Happiness is not only about our perception of things, but is also significantly influenced by how we cope with challenges and problems in our lives. The term “coping” does not inherently mean that you are doing something adaptive to manage a situation in your life. Rather, there are positive, adaptive and appropriate coping mechanisms as well negative, maladaptive or inappropriate methods of coping. Unfortunately, many people do not recognize that the action they are taking to handle an issue is maladaptive, and ultimately will only make their problem worse. True, it may provide short-term relief, but in the long-term these coping techniques are never ideal.
A recently published book Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study by George Vaillant, M.D. details the long-term study of a group of men, beginning in 1938 and still active today. These men have been studied in detail and at length when it comes to their physical and emotional health. In his book, Vaillant discusses the types of coping mechanisms that he’s observed these men using. He talks about how many men use “immature” coping techniques such as refusing to acknowledge that they have a problem (i.e. denial, and then there is its close relative repression), blaming others, displacing their anger, escaping into a fantasy world, and passive-aggressive tactics. He describes these kinds of mechanisms as being “narcissistic” in that they may make the user feel good (again, only in the short-term) but ultimately they only serve to “drive people away.”
In significant contrast, Vaillant has identified many adaptive and successful methods of coping. In the study, he’s observed men who “displayed an ability to take life’s hardship and ‘turn it into gold.’” These people tend to use mechanisms such as: humor; not taking oneself too seriously; anticipation, defined as “the ability to forsee future pain and prepare for it; stoicism, or “the ability to endure hardships”; and altruism, “a concern for others.”
This ties into the key elements that have been identified by one of positive psychology’s gurus: Martin E.P. Seligman. I’ve cited some of his other works on this website before, but specifically his book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being discusses these elements of positive emotion or well-being. Seligman has stated that “People who have the most positive emotion, the most engagement, and the most meaning in life are the happiest, and they have the most life satisfaction.” He has identified these elements as:
Positive Emotion: feelings that contribute to the feeling of a happy, pleasant life and include pleasure, warmth, comfort, rapture, and ecstasy
Engagement: being so absorbed in an activity, or so engaged in a task that you are one with it, and self-consciousness is suspended
Relationships: Seligman emphasizes that we are social creatures, and that we need others. He also believes that are highest and happiest emotional states occur when we are in the presence of others
Meaning: Seligman believes that people inherently desire to find meaning and purpose in life, stating that we want the feeling of “belonging and serving something that you believe is bigger than you are.”
Accomplishment: Achieving something, reaching our personal goal(s), greatly contributes to a sense of well-being.
So, today’s happiness homework assignment: Go through these above areas and journal the thoughts, feelings, activities, etc. that come to mind for each area. For example, what are some of the things that bring you comfort? What things are you proud of accomplishing?
[information taken from this month’s issue of WebMD magazine]