A lot of the stuff that you do is very relevant to the world that we’re living today and I’m fascinated by your work. I guess maybe I’d like to get your perspective very quickly on this whole happiness thing. Why is happiness so elusive to people? There are so many people around the world that choose to be unhappy. It was just so evident to me this morning at a couple of meetings. Part of the room was extremely vibrant and we had another part of the room that seems to be just looking for misery. It was ironic that I’m speaking to you today and you see that all over the place. What causes that? Why is happiness so elusive to people?
Well first, most people are moderately happy. If you just survey people even people whose lives look miserable from the outside such as prostitutes in Calcutta. Most people report more happiness than unhappiness. But with that said, depression is very common. At any given time, about 3% to 6% of people are severely depressed.
The kind of phenomena you’re talking about where in a given room some people are reacting positively and others negatively, that’s not because the negatives chose to be negative. That’s because their brains are just wired to perceive threats and problems and other people are wired to perceive opportunities. This is the major reason why some people are happy and others less so. Our genes made our brains and some people have genes that made brains that are always looking for possibility others for threat.
So for the brains wired to look for threat. How likely is it they can make that shift in their thinking so they start to think in terms of possibilities?
That’s the major question at positive psychology with design to address. We know that happiness is very highly heritable. On your program you had Sonja Lyunomirsky awhile ago. She has done some work showing if you start from looking at the genetic study showing that about 50% to 70% of the variance between people is heritable, but actually, there is a fair amount that you can do with the remaining variance. There are some things you can do.
What you can’t do is just resolve to be happy. You can’t just say, “I’m going to be happy today. I’m going to smell the roses. I’m going to smile at people.” That’s worthless. We can get into that but the basic reason is because our minds are divided into parts that sometimes conflicts and our behavior is really controlled by what we might call the elephants rather than a little guy sitting on the elephant’s back urging him to, “Hey go this way. Go that way.”
Can you give us some steps for the ones who are anxious to make that shift to start up?
Once you see yourself as a confederation of parts or modules, and once you see yourself as being composed mostly of unconscious processes which you might think of as the elephant, that’s what most of the brain is, automatic processes just like other animals. And then we have this little new ability. This language based ability to say, “I want to be happier. What can I do?” Once you see that the real task of the self change is to change the elephant, it’s not to change the writer. Then you narrow down your options quite a bit to the things that might actually work. You can’t just pass resolutions.
What you can do is meditation, self hypnosis, cognitive therapy, and Prozac. Those are the four main psychological interventions that are basically ways of retraining your habitual thoughts. I should add into that also exercise and some dietary things such as increasing omega-3 fatty acid. There are some simple things you can do that will change your brain a little bit and exercise is one of the best.