him back to his favourite word, ‘‘authenticity’’ – having the courage to convey who you are and what you feel to other people.

‘‘I think to be authentic is to live. We have only one life, so let’s live it, rather than try to dampen our experiences or our reactions and just walk like a robot through life. At the end of your life you’re going to be lying in bed thinking: ‘What have I missed?’, and that’s too bad.

‘‘There is some window, some change we can all make in our lives, to embrace more happiness, and that’s my goal.’’

 

 

ARE  KIWIS HAPPY?

Last year’s Sovereign Wellbeing Index provided the first national snapshot of New Zealanders’ wellbeing. The survey measured flourishing – having supportive and rewarding relationships, actively contributing to the happiness of others and leading purposeful and meaningful lives.

 

The 2013 United Nations World Happiness Report labelled New Zealand the 13th happiest country in the world, behind Scandinavian countries and Australia, but ahead of Britain and the United States.

The International Wellbeing Study, led by New Zealand Association of Positive Psychology president Aaron Jarden, began in March 2009 and tested the wellbeing of 7617 people from 110 countries, including 1605 New Zealanders. Final results are still being analysed, but provisional findings have included:

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