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Stabroek News

A happy new year, anyone?
published: Sunday | December 31, 2006


Ian Boyne, Contributor

Lots of wishes will be made for a happy new year tonight, amid drinking, revelling, and much enjoyment. People will wish themselves a happy one with much expectancy. But, do they know how to make the year truly happy?

There has been an explosion in happiness studies over the last few years, especially since the significant work done by Martin Seligman, David Myers and Mike Csikszentmihalyi. ome of the studies have confirmed things which had long been taught in what has been called the New Thought Movement and the positive thinking movement.

But some surprising things have also been thrown up. Like the fact that most people don't really know what would make them happy and overestimate the happiness potential of certain things while exaggerating the destructive power of certain negative things.

Happiness threshold

The studies have also shown that as counter-intuitive as it sounds, people normally revert to their usual happiness threshold, despite their change of circumstances.

In the landmark lottery winners study of 1978, social psychologist, Phillip Brickman, tried to determine whether winning the lottery made people happier. Lottery winners were asked how happy they were at the moment of winning, how happy they were before winning, and how happy they expected to be in a couple of years. When Brickman compared the responses of lottery winners to those who had not won, there was no significant difference in their levels of reported happiness.

Brickman also interviewed accident victims, who had become quadriplegic or paraplegic and found that they did not experience any significant difference in their happiness quotient after their tragedy.

Commenting on the Brickman studies, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Dr. Gregory Berns, says in his 2005 book, Satisfaction: the Science of Finding True Fulfilment, "Lottery winners and the accident victims experienced a sudden change in fortune, yet they both adapted to their circumstances, finding themselves surprisingly close to where they had begun in terms of happiness. It was a startling discovery for it seemed to prove that happiness is relative, marked only by changes from the recent past."

Material possessions

The studies have also shown that after your comfort needs are met, material possessions did not contribute significantly to an increase in happiness. Over a certain threshold, it is not the amount of money you make, which determines how happy you are.

The great religions have said this for millennia, but moderns have been sceptical about this. Now, this is a scientifically proven fact. Brickman famously referred to this phenomenon as the "hedonic treadmill", which propels us to seek more and more for less and less satisfaction.

Happiness studies done in the industrialised countries have shown that self-reported happiness has not increased with the growth in gross national product in those countries. Many studies have pointed out, for example, that while United States gross domestic product has increased significantly since the 1950s, the levels of reported happiness among Americans has remained basically unchanged.

The other point is that people are far more resilient and adaptable than they believe. While we "catastrophise" about events, experience shows that we adjust far easier than we imagined when a crisis hit us. People suffer incredible, heart-rending tragedies and life is filled with examples of excruciating and inscrutable pain, yet somehow people cope. They go on and they adjust.

Only a few commit suicide, and invariably they underestimate their power to adjust. It's a pity that many of us live our lives without the benefit of empirical research and scientific data. It could literally save our lives and make them happier while we live them.

"For better or for worse we all seem destined to adapt to whatever life throws at us," Dr. Berns says in his book, Satisfaction. Attitude is everything. Perspective is everything. Your attitude is more important than your altitude. Centuries ago, the philosopher, Epictetus, put it this way, influencing a whole school of psychotherapy called rational-emotive therapy, "It is not events which disturb the minds of men; but men's judgments of events."

You are what you think

In other words, it is not what happens to you, but how you respond to it. It is not what you go through, but what goes through you. You are what you think. Thoughts are things. "As a man thinketh in his heart so is he." Or, as Henry Food put it: "Think you can, think you can't; in either case you are right."

The same with people as with same with nations. No study of the industrial might of east Asia is complete without an understanding of the cultural roots of the Asians' success.

When South Korea was written off by the World Bank in the 1950s as a people hopelessly lazy, backward and industrially inept, the Koreans did not lack confidence in themselves. That is why South Korea could rise to become such an important tiger in the Far East.

Singapore was at the same level of Jamaica and African countries such as Ghana, in 1962, yet, today, Singapore is a developed country and we are boasting about economic growth of a couple of per cent.

Why did the east Asians recover quicker from their financial meltdown than the Latin Americans? It was not just because of the structure of their financial sector, the strength of their economies, etc., though these factors were important. But, so were the strong cultural foundations of east Asia. The confidence of the east Asians and other Asians is legendary.

The Jamaican people need that kind of confidence, optimism and positive orientation if we are to have a truly happy new year. Our mindset is very important. I am convinced that one of the reasons our economy has been stagnant for many years - apart from the economic and political factors, which are real - is because our business class does not have the can-do, daringly optimistic mindset, which exists in east Asia.

Our business class thinks problems to every proposed solution. This class talks obstacles, problems and what can't work. That is why they are not as innovative and avant-garde as the capitalist class in other regions.

Jamaica needs a revolutionary capitalist class if it is to really transform the Jamaican economy. We always focus on the corruption, abuse and moral backwardness of our political culture, but our capitalist class must also be blamed for our economic underachievement. The Jamaican working class is far more risk-taking, optimistic, and trying. They simply have to in order to survive.

Change thinking

If we are to make 2007 a happy new year, we have to change our thinking. There is no changing of our circumstances without changing our thinking. I created 'Profile' 20 years ago, precisely because I wanted a forum where the Jamaican people could be exposed to the kind of thinking and living which produce success. I wanted to showcase successful people from every field and class who display the common traits, characteristics and virtues, which produce success.

I am convinced that any education, no matter how technical and scientific that leaves out psychological orientation and training in emotional intelligence ends up being deficient.

People must be taught not only how to make a living, but how to live.

They must be taught how to deal with crises, tragedies, setbacks, disappointments, frustrations - for life throws many of them. Unfortunately, the Lynn family will have to go on living without the elderly couple who were apparently brutally murdered. They will survive. They will do so better if they have a certain mindset, a certain psychological orientation. The Stoics mastered that.

In Jamaica - a country of broken dreams - one needs that positive orientation to get up out of bed every day. We can have it and we can change our lives and experience happiness by changing how we think.

Our thoughts

The philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, says, "The whole universe is change and life itself is, but what you deem it." This predated Shakespeare. But, long before all of them, and 500 years before Jesus Christ, the Buddha said, "What we are today comes from our thoughts yesterday and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow; our life is the creation of our mind." What are we creating? How much attention do we pay to that?

"Common experience shows that some people are cheerful and buoyant almost whatever bad things happen to them, while some are full of worry and anguish even in the best of circumstances," says psychology professor Daniel Nettle, in the 2005 Oxford University book, Happiness: The Science Behind your Smile.

Continues Nettle: "Life events will make only a modest difference studies have contrasted people with stable life circumstances and those going through major life upheavals, or those with rising incomes and those with falling incomes and they still find that the best predictor of how happy people are at the end of the study is how happy they were at the beginning.

Therapy

It is as if happiness or unhappiness set in large part from how we address what happens in the world.

Rational emotive therapy, reality therapy and cognitive therapy are all based on that basic premise.

So if you are going to have a happy new year, it is not solely dependent on what happens in the Jamaican economy, who wins the next general elections, whether your lover remains faithful to you or whether you keep your cherished job or most favoured friend. It depends on how you respond to the stressors in your environment.

Your response-ability is a crucial determinant of your happiness. Even if we did badly this year in that area, we must believe we can change. Says Joann Ellison Rodgers, in the December issue of Psychology Today, "Those who believe their personalities and abilities can change are more resilient, more open to experience and more likely to take risks."

Take some time before you go back to work to reflect on what you need to do make 2007 a really happy new year - despite what the vicissitudes of life might unfold.

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist who may be reached at ianboyne1@yahoo.com.

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