Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Deeper Vision for Long-Term Mindfulness Practice (Part 2): Positive Psychology - Increasing the Base Level of Happiness

"Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action." - Ancient Greek Philosopher Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (350 BC), Transl. W. D. Ross.
"Art is the proper task of life" - Philosopher, poet, composer, cultural critic, and classical philologist Friedrich Nietzsche.
“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” - Renaissance sculptor, painter, architect, poet, and engineer, Michelangelo, Quotes.
"The most important thing is to believe in your own ability to persevere through the many ups and downs and to not lose sight of your wholeness and your journey toward realizing it fully ." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p304.

Prince Siddhartha Gautama relaxing in his palace - it didn't make him happy.

In Part 1, the role of an ideal was discussed within the practice of mindfulness meditation. In this post, scientific studies on happiness levels will be looked at relative to the role of an ideal when one is pursuing lifelong happiness.

In May 1996, Dr David G. Myers, at Hope College, Michigan, now a professor of psychology, and the psychologist, professor, and author Dr. Ed Diener (then at University of Illinois), published a paper in Scientific American titledThe Pursuit of Happiness (pp. 54-56). The article includes the following graph showing the average income of individuals in the United States against the recorded population's satisfaction over more than 30 years:

US Average Income vs Population Satisfaction, Scientific American: The Pursuit of Happiness, (1996), p56.
Above 6000 dollars per year after taxes, the average person appears to not be any happier (today the figure would be higher, of course - probably around 10,000 dollars due to increased living costs). This figure is significantly low when one considers how our general social ideals of success and happiness are most often linked directly to personal wealth.

Most people apparently share the perspective that if one were to constantly accrue more and more money, property, or relationships, then one would experience lifelong happiness. However, anyone who has bought a new smartphone more than a couple of months ago, or has gone beyond the 'honeymoon phase' of a relationship, will know that very quickly the novelty of such 'gains' wears off, and a life of constant gains with each next gain being bigger than the last, is unrealistic. American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck states in her book Everyday Zen (1997), p3:
"There are many people in the world who feel that if only they had a bigger car, a nicer house, better vacations, a more understanding boss, or a more interesting partner, then their life would work. We all go through that one. Slowly we wear out most of our “if onlies.” “If only I had this, or that, then my life would work.” Not one of us isn’t, to some degree, still wearing out our “if onlies.”"
There has even been an apparent reverse trend in overall American happiness as earnings have gone up (Myers and Diener, 1996), p54:
"Even though Americans earn twice as much in today’s dollars as they did in 1957, the proportion of those telling surveyors from the National Opinion Research Center that they are “very happy” has declined from 35 to 29 percent. Even very rich people—those surveyed among Forbes magazine’s 100 wealthiest Americans—are only slightly happier than the average American. Those whose income has increased over a 10-year period are not happier than those whose income is stagnant."
A major factor which does affect happiness, however, is the amount of freedom and personal control an individual experiences (Myers and Diener, 1996), p55:
"...happy people typically feel personal control. Those with little or no control over their lives—such as prisoners, nursing home patients, severely impoverished groups or individuals, and citizens of totalitarian regimes—suffer lower morale and worse health."
Becoming disabled Vs winning the lottery - happiness in the years after tends to be no different.
Beyond 10,000 dollars a year and freedom to make choices, however, tangible major material restrictions on happiness do not appear to manifest. Even the relative level of happiness between someone who has won the lottery and someone who has experienced an accident leaving them as a paraplegic is apparently barely distinguishable. Philip Brickman and Dan Coates of Northwestern University, and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman of University of Massachusetts published a paper in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1978), Vol. 36, No. 8 (pp. 917-927), titled: Lottery Winners And Accident Victims - Is Happiness Relative?. They write the following, p918:
"Eventually, the thrill of winning the lottery will itself wear off. If all things are judged by the extent to which they depart from a baseline of past experience, gradually even the most positive events will cease to have impact as they themselves are absorbed into the new baseline against which further events are judged. Thus, as lottery winners become accustomed to the additional pleasures made possible by their new wealth, these pleasures should be experienced as less intense and should no longer contribute very much to their general level of happiness. In sum, the effects of an extreme stroke of good fortune should be weakened in the short run by a contrast effect that lessens the pleasure found in mundane events and in the long run by a process of habituation - that erodes the impact of the good fortune itself. The same principles hold in reverse for groups that suffer an extreme stroke of ill fortune, like accidental paralysis. In the short run, their unhappiness should be mitigated by a contrast effect that enhances the impact of mundane pleasures, which are now contrasted with the extreme negative anchor of the accident. In the long run, their unhappiness should be mitigated by a process of habituation that erodes the impact of the accident itself."
The results of their study showed, p920-921:
"Lottery winners and controls were not significantly different in their ratings of how happy they were now, how happy they were before winning (or, for controls, how happy they were 6 months ago), and how happy they expected to be in a couple of years. [...] Accident victims and controls were significantly different in their ratings of both past happiness...but not future happiness [...] accident victims recalled their past as having been happier than did controls (which we may call a nostalgia effect), while experiencing their present as less happy than controls. It should be noted, however, that the paraplegic rating of present happiness is still above the midpoint of the scale and that the accident victims did not appear nearly as unhappy as might have been expected."
In other words, people adapt to gains or losses and tend to return to a base level of happiness that existed prior to the gain or loss. The degree to which someone adapts positively to a severely negative event like a life-changing accident appears to be based on their general personality which existed prior to the accident. A more recent study on severe accident victims by Boyce. C. J., & Wood, A. M., from University of Manchester, in Psychological Science (2011), 22 (pp 1397-1402), Personality prior to disability determines adaptation: Agreeable individuals recover lost life satisfaction faster and more completely. concluded, p1401:
"...personality prior to disability influences subsequent adaptation to disability and shows that agreeableness is the key broad personality trait in this effect."
In many cases, accident victims (specifically those with higher 'agreeableness') returned to the same levels of life satisfaction they experienced before their accident in only 4 years after their accident, as indicated by this graph of results (Boyce & Wood 2011), p1399:

