Happiness Myths: Positive Psychology (part 2)
In this part two of the exploration of positive psychology, we'll be exploring 'positive thinking' and 'gratitude'. You can find part one here:
Positive Psychology Part 1
Positive Thinking: While there is certainly a correlation between positive thinking and subjective happiness in psychology studies, we immediately encounter the correlation/causation difficulty. It would be safe to assume that one who is happy is also thinking happy thoughts, since such thoughts are a natural expression of that state of mind, but unhappy thoughts are also a natural expression of an unhappy state of mind.
In this case, the 'positive thinking' is characterized as optimism, naturally correlated with happiness, and this is a state of mind that opposes the state of mind we call pessimism, which is correlated with unhappiness. When we simplify the equation, we see that the pessimist is being asked to be an optimist, or more to the point; the unhappy person is being asked to be happy.
So again, the happiness myth is that a symptom of a happy state of mind is being misidentified as a method that can be potentially used to bring about that state of mind.
Anyone who has been in a state of depression and was told by some well meaning friend to just be happy knows how impossible this is. Under less oppressive circumstances, it is possible to play the game of acting positive with the belief that this will bring about a more positive state of mind, and as with similar techniques, it will work, until it doesn't anymore.
It ultimately fails because positive thoughts are literally defined in the mind as those thoughts which are not negative, and attention is being turned toward both types of thoughts simultaneously, and ultimately both the positive and negative are experienced.
The most common subjective experience is that of a roller coaster effect in which one feels happy for a time, followed a period of unhappiness. The individual is likely to conclude that he/she succeeded for a time, and then something went wrong, but this is not what occurs at all. A way to get a sense of how this works is to get into the habit of rather continually asking yourself if you are happy. Regardless of your conclusion at any given time, you'll find yourself ruminating over what unhappiness is for you as well as what happiness is. Wondering if you're happy is one of the best ways to not be.
The Positive Psychology of Gratitude: While this is a very common prescription for authentic happiness, and not just in positive psychology, the conclusion of the studies in response to the question, does gratitude make one happier is: “Maybe, but we don’t know for sure.”
One result of the studies was that, while some gratitude improved happiness over no gratitude, too frequent gratitude actually negated this effect. It seems to me there are two factors involved here. One is the 'fulfillment factor' discussed in part one in which a need presents itself, and the fulfillment of that need improves happiness, but beyond that has no further effect. For example, perhaps one has not been attending to the positive aspects of one's life in equal measure to the negative, or maybe someone has done you a favor and you don't feel your gratitude has been adequately expressed. This leaves an imbalance, which tends to correct itself over time.
In the case of gratitude there is a second effect that reinforces the first, causing the positive effect to actually be reversed. This has to do with the effect gratitude has on our sense of personal power and our feelings of humility. The reason gratitude is assumed to be happiness producing is likely that it is also seen to be more noble, but it's self effacing aspect means that, in effect, too much gratitude leaves a 'bad taste in the mouth'. As a result, it cannot be used as tool for happiness, but rather should be viewed in terms of a natural, balancing sense to remind us of the things, situations or people that we may have taken for granted.
Again, as with positive thinking, the focus on that for which we are grateful also brings to mind that which we lack or resent, since this is how we know gratitude, and to some degree these two categories of thoughts will result in a roller coaster effect of mood.
What positive psychology will likely ultimately find is the same thing the positive thinking movement found, that it is working with one end of a two-ended stick, and that all things balance themselves out quite naturally. The only solution is to throw away the stick.
More Happiness Myths Articles:
Happiness Myths: Steps to Happiness?
Happiness Myths: Positive Psychology (part 1)
The Happiness Project (Myth 2)
The Myth of Positive Thinking
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