Thursday, December 6, 2012

On Happiness: Q&A with Dr. Robert Pawlicki

Dr. Robert Pawlicki is an author of academic research on the topic of happiness and well-being as well as the book Success By Another Measure: Recognizing and Enhancing Your Character. His latest book Fifty Ways to Greater Happiness and Well Being is based on his popular local magazine column "Finding Happiness" and includes both inspirational essays and practical exercises for developing one's own personal capacity for happiness and well-being. I am privileged to know Dr. Pawlicki in "real life" and so it is truly a special pleasure to welcome him to the blog today.

Please tell us a little about your background and how the topic of happiness became a calling for you.

In a sense I believe my background is quite unique in that I spent most of my professional life working as a clinician, teacher and researcher in the field of chronic pain. The short of it is that I was a professor at two medical schools, West Virginia University and the University of Cincinnati, where I headed up a multidisciplinary team of physicians, nurses, psychologists, physical and occupational therapists, among others, who treated the most extreme of patients dealing with chronic pain. It was in those settings where I observed different styles of dealing with suffering and came to believe that, in the most challenging of life’s circumstances, we play a major role in determining our well-being.

So I would say that my clinical experiences were one major factor leading to my interest in the field of happiness but another is the work of Martin Seligman, often referred to as the father of positive psychology. Interestingly, Seligman was widely known early in his professional life for his groundbreaking research on clinical depression but as President of the American Psychological Association, in the mid-1990’s, wrote a series of articles decrying clinical psychologists and psychiatrists exclusive focus on human deficits. He declared that in treating patients we are missing an enormous opportunity in omitting the strengths that people bring to the problems of life and, in saying so, essentially spurred what is now an international field of research and interest, the field of positive psychology. I became caught up with that research juxtaposed with my interest in physical and emotional pain.

recent opinion piece in the New York Times suggested that we Americans spend too much time and energy worrying about whether or not we are happy. Why is being happy important? Is the pursuit of happiness a uniquely American thing? What does our culture tell us about being happy, and how good are we at finding happiness?

I’m of two minds regarding the idea that Americans spend too much time and energy worrying about happiness. On the one hand we certainly, as a very individualistic-oriented society, can be extraordinarily self-indulgent in our quest for happiness but on the other hand I don’t believe we seriously take the time to sort out those long-term values and patterns that lead to a happy life. For example there are fundamental practices such as self-compassion—the act of being kind and forgiving with yourself that are very difficult but certainly under-practiced. Secondly, people forget that we are at our most generous, creative and kind when we are happy. From that standpoint it is actually our moral duty to put some time into formulating a plan for our personal happiness.

I don’t believe we Americans are unique in pursuing happiness. From a strictly biological standpoint all humans are hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Consequently everyone is seeking a life where short and long-term pleasures surpass our experiences of pain. How good are Americans in achieving happiness? Well, in consistent and ample samples comparing Americans with other nations, we are regularly in the upper tier of developed countries. The critical variables tend to be a having free press, a history of democracy and a strong sense of personal freedom. While we do relatively well on these measures, we could learn some lessons from the roughly 15 countries that regularly rank higher than we do on the numerous measures of well -being and happiness.

What are some of our biggest misconceptions about happiness? What do you find people most often need to unlearn about happiness, and what is the most important thing we could practice to be more happy?

Let’s take the first one, misconceptions about happiness. I believe that most people have a simplistic view of happiness, associating it with joy and pleasure. These emotions are obviously central to happiness but happiness can take many forms. A life of purpose, an absorption into activities that provide fascination and achievement and numerous other areas are expressions of a happy life. Many researchers have now moved away from the “happy” term, feeling it has too much of a connotation of the smiley, yellow face, and are using the term “well-being” that includes positive emotions, engagement, personal meaning, relationships and accomplishments.

I think I’ve answered your second question, in part, regarding what people often need to unlearn about happiness. Simply stated—that happiness comes in only one form. It comes in many, many forms. But let me also add that people get absorbed with their lives and, to me, forget a critical element of happiness: that is, that happiness and well-being take work. Individuals who have the self-discipline to enact those thoughts and behaviors that enhance their mental health do so much better than those who lack that self-discipline.

I realize that I’m bleeding into your next question as well—the question related to “important things we can practice to be more happy.” Well here is where the research and surveys have been most valuable. Some of the practices seem self-evident, such as those who practice gratitude, physical exercise, kindness and forgiveness are more likely to be happy. But there are other findings such as the limited influences of wealth on happiness and the importance of positive self-talk and optimism that are not quite so obvious. There is a long list of life experiences, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that go into contributing to the many strands of happiness and that’s what makes the field so interesting.

In the book you give several examples of people who have found happiness only after redefining what it means to them. How does one best discern the right definition of happiness for oneself?

To me this answer relates to an important sub-field in the research and thinking in positive psychology: the subcategories of personal strengths. Through a combination of heredity and experiences we all have a unique combination of personal strengths and talents. When we act in harmony with those strengths and talents we are most likely to find substantial well-being. Interestingly, most people don’t seriously investigate and identify their personal strengths and consequently are missing out on a great opportunity.

The holidays are a time we are supposed to be happy, but for many people, they are in fact stressful, difficult, or even lonely. Would you share some of your favorite tips for coping with the season?

There are two major contributors to stress and loneliness during the holiday season: unrealistic expectations and allowing others to influence our well being. The holidays, through a lifetime of media and idyllic stories, have come to be defined within narrow and unrealistic expectations—that is all of one’s family and/or friends harmoniously gathered together in joy and laughter. If I were to define friendship as only with those I would give my life for, I obviously would have few friends. We have done a similar thing with our holidays, expecting the holidays to reach a totally unrealistic standard and thereby setting ourselves up for disappointment. Similarly we have allowed being alone to be defined as failure whereas in many other circumstances we want to be alone. But for those who wish to be with others my advise is to be assertive: invite others to be with you, put yourself in the presence of those less fortunate, do volunteer work. “Pity parties” are people’s own doing and should be avoided.

Lastly when in the presence of others who have historically been difficult to be around, set your own standard of behavior and internally praise yourself for meeting your standard, not someone else’s. Another critical internal rule that is likely to increase your well-being is to focus and control those things that are under your control. Again, not so easy to always put into practice but a habit that should be included in any plan for happiness and well being during the holiday season and beyond.

The Peanuts comic strip famously gave us the phrase “Happiness is a warm puppy.” In your view, happiness is...

“Your choice and takes work.” In my foreword, I quoted Abraham Lincoln as saying “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” I believe he hit the nail on the head.

Thanks so much to Dr. Pawlicki for visiting Books, Personally today. You can learn more about Dr. Pawlicki and his books on his website.

What are some lessons you have learned (or unlearned) about happiness through your own life experience? I welcome you to share thoughts and questions in the comments below, and 
happy reading!

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