Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Dissertation on Depression, Happiness, and a Book report: The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Psychology of Happiness, by Arlene Matthews Uhl

Well, anything that labels itself as being a "complete idiot's guide" sets the quality standard rather low for a non-fiction book. I don't consider myself a complete idiot, although certainly I display the characteristic traits rather more frequently than I'd like.

Regardless: I am a man of a certain age, and as such it should come as no surprise that I occasionally suffer from depression. It happens. I'm the right age for the archetypal mid-life crisis, which recent research suggests is as much a biological side effect of hormonal change as a sociological or psychological condition. It was during a particularly inconvenient down period that I took myself to the bookstore with the aim of buying something different from my usual run of speculative fiction. I'd heard that biography was quite enlightening, and I was looking for something about Gandhi or the Dalai Llama, both men who seem to have it together. Unfortunately, these are not sufficiently popular to make it onto the shelves of a back-woods small city bookstore.

I'd given up and turned away, only to find, right behind me, a cardboard display of bright orange books. Second up from the bottom on the left was one with a big flower on it and "The Psychology of Happiness" in bold letters.

Now, to understand the synchronicity here, you have to know that depression has come to visit rather a lot over the last few years. It moves right in, sleeps on the couch, cleans out the fridge, hogs the remote and uses up the toilet paper without replacing the roll. It wears out its welcome in about an hour, but lingers for days (or weeks). It is not a fun companion, and because I believe one of the measures of a man is not just being able to offer help but being able to ask for it with equal pride, I've sought professional counseling. It's helped, and for those men contemplating getting a divorce, transplanting hair, buying a Porsche and dating a twenty-year-old, I recommend it highly.

It's WAY cheaper.

But here's the thing: counseling takes the approach, "here's how you can get un-depressed, and how you can prevent recurrence." Which is all fine and good and is a life preserver any drowning man would welcome. But it's like most of therapeutic psychology in that it concentrates on treating pathology, countering the negative.

So here's a book about positive psychology, the study of what makes humans happy. This is the opposite approach, one that doesn't counter the negative but encourages the positive. Positive psychology doesn't say, "here's how you avoid depression," it says, "here's how you foster happiness."

It's the difference between running away from a thing and running toward another thing. In the first instance, you can go any direction and not many of them are going to put you in a better position than you were. In the second, there is a goal, a destination of your choosing.

So in the depths of my despair (I'm depressed, and there's no Gandhi section), a big orange book about happiness drops into my life. At $4.99 Canadian, even a complete idiot would have seen the sense in picking it up.

It contains a survey of the current research in positive psychology, a field of study just over a decade old. Although there are numerous references to scholarly papers, it's written for the layman, and provides a quick, accessible overview of some pretty complex topics. Along the way it provides a definition of happiness, breaks it down into its ingredients and includes a few tips and techniques that promote happiness in the individual.

It's not a practical guide, or a workbook, but it does provide a road map of the territory and the appendices direct the reader to outside resources that may help shape a plan to work toward happiness.

Does it work?

It's a book, folks. It's not so full of itself that it tells you one of the keys to happiness is "read more books about happiness." So, by itself, no.

Likewise, if you're expecting to learn how never to want to cry again, or feel sad, or how to be constantly "up," then you're going to be disappointed. You're also being unrealistic, but this isn't a book about how to deal with THAT.

It's a book about how people manage to increase their general happiness (called the "set level"), and condition themselves to better withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

The things that it promotes as being factors in a happy life are things of which many of us who characterize ourselves as "unhappy" (or "depressed") feel a distinct lack. It's an interesting book, and I've learned a great deal about what I should be doing to get myself a little more happiness. Herewith, a sample:

- Exercise. The release of endorphins gives a short-term emotional boost, and regular exercise creates long-term effects.
- Meditation. Analysis has documented that meditation can change the structure of the brain, adapting it to better weather stress and misfortune.
- Altruism. Giving to and helping others does as much for us as for those we help.
- Spirituality. Apparently it doesn't matter what you believe, so long as you believe it devoutly.
- Social Interaction. We are meant to connect to each-other.
- Exercising Our Skills. You know that feeling you get when you're engrossed in doing something, the hours fly by and you really don't want to interrupt yourself to eat, or sleep or go to the bathroom? Get a couple of hours of that feeling into your day and your happiness will increase accordingly.
- Gratitude. Habitual recognition of the good in your life provides a perspective that places even misfortune in a positive context.

The most interesting thing about this study of happiness is the conclusion that anyone can be happy. Money is not required. None of the suggestions it makes require material outlay or access to facilities that may not be available. It takes a desire (particularly difficult for those who suffer from depression, as one of the primary symptoms of the disease is a "can't do" attitude), dedication of time and effort, and a willingness to step outside our own sphere of comfort.

Possibly the best news I've ever had.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this. How could I not?


slcard said...

Awww, Captain, I'm proud of you. I really do wish you happiness.

Ulysses said...

And the same back to you.