Recovery of Life Satisfaction in Accident Victims. Psychological Science (2011), 22 (pp 1397-1402)
The first two studies above - of how happiness and life satisfaction manifests in human societies relative to social perspectives and circumstances, was recently used as key material in what was one of the most popular courses in the history of Harvard University - the Positive Psychology course taught by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. In his book, Happier: Learn the Secrets of Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment (2007), Ben-Shahar says the following of happiness relative to how we look at the world, p107:
"Happiness is not merely contingent on what we do or where we are but on what we choose to perceive. There are people who are unhappy regardless of the work they do or the relationship they are in, and yet they continuously fool themselves into thinking that an external makeover will affect them internally."
The Harvard Positive Psychology lecture videos for the course are available online on youtube, and in this one: Harvard University 06 Positive Psychology 1504, Ben-Shahar draws a graph illustrating how one experiences happiness in life - the ups and the downs - always returning to baseline as the effects of gain and loss wear out:

Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar teaching Positive Psychology at Harvard - Graph of Base Level Happiness over time.
This graph indicates more clearly how happiness is experienced; when there is a change of situation - either the novelty stage of a gain, or the recovery stage following a loss:

Graph of Base Level Happiness over time - creating a depressed life experience.
The shaded triangular parts of the graph are where there are major increases in happiness - correlating to large achievements above the base level; like getting the promotion one has been seeking for so long, and below the base level; recovering from great losses - like the period of healing following losing a loved one. 

The good news that, following a great loss, one generally inevitably recovers to the same level of life satisfaction that one experienced before, is counterweighed by the novelty of any gains wearing off, and the times in-between tend to hover around smaller ups and downs. This equal balance of ups and downs tends to create a feeling of neutrality - of boredom; that one is going nowhere - trapped in cycles of gain and loss - with each gain causing us to become numb to any lesser gain. This perspective is crowned, and ultimately tipped towards depression, by the prediction that one's life will inevitably end with one giant loss - one's death. 

This seems to be the perspective on life that most people live by today - when we total up the balance sheet, it appears we are left with a negative value. We can often look back to previous peak experiences as "the good old days" - since nothing we experience now, or can really envision happening in the future measures up in our estimations.

