Top psychologist's tips for happiness

Last updated 05:00 01/02/2014
Generic happy woman

FIND A BALANCE: Paul Jose's his recipe for happiness focuses on amplifying the good bits without trying to block out life’s inevitable disappointments.

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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.

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.’’


What makes you happy? To complete a short questionnaire for Paul Jose's happiness research, click hereWe'll report back when the results are in.


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

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.

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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 YOU A SAVOURER OR A DAMPENER?

Are you making the most out of happy events in your life? Find out with this short quiz. Think of a recent positive event that you experienced. How did you react to it? For each question below, score 0 if you don’t usually react in this way, or 1 if you usually react like this.
  1. I talked to another person about how good I felt.
  2. I focused on future events, rather than enjoying the positive moment.
  3. I looked for other people to share it with.
  4. I reminded myself that it would be over before I knew it.
  5. I told myself that it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped for.
  6. I thought about what a lucky person I am that so many good things have happened to me.
  7. I thought about sharing the memory of this later with others.
  8. I told myself why I deserved this good thing.
  9. I reminded myself that nothing lasts forever.
  10. I thought about how things might never be this good again.
Now add up your score for these two groups of questions:
Amplifying: 1, 3, 6, 7, 8
Dampening: 2, 4, 5, 9, 10
If your amplifying score is higher, then you tend to foster, encourage and prolong positive feelings in your everyday life. If your dampening score is higher, then you tend to avoid, cut off and diminish the positive feelings in your life.

SAVOURING STRATEGIES

Sharing with others
Sharing a positive event tends to amplify it, which is why we have gatherings for birthdays, holidays and anniversaries.

Gratitude
Feeling grateful for something positive increases your happiness about it. The opposite of this is a sense of entitlement: ‘‘That is the road to cynicism and despair’’, Paul Jose says. Being grateful for even the so-called little things is a recipe for enduring happiness.

Memory-building
There are some people who rush through life. They don’t take the time to stop and take mental images in their minds and lay down explicit memories, allowing them to remember clearly the happiness they had. The more such memories you’re able to lay down, the easier it is to call them up and feel happier later.

Mindfulness
Try to slow down time and be in the moment as opposed to thinking about the past or planning for something next week. You just stop and say: ‘‘I’m going to drink this coffee and eat this sachertorte and absorb the deliciousness of this moment.’’

THINGS TO AVOID

Rumination
Rumination, or mulling unhappy events, is the opposite of savouring, amplifying the worst in a situation.

Dampening savouring
Taking a killjoy attitude, such as saying to yourself that you don’t deserve a happy event, or that it could have been better, can short-circuit happiness.

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.

  • New Zealanders rank 20th out of 24 countries for their overall wellbeing. Denmark, Norway and Cyprus lead the pack.
  • For positive feelings, or happiness, we trail at 15th.
  • Older New Zealanders (50-79), women and wealthier New Zealanders are flourishing more.
  • People in Taranaki are flourishing the least and people in the Bay of Plenty are flourishing the most.
  • Young people and poorer people are more likely to feel low or depressed.
  • Keys to ‘‘super wellbeing’’ (the top 25 per cent): Connecting with friends and family, giving, taking notice of your environment, continuing learning, being active, not smoking and overall good health are all strongly linked to super wellbeing.

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:

  • People showing the positive personality traits of gratitude, hope and grit are less likely to develop depression within the following three months.
  • Hedonic wellbeing (pleasure-seeking) and eudaimonic wellbeing (life-fulfilling happiness) overlap and might not be as easy to differentiate as first thought.

- Your Weekend

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