To focus on life’s pleasures, look the other way

As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, December 13, 2007

High school science taught me all about how our eyes work. I reflect on that when reading about new trends in what’s called “positive psychology.” Cones are at the center of our retina and allow us to see color; rods are at the periphery of our retina and are more sensitive to light. What really struck me then, and has stayed with me, is this: When we gaze at the night sky, we can see faint stars better by looking a little away from them (so that our rods can detect the dim light). When we look directly at these stars, they seem to disappear.

A similar phenomenon happens in our search for happiness; it often evades us when we try to peer straight at it, but shines brightly when we earnestly pursue something else. This disappearing act is particularly apparent during December when we are endlessly reminded “’tis the season to be jolly…” We try to comply and lift our spirits by buying things and attending parties. However, all too often, we don’t feel as festive as we pretend. And, even when we do, once the “fa la la’s” fade, so does our holiday spirit.

There’s no doubt that our intention is good. The holidays remind us, among other things, to do what we can to create a life filled with pleasure and positive experiences. Such a life is what positive psychology calls “the pleasant life,” and it is good.

You are probably familiar with the high, moderate, and low intensity pleasures of life. They are the happiness you experience when you have a good belly laugh, prepare for a much-awaited vacation, and take in nature’s beauty while hiking through the woods. The feeling you enjoy with your latest purchase also fits squarely into this category.

Unfortunately, these pleasures generally end when the experience ends. When a pleasurable experience remains as a constant in our lives, like when we drive our new BMW day in and day out, we habituate to it—our excitement dulls along with the shiny newness.

Who hasn’t worked hard to attain some must-have possession, only to acquire it and soon after be seized by the same pressing desire for something else? This unending search for happiness can be frustratingly unsatisfying. We are forever focused on what we do not have. (It is, however, what keeps the gears of consumerism continuing to turn).

Positive psychology offers an appealing alternative: maximize the happiness you feel with each pleasure while minimizing the need to search for more pleasures. You do this through mindfulness and savoring. Essentially, being mindful means being aware of your daily experiences. Savoring is choosing to attend to the pleasures in those experiences.
On some days, we are naturally more mindful. Those are the days when you notice each book on your nightstand as you stretch yourself awake; you see every item strewn around your child’s room; you are aware of the sun shining; and you pay attention to just about everything. On days particularly blessed with good fortune, you also naturally savor the good things. You feel good to be alive upon waking up; you revel in your child’s smile before she leaves for school; you breathe in the day’s sunshine; and you enjoy every other wonder that life has to offer.

By choosing to be more consciously mindful and to savor positive experiences, you can invite more pleasure into your life. Martin Seligman’s seminal book Authentic Happiness describes some ways to do this.

One simple way to increase your appreciation of the pleasures in your life is with the three blessings exercise. Each night, simply write down three good things that occurred during the day and why they happened.

In one study*, researchers asked a group to do this for one week. They found that these people were happier for up to six months (especially those who spontaneously continued the exercise). In my clinical practice, I have found that people are often neutral or mildly positive about the exercise during the first week. Then, over a two-month period, their experience becomes more positive and more integrated into how they think. They evolve into mindful people who savor the positives in their life.

Give it a try. Commit to doing the three blessings exercise for two months. If it works for you, I suspect that you will happily continue to include the exercise in your nightly routine.
Another way to increase your happiness is with a gratitude visit. Think of someone who has done something for you that has had a major positive influence in your life, but whom you have not really thanked. Then take time to craft a letter of thanks, including what they did and how it affected you (be specific). Write it out nicely so that you can present it as a gift (you might want to frame it). Set up a time to meet without telling the person why. When you are together, read the letter to the person. Read slowly, with emotion, and with eye contact. Then allow the person all the time he needs to react and respond. Finally, enjoy reminiscing together about what makes this person so special to you.

This exercise was completed by a group in the same study referenced above. These people immediately felt much happier—even happier than those who did the three blessings exercise. They enjoyed this boost in happiness for a month. By three months, however, the happiness from this exercise wore off. So, while a gratitude visit is not the magical answer to creating a happy life, it holds great possibility for creating happiness that you can then maintain in other ways.

All of the above advise boils down to this: become aware of, and pay attention to, the opportunities for pleasure that already exist in your life. By savoring these moments, you experience happiness—there’s no need to search for it. Much like seeing the faint stars in the night sky, you can find happiness by looking slightly away from it.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ
908-604-6363
www.drbecker-phelps.com

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