Ben-Shahar begins to tackle this situation by making the following statement, in Happier, p8:
"...rather than asking myself whether I am happy or not, a more helpful question is, “How can I become happier?”. This question acknowledges the nature of happiness and the fact that its pursuit is an ongoing process best represented by an infinite continuum, not by a finite point. I am happier today than I was five years ago, and I hope to be happier five years from now than I am today. Rather than feeling despondent because we have not yet reached the point of perfect happiness, rather than squandering our energies trying to gauge how happy we are, we need to recognize that happiness is an unlimited resource and then focus on ways in which we can attain more of it. Becoming happier is a lifelong pursuit."
Emulating those people who report happier lifelong experiences than the majority appears to be a good start. Myers and Diener in their 1996 study, The Pursuit of Happiness, write of the happiest people, p55:
"They have high self-esteem and usually believe themselves to be more ethical, more intelligent, less prejudiced, better able to get along with others, and healthier than the average person. [...] happy people are usually optimistic. [...] Although one might expect that introverts would live more happily in the serenity of their less stressed, contemplative lives, extroverts are happier — whether alone or with others. The causal arrows for these correlations are uncertain. Does happiness make people more outgoing, or are out-going people more likely to be happy, perhaps explaining why they marry sooner get better jobs and make more friends?"
So the key point appears to be to believe one is "more ethical, more intelligent, less prejudiced, better able to get along with others, and healthier than the average person", as well as generally optimistic. This could be a tall order for the best of us, and yet it seems it is necessary as an aspiration at least. If one never truly expects to reach it, then one will not actively seek the conditions to allow it to manifest. Ben-Shahar says the following of this necessary idealism, in Happier, p40:
"Being an idealist is being a realist in the deepest sense—it is being true to our real nature. We are so constituted that we actually need our lives to have meaning. Without a higher purpose, a calling, an ideal, we cannot attain our full potential for happiness. While I am not advocating dreaming over doing (both are important), there is a significant truth that many realists—rat racers mostly—ignore: to be idealistic is to be realistic.
Being an idealist is about having a sense of purpose that encompasses our life as a whole; but for us to be happy, it is not enough to experience our life as meaningful on the general level of the big picture. We need to find meaning on the specific level of our daily existence as well. For example, in addition to having the general purpose of creating a happy family or dedicating our life to liberating the oppressed, we also need a specific purpose related to those goals, such as having lunch with our child or taking part in protest marches. It is often difficult to sustain ourselves with the thought of a general sense of purpose that lies far off on the horizon: we need a more specific and tangible sense that we are doing something meaningful next week, tomorrow, later today."
In his Harvard lectures, Ben-Shahar uses the approach of the famous Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo as an example of someone imbuing their life's work with deep, rewarding meaning. Michelangelo apparently saw the figure of his well-known sculpture, David, within the marble at the quarry. The artist considered the beautiful form to have existed inside the stone before he had even set eyes upon it, and that it was his daily work to reveal that beauty to the world. In this way his life took on a deeply positive purpose - beyond the purely menial drudge of a rat-racer.

Michelangelo's David Sculpture.
Ben-Shahar illustrates how this addition of an ideal alters the graph of base level happiness over time. The ideal - a state of existence considered the most positive and beneficial for oneself (and most likely others) - towards which one aspires on a daily basis, causes the base level of happiness to increase every moment, and thus one's whole life becomes constant joy - like a hidden beauty becoming revealed with each stroke of a sculptor's hammer - as long as one's ideal is understood to be pursued in every moment:

Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar teaching Positive Psychology at Harvard - Graph of Base Level Happiness increasing over time.

In order to approach one's ideal, however, one needs to change, and this is the most difficult part - to alter one's habits over time. One can set out with conviction and enthusiasm, but very quickly one can become disillusioned with one's failed attempts. As Ben-Shahar writes in Happier, p80:
"Following up on our commitments and goals isn’t easy. It takes time for a practice to become a habit, a ritual—and therefore most efforts at change ultimately fail." 
This can be considered all part of the journey, as we all know life is not so simple and easy, and yet often the exasperation of failure can be too much for us to handle - we often create irrational cognitive distortions, such as all-or-nothing thinking ("This small failure means I should give up the whole project") or emotional reasoning ("I'm anxious so I won't be successful"), and this can be so severe that it can cause us to stop aiming for our ideals entirely.

If one can accept the moments of exasperation and anxiety - the underlying emotions as part of the normal human condition, then one can avoid the cognitive distortions and more easily remain balanced and focused  when things don't go as well as planned. For this emotional stability, the most effective tool thus far discovered seems to be mindfulness meditation. As Ben-Shahar states, p28:
"Research by the likes of Herbert Benson, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Richard Davidson reveals the profound effects of regular meditation. Meditate!"
This will be discussed in more depth in Part 3.

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