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Staying Positive in Negative Territory

TORONTO - Pursuing happiness may be an inalienable right, but it's tougher keeping those spirits up while your 401(k) is lower than it used to be.

Part of the reason, say those who study the subject, is that you may be looking for happiness in all the wrong places. People can be happy in an economic slump - they just have to change their ideas about what it takes to be happy, say a growing number of psychologists who study "positive psychology," which emphasizes the benefits of optimism and having a positive outlook.

Although past studies have found those who live in countries with higher per capita incomes report many measures of greater well-being, it's psychological wealth that helps people get through tough times, say researchers Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener, who will present new findings at the four-day annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, which opens here today. About 10,000 psychology professionals are expected to attend.

Though money helps people lead more comfortable lives, it doesn't necessarily contribute to the moments in life that bring happiness - which tend to come from social interactions and activities, not from accumulating material goods.

"Wealth really means having what you need, and money gives only one part of what we need," says Diener, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign.

Diener and his son Biswas-Diener, a psychologist and lecturer at Portland (Ore.) State University, co-wrote a 2008 book, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. They will present findings of a survey of 136,000 people in 132 countries on how income and wealth relate to psychological needs.

"When you look at the entire world, money does matter," Diener says. "But it almost doesn't matter at all for enjoying life."

He says he and his wife had to cut back on spending when the stock market dropped.

"It has mattered zero to our happiness," he says. "We did have to make some tough decisions on what we can't do," such as canceling a trip with their five grandkids to Alaska.

They saved $10,000 by having the kids visit them at home in Salt Lake City instead. "It was not only OK, in some ways it was better. Without the traveling, life becomes slightly simpler and less hectic."

Simplicity is a silver lining to the downturn, says psychologist Robert Wicks.

"In the up economy, people were successful, but in many cases, they were missing their lives," says Wicks, a psychology professor at Loyola University Maryland in Columbia and author of Bounce: Living the Resilient Life, out next month.

"They weren't spending time really enjoying themselves and weren't spending time with family and friends. The simplicity that's possible during difficult economic times would not come to the fore if a crisis had notoccurred."

Some research suggests focusing on gratitude can increase happiness.

Gender plays a role

A study by Todd Kashdan, director of the Laboratory for the Study of Social Anxiety, Character Strengths, and Related Phenomena at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., published online in the Journal of Personality earlier this year, finds that gender plays a role in achieving well-being: Men are much less likely than women to feel and express gratitude.

Carla White, a website designer in Sioux Falls, S.D., says keeping a daily journal about things she's grateful for allowed her to feel happy again after grappling with her father's death for 18 months - unsuccessfully, she says.

"I think what a gratitude journal does is it shows me I actually have some good stuff in my life. I feel at peace. I feel happy because of that," she says.

White, who also faced the prospect of job loss last year, has created a gratitude journal iPhone application, which she launched at the end of the year.

Anthony Scioli, a psychology professor at Keene State College in Keene, N.H., says he has tried to distance himself somewhat from the segment of positive psychology that focuses on happiness in the here and now.

"We do not live just in the moment. Philosophically, one could even say it is impossible to live in the moment because time is fleeting, and most of the 'time' we live in the future and the past," he says.

"Hope is predominantly about the future, but is also fueled by past experiences of success, empowerment, connection, security, coping."

Scioli will present research on hope at an APA session on Friday.

"Hope brings a special kind of happiness, a more permanent form," says Scioli, co-author of Hope in the Age of Anxiety, with clinical psychologist Henry Biller of the University of Rhode Island-Kingston.

"Hopeful people are sustained by the belief that there are always options," Scioli says.

"Diversify investments, consider a different line of work, or pick up a temporary part-time job. Rent a room in your house for extra income. Hopeful people are more apt to stay calm in a crisis due to their broader life perspective and faith in the future."

But sometimes having hope and wanting to be happy aren't so easy, especially when so many people have been laid off or can't find work.

That's when happiness really suffers, says Biswas-Diener, of Milwaukie, Ore., who is also program director for the Centre of Applied Positive Psychology in the United Kingdom.

"The truth is you do take a hit where your happiness is concerned if you get laid off," he says, but "money is only one of the reasons. It's the stress associated with not being able to pay bills.

"Also, jobs provide meaning. They structure your time. They give you a sense of identity. They allow you to provide for your loved ones. When you take away these critical psychological components, people really do feel it."

Experiences trump stuff

Psychologists also have found that being highly materialistic affects happiness, with those who are most concerned about money and possessions actually being less happy.

Keeping too close tabs on the economy, such as daily monitoring of economic indicators that have been on a roller-coaster ride since the recession began, also hinders happiness.

"We find that people whose moods are up and down a lot are less happy. People who are less reactive to every event, in general, are happier," Diener says.

But what about what money can buy? Previous research has found that using money to pay for something novel, social or experiential brings more happiness than buying things.

Some newer studies confirm these results. San Francisco State University researchers presented findings earlier this year to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology,@ based on what participants said about their purchases.

They said they thought eating out or buying theater tickets was money better spent than on more things, such as a new tech toy or clothing, and the experiential purchase provided greater happiness for themselves and others, regardless of the amount they paid or their income.

Making happy memories

The researchers suggest that's because experiences can provide happy memories, which don't wear away as fast as the rush of buying a new possession.

But a study in this month's Journal of Consumer Research found that negative experiences can turn the theory upside down.

Researchers at the University of Texas-Austin and Washington University in St. Louis found that a bad experience, like a vacation gone wrong, can have a more negative impact on happiness than other spending of a comparable amount.

Humans are predisposed to pay greater attention to the negative, psychologists say.

That's partly evolutionary because humans automatically turn their attention to anything threatening before paying attention to rewards, says Diener - ignoring a lion's threat, for example, could make you a goner, while ignoring something good isn't a matter of survival.

Focusing on what's good and the special moments that bring happiness to people's lives is why Pamela Gail Johnson of Lewisville, Texas, says she created the Secret Society of Happy People.

Johnson says the group, started in 1998, has struck a nerve with at least 7,000 people she counts as official members.

The website (www.sohp.com) has had more traffic since the downturn, she says.

"When they're in this global uncertainty, they start asking these tougher questions," she says. 'Do I need three cars? Does that make me happy?' "

Johnson urges people to savor the happy moments, even in the midst of financial chaos.

"If your basic needs are met, happiness is not about money," she says.

2 Responses »

  1. I loved the point about humans being predisposed to pay attention to the negative. While I was aware of this, I had never considered the evolutionary reasoning, which does make sense.

    This will help me make others aware of the reasons for their behaviour, which is half the battle in changing it.

    Thanks for that little gem.

    Live Life Happy!

  2. I believe that in these times of economic hardship for many who are young and not so young, there is an opportunity to transform our ways of thinking and our relationship with money. This point is clearly expressed by Lynne Twist in a brief video presentation at her website. As a Third Ager, I am inspired by her words of wisdom and message of hope: “…we can move towards thrift rather than accumulation; we can move toward appreciating what we love rather than being afraid of what we've lost. We can focus our attention and intention not on what we're losing, but on what we already have that's so valuable and nourishing to us. And we can stop clamouring for more of what we don't really need and take care of what we have.” For more reflections on money and happiness, check http://www.happiness-after-midlife.com/discover-yourself-in-midlife.html.