Happy at Last

The Thinking Person's Guide to Finding Joy

Richard O'Connor, MSW, Ph.D.

St. Martin's Press

 From the Introduction to Happy At Last

       Conventional happiness reached a dead end well before our current economic meltdown.   For centuries, one of the basic operating principles of Western society has been the belief that increasing prosperity will lead automatically to greater happiness.  But now for the first time we have the data to prove that’s just not so.  In the USA and Europe, over the last fifty years since scientists started measuring personal happiness reliably, people continue to report that they are less and less happy every year—although personal wealth continues to increase.  As other nations become more Westernized, and prosperity spreads around the globe, happiness declines as well.  This theory that most of us unconsciously buy into, if I get rich, then I’ll be happy, doesn’t work.  In fact, what seems to work is the opposite—if I get rich I’ll get depressed and anxious.  Rates of depression and anxiety disorders are zooming into the stratosphere in Western countries.  Other social indicators we can assume are linked with unhappiness are climbing as well—divorce, illegal drug use, incarceration rates, poor educational performance, violence, obesity.

       So wealth is not the answer.  Maybe it’s a good thing to face that now, because those of us in the West are probably past the very pinnacle of wealth, looking downhill from here on.  In fact, it’s likely that the U.S. passed the peak of personal wealth without much fanfare in the 1980’s, because ever since then we’ve been working longer and longer hours to maintain the same standard of living.  Still, whether the peak is in the recent past or the near future, the long-term outlook is tough simply because the global economy means there’s a great leveling coming.  All the billions of people in China, India, and Africa want our standard of living too; and because energy and other resources are finite, as their slices of pie get larger, ours will get smaller.  Look at the cost of gasoline in the US over the past five years; sure, some of the increase comes from profit taking and price gouging, but most of it is due to the fact that there’s some newly wealthy guy in Shanghai who wants gas too.

       It’s not bad enough that wealth doesn’t bring happiness; wealth itself is going to be harder and harder to get.  It’s time for a revolution.

       This is going to be a small revolution, however.  Although government could do a much better job than it does, government can’t provide the solution to happiness.  The revolution in happiness has to come at a personal level; mostly at an individual level, although our relationships with others can help too.

       If you’ve read any of my previous books you know that I’ve identified myself as someone with a history of clinical depression.  While someone with depression might seem to be the last person qualified to write a guide to happiness, it’s not the case.  Here’s why—me, and my patients, my fellow depression sufferers, are your canaries in the coal mine.  We suffer from what’s known as depressive realism—the tendency to see things just as they are, without comforting illusions.  We’ve been facing the realities of life for a long time, and we can help you as those realities become sharper and tougher, as they are going to do.  Besides that, depressed people know that the ability to experience happiness again is the very last symptom of depression to lift, and we’ve had to work hard to get there.  I’ve done my share of that hard work, and at this point I feel more joyful and content with my lot than I ever have.  I’ve learned a lot along the way, and I want to share it with you.  If I can make it, with one metaphorical hand tied behind my back, so can you.

       I’ve also helped some very unhappy people.  I’ve been a therapist for almost thirty years, and I’ve seen a lot.  People who were raised by, or married to, sadists or sons of bitches.  People who’ve been raped, abused, bullied, discriminated against, and tortured.  People who were there at 9/11.  People who’ve had cancer, stroke, heart attack, chronic pain.  People who live in a permanent state of fear.  People who seem to have never felt good—for no reason that we could ever find.  I’m not saying that working with me has turned them all into dancing little forest sprites, but most of them have felt a lot better.  In the process I’ve learned a lot from them as well.

 

SO—there are some unpleasant new realities that interfere with happiness (there are plenty of old ones too, which we’ll discuss).  Fortunately, there have been some truly revolutionary developments in psychology and brain science in the past few years—and more on the way—that can help us immensely.  Psychology is moving from simply alleviating distress to helping people live richer and more satisfying lives.  We know now that focused attention and practice, such as accomplished musicians experience, changes the brain; the neural circuits that correspond to the motions of Eric Clapton’s fingers or Pavarotti’s discrimination of tone become enlarged and enriched with time.  However, Western psychology is only beginning to investigate whether that kind of intentional, focused practice can change something like feelings of happiness, relatedness, or empathy.  We’ve operated on the—largely untested—assumption that those are fixed traits, determined by our genes and perhaps influenced by childhood experience, certainly not changeable by any kind of adult experiences other than, perhaps, severe trauma.  Now there’s evidence to suggest that practicing happiness skills can change your brain circuits as well.  If you can learn to type, you can learn to be happy.

       It may surprise you that achieving happiness takes effort, at least for most of us.  It doesn’t come naturally.  We can—hopefully—feel good when a good thing happens, but the feeling doesn’t last.  Eventually we go back to our normal state, which for most people is one of vague discontent.  In this book we’re going to talk about achieving a deeper and more sustained kind of happiness.

       Maybe you’re not surprised that happiness is in big trouble.  Maybe you already suspect that society is headed in the wrong direction.  After all, why else would we be such suckers for exotic Martinis, Lotto, fashion, plastic surgery, and all the other nostrums that promise ecstasy and fulfillment?  Our culture has promised us that the secret to happiness is making enough money so that you can buy the right things, with the right labels, so you can belong to the elite and feel really good about yourself.  The fact that it just doesn’t work that way is not an expression of values, like me wagging my finger at you to say you should be above worldly things; it’s a scientific fact.  Psychologists and economists have known for twenty years about the hedonic treadmill—a fancy way of saying that no matter how much you have right now, you want more; and when you get more, you will want more still.  It’s also a proven fact that sudden wealth won’t make you happy, and a catastrophic illness won’t necessarily make you miserable. Much of happiness depends on your attitude toward what life hands you.

       Here's the good news:  We can change our own brains.  And here's the bad news:  It takes longer than we want it to.  Some researchers recently taught a group of college students to juggle and, using the latest high-tech neuroimaging equipment, observed their brains as they learned.  After three months of daily practice the researchers could identify measurable growth in gray matter in certain areas of their subjects’ brains; after three months of no practice the growth disappeared.  Life experience changes the structure of the brain itself.  Just like juggling, happiness is a set of skills you can learn; and, just like juggling, learning to be happy is work that requires dedication and practice.  Science and experience have taught us that the ways of acting, thinking, feeling, and relating that lead to greater happiness do not come naturally to most people.  It takes conscious, sustained effort to overcome the habits that keep us unhappy and learn new habits to replace them.  But after you’ve done that work, actually being happy is not much work at all.  Once you’ve learned to ride a bicycle, or type, or juggle, it doesn’t take much conscious effort to maintain your ability.  If you practice regularly, your brain will incorporate your new skills so that it gets to be easier and easier to be happy.