Get Happy: Lessons from the Field of Positive Psychology

Posted on June 30th, 2012 by in Healthy Living, Studies, News, and Trends

Is happiness possible for all of us? How do we take the first step?

by Cheryl Kain, guest blogger

Because the Constitution declares our right to pursue happiness, contentment can seem, for many Americans, like a birthright. At the same time, the quest for happiness can feel like herding cats—elusive and frustrating. We’re failures if we aren’t “happy” all the time—that’s why scores of books are written promising the secrets to happiness. But the search for happiness as an aggressive imperative can have the opposite effect, especially since happiness is relative for many people, including those facing poverty, health problems, or deep despair. The questions become: Can we ever truly achieve happiness? And could there be a set of universal prescriptions for getting there?

Teacher and author Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD, a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology and author of Being Happy: You Don’t Have to be Perfect to Lead a Richer, Happier Life, says the number-one predictor of well-being is the time we spend with people we care about and who care about us. “Latin Americans are happier than North Americans, because of the emphasis on relationships,” he says. “Friends and family play a much more central role in their lives.” This certainly rings true for me: In my own life, I have been far happier in my thirties and forties than when I was a singing-career-obsessed twentysomething. According to Gail Sheehy’s New York Times bestseller, Passages, I am a “deferred nurturer” and, admittedly, I did not value relationships as much as I did getting ahead in those earlier years. Smack dab in early midlife, relationships trump all for me now. My daily relational experiences, whether with my bestie or the grocery clerk, far outshine the pleasure of those long-ago pipe dreams.

But focusing on relationships isn’t the only piece of the happiness puzzle. Tal believes that people can, in fact, learn to be happy, an inspiration for Kripalu’s Certificate in Positive Psychology  for which he is a presenter and instructor. Instead of focusing on overcoming challenges like depression, anxiety, neuroses, and weakness, participants in the program learn to concentrate on fostering happiness, love, success, and other strengths. (The program is open to anyone interested in personal development as well as professional development, for use in coaching, leading, teaching, nursing, social work, yoga or mind/body teaching, and psychology.)

Through delving into topics like “What Is Happiness?” and “Realizing Dreams,” he teaches people how to apply the concepts of Positive Psychology to helping themselves and their clients build healthier, happier relationships. “We’re taking the latest advances in the science of well-being, including advances in the area of mind-body, as well as material on goal-setting, coaching, and relationships,” says Tal. “And we’re putting it together into a program that helps people lead fuller and more fulfilling lives.”

Some schools of thought encourage us to detach from our feelings and desires in order to lessen suffering. But desire itself is not bad, says yoga teacher Rod Stryker, founder of ParaYoga and author of The Four Desires: Creating a Life of Purpose, Prosperity, Happiness, and Freedom. Rather, he says, it’s our relationship to our desires that can lead to trouble. Some desires, in fact, are supportive, wholesome, and even righteous. Desire is the seedling that blossoms into goals and plans, which can lead us to a happier, more fulfilling life. Yet not getting what we want brings its own pressure and disappointment. Rod adds, “We can ask ourselves, ‘How do I remain happy or content in the midst of having these wants and yet not having achieved them?’ or we can ask, ‘What is the most relevant desire now?’” So rather than detaching from desire, detach from the outcome of desire, and work toward manageable, short-term goals. The more we set ourselves up for little successes, the more we’ll gain confidence to move forward with our visions of a happy life. “As we get better at fulfilling our intentions, we grow to see that we are capable of achieving our dreams,” says Rod.

I’m reminded of my efforts to go to the gym. When I establish a goal of going five days a week, I judge myself when I only make it there three days. If I make the goal easier—say, just the three days—I have a better shot at feeling successful and confident. This is also apparent in my yoga (a practice that’s itself very closely aligned with happiness). It would be a set-up for failure to expect myself to attend three yoga classes a week, or to practice daily at home. However, if I’m able to do Legs Up the Wall for 10 minutes instead of reaching for a sugary snack, that’s success. Yoga means union—to connect with our interior world and honestly hear ourselves, which is a rich form of happiness and wholeness. And that’s perhaps the most important takeaway of the many efforts underway to better understand happiness: Contacting our inner world, making peace with messy emotions, and sharing our lives with others goes a very long way toward contentment.

Cheryl Kain is a writer, teacher, and musician living on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. She has practiced Kripalu Yoga for more than 20 years, and appeared on Good Morning America to share how yoga changed her health and her life.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.

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  • Megan McDonough

    In a culture that values productivity, it’s so easy to (mistakenly) assume accomplishment is what brings happiness, rather than the collaborative play between family, co-workers, and a whole network of relationships to make that accomplishment possible. 

    During busy times I catch myself talking quickly to my children. Or I feel irritation arise when I’m interrupted during focused work to answer an unrelated question. 

    I have to remind myself that the relationship right here in front on me is what’s real. The tasks are only my story about what’s important. It’s not to say I can’t tell the kids or co-workers that right now I’m busy. It’s just giving myself the acknowledgement and reminder that relationships last far longer than the task I’m working on now.    

    Thank you, Cheryl, for your writing! It served as a good reminder for me today to focus on community and relationships. 

    • Cheryl Kain

       Thank you, Megan. I like that you say the tasks are only your story about what’s important. I find too that pausing before I speak, and taking deep breaths keeps irritation from inflaming my communications. And when I’m all-consumed by a less-than-urgent task, I ask, “How important is it?” Compared to the relationship that is “competing” with my time, it’s always more important to give kindness to the person : )

  • http://www.avalonianmoon.com/ Elaine C Torrance-Gingrich

    Wonderful article Cheryl and very well articulated.  I particularly liked when you spoke of the importance of allowing yourself to feel the negative emotions.  It is so very true that when we give ourselves permission to feel what we’re feeling, that fosters the quickening of the healing process.  When Brad first passed, I was told I needed to be strong for my girls.  So, I didn’t show my emotions in front of them.  This basically told them (from their young perspective) that I was “over it” so they wouldn’t allow themselves to cry in front of me.  The act of “catching” my daughter crying and getting her explanation for why she was hiding away to do so was a turning point in the healing process for all of us.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kim.rowe.14203 Kim Rowe

    Great summary of the Positive Psych certificate experience. So far, it is an incredible journey. After the week at Kripalu last week, I’m so engaged and looking forward to the next 8 months of the program.

    • KripaluEditor

      Thanks for the comment, Kim. It is terrific to hear that you are enjoying the program.
      Best to you,
      Kim from Kripalu