Can we train ourselves to be happy?

Can we programme ourselves to be happier? Is it enough to exchange our negative thoughts for positive ones, even if it means lying to ourselves? We asked the opinion of leading happiness experts, and found some surprising results. By Flavia Mazelin Salvi

 } by Psychologies

During these unstable and difficult times, the happiness industry is booming. Just take a look at the ‘mind, body, spirit’ section of any bookshop. Hedonistic happiness, the Buddhist route to happiness, being happy in your body, achieving spiritual peace, finding happiness through austerity and frugal living, contagious happiness through positive thinking…? We all now have the opportunity to be truly happy, whatever route we choose.

One view is that the way we interpret what happens to us has a greater impact on our quality of life than the events themselves. A Swiss psychologist, author and teacher, Yves-Alexandre Thalmann, cites the metaphor of the glass that’s either half full or half empty. ‘Our brains are programmed to make sense of everything around us and that happens to us. We spend our lives interpreting facts,’ he explains. ‘These interpretations, positive or negative, generate corresponding emotions. These emotions determine our behaviour, the way we see life, and our relationships with others.’

For example, if it’s raining, you could say to yourself, ‘That’s today ruined,’ and be in a bad mood all day. Or you could say, ‘Great, it’s a chance to spend a cosy day at home,’ and this lighter mood will be much easier for those around you to live with.

This is what led Thalmann to develop his theory based on an apparently simple premise: why not select the positive interpretations, which boost our wellbeing, and focus exclusively on them?

‘It’s a question of using free will to put our own spin on hard facts,’ he says. ‘Facts can’t be altered, as much as we might wish they could, but their significance is not contained within them – that is the story we tell about them. So you might as well link facts with plausible favourable explanations. I call it telling yourself nice stories.’

Developing thought habits

It’s simply a question of exchanging automatically negative thoughts –‘My boss didn’t acknowledge me this morning, therefore he’s upset with me, I must have done something wrong’ – for an alternative interpretation: ‘Perhaps he slept badly, or has personal problems.’ If you regularly apply this tool, you will develop new thought habits, which will lead to positive emotions,’ says Thalmann. Negative comparisons are also out.

Citing a study by psychiatrist Christophe André, Thalmann points out that on the Olympic podium, bronze medallists are happier than silver medallists. The latter compare themselves with the winners and thus feel miserable, while bronze medallists are thrilled to be on the podium, as they’re comparing themselves to everyone who came after them. We can easily programme ourselves for happiness by exchanging our negative beliefs for positive ones. In fact, all cognitive behavioural approaches are based on the same idea: that our phobias, relationship difficulties and even our addictions are often linked to ‘cognitive distortions’ (or false beliefs) that we need to do something about.

Mind tricks

But is the attainment of happiness really so comfortably within our grasp? Psychoanalysts suggest not. ‘We can always momentarily trick our unconscious mind by telling it stories,’ says philosopher and psychoanalyst Claude Tedguy. ‘We can anaesthetise our unconscious, but studies show that the return to reality is always painful, and that inner conflicts are simply displaced – they don’t dissolve in the face of repeated positive affirmations. ‘Banning oneself from negative interpretations of reality can be dangerous. If I stop seeing the glass as half empty and abandon this belief without working on what, in my past, contributed to it, and without understanding the purpose it serves in my life, then life becomes meaningless. I accuse myself of being to blame for my own misery, either because I was ignorant or because I was weak.’

Psychoanalysis has never claimed to make its subjects happy, because adherents believe that each of us must seek out our own truth. Roland Jouvent, a professor of psychiatry, agrees with the psychoanalysts on this point. ‘To believe that we can voluntarily change our beliefs to achieve happiness and inner peace is to accord a power to the mind over the body that it does not possess,’ he says. ‘We have long claimed – wrongly – that it is enough to replace depressed people’s dark thoughts with nice ones to neutralise their depression, and that we can help those who are anxious by exchanging their negative projections for positive ones. But that doesn’t work. On the other hand, mindfulness, for example, works very well for anxious people. Neurological scans prove it. It has an almost immediate effect on brain activity, and therefore