The Art and Science of Happiness

CAN HAPPINESS BE TAUGHT?

Gillian Leithman, BA, MSc

Does success bread happiness or does happiness fuel success?

Which comes first?

Do you ever contemplate what makes for a happy life?  Social scientists, Philosophers, and Psychologists have pondered this question since the time of Plato. But more recently there has been a renewed interest in the topic, which was initiated by a young prof at Harvard University named, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar in 2006.  Ben-Shahar taught a class called Positive Psychology to 855 Harvard students; These students swapped Introductory Economics for a course that held the promise of lasting happiness. Truth be told, for most of us that is not really a tough decision. And if you are anything like me you would opt for a root canal instead of a class on Introductory Economics! However, if Harvard undergrads, a group of some of the world’s most intellectually gifted, talented, and privileged young adults, slated for great success, flocked to Ben- Shahar’s course in search of happiness, (and willing to take a hit on their transcripts to do so), one has to wonder about the state of happiness in the 21st century.  Could Harvard, in all its glory, really be home to so many unhappy undergraduates?  The answer, according to a Harvard Crimson poll, is yes, and they are not only unhappy but they are also depressed. It’s not just Harvard Students that suffer. According to a recent article published in the New England Journal of Medicine 45% of all American students experience debilitating depression whereby they cannot function. And here on Canadian soil are students too are suffering from this mental illness. A report released by Statistics Canada in 2003 reported that Canadian youth between the ages of 15-24 are more likely to report mental illness than any other age group. Additionally, a study released earlier this year revealed that there is an increase in student depression.  Specifically, 25% of students who visit university health clinics exhibit depressive symptoms that range from sadness to suicidal thoughts (for more information see http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/Health/20110124/university-student-depression-110124).

And its not just students that are unhappy. Shawn Achor, a leading expert in the field of Human Potential, alludes to this very issue in his book, The Happiness Advantage , and most recently in his June Blog, http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/06/the_happiness_dividend.html . Achor draws upon recent findings from the conference board that reveal that employees are unhappier than they have been in 22 years. And Mercer’s “what’s working” report indicated that 1 in 3 people are thinking of quitting their jobs.

Martin Seligman, founder of the Positive Psychology movement, believes that “there is an epidemic of depression in every industrialized nation in the world”.  This observation has actually been referred to as the Progress Paradox. The wealthier we get the more depressed we become. The same trend has been seen in countries as Britain and China alike. Although our wealth has increased, so has our unhappiness. In the US depression rates are ten times higher today than they were in 1960, and the average onset of depression today is 14.5, in contrast to 29.5, thirty years ago. So it would seem that our Harvard undergrads are in good company!

One of the reasons why we are soo unhappy is because all that what we have learned about happiness is in fact wrong. Most of us have been told that hard work leads to success and success ultimately leads to happiness.  When we finally get that promotion, drop ten pounds, land that date, put the kids through college and pay off the mortgage, then we will be happy. It makes happiness seem like Aeroplan miles, redeemable only when we have accumulated enough points. We are sacrificing happiness for success, when in fact the research tells us that it is happy brains that outperform negative mindsets.

Still not convinced? Consider the following evidence cited by Achor:

  • Optimistic sales people outperform their negative colleagues by 56%
  • Happy doctors are much quicker to make accurate diagnoses
  • Students who are primed to be happier prior to taking exams (a math exam no less) outperform their unhappy counterparts

According to Achor it is happiness that fuels success- not the other way around. When we teach our minds how to positively perceive the world we reap the benefits of increased creativity, productivity and engagement. When we invest in our social portfolio’s we reap the benefits of increased well-being. And when we learn to remove the very obstacles and bad habits that prevent us from achieving our goals, we learn that in fact anything is possible given the right mindset.

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