Did you say “Happiness Training?”

What is the secret to happiness?  Seems I’m not the only one asking.  Ranging from Socrates to Shakespeare, politicians to tribal chiefs, and splendidly splashed across banners at every college campus in the world, the question of happiness transcends geography and time.  The second question, “What can I do NOW to promote happiness when I get old?” follows quickly behind.  The third question: “I’m old already, what can I do to be happy now?”

Google the words “happiness in old age,” and you get a list of great ideas, including “Happiness Training Program.”  Turns out this training course is geared at old people in nursing homes and, as the name suggests, it trains people to be happy.

Hang in there a moment.  Don’t give up on me.  The course, “Happiness Training Program” was developed by psychologist Michael W. Fordyce. What I found delightful about his training program was his list of “Strategies for Increasing Happiness.” The list was worth including in a blog, so here it is.  I write this with hopes that we can all find happiness in old age – and hopefully a little sooner.

Strategies for Increasing Happiness:

  1. Strengthen your closest relationships. Remember that your personal relationships have the greatest impact on your level of personal happiness.
  2. Be more social and outgoing. People who are outgoing and sociable are happier than people who are not (Pavot & others, 1990).
  3. Keep busy doing things you enjoy. Generate a list of activities you enjoy, then incorporate at least one of them into each day.
  4. Engage in pursuits that you find personally important and meaningful. Choose a career or a line of work that you think is important and meaningful.
  5. Develop positive, optimistic thinking patterns. Make a list of the positive things in your life and, at least once a day, review that list.
  6. Worrying about the future and dwelling on negative past events are significant causes of unhappiness. But rather than simply worrying about your problems, focus your thoughts on concrete actions that will help you deal more effectively with the problem.

Simplistic?  Yes.  Inspiring?  Maybe.  It’s enough to raise lots of questions, anyway.  Dr. Fordyce’s message was simple enough: he believed happiness was a choice.  Act happy, make happiness a priority, and you become happy. But do you really believe happiness is a choice?  Can changing your behavior leave you content for the rest of your life?

Want to know what I think?  As a psychiatrist, I believe happiness is a choice, most of the time, but not always.  Some people are so struck by biological misfortune that the only way to avoid or overcome depression (or any mood disturbance) is by drugs or electroconvulsive therapy.  Does that mean they don’t choose to be happy?  No, not at all: most have chosen happiness at each turn and found it beyond their reach.  No, happiness isn’t always a choice.

But here’s the catch-22: looking for happiness is a choice, and an effective one.  The willingness to fight depression is a choice.  The willingness to “not give up” is a choice.  And that single choice, the one that offers hope and miracles and potential future, it’s that decision that can very well bring the happiness we’re after.

Can we train people to be happy?  Michael W. Fordyce thought so.  As a psychiatrist, I’m supposed to agree.  The idea is delightful.  I just wish it were that simple.

Alex Natalian, Psychiatrist and Author     Alex Natalian is a pseudonym for psychiatrist KRR.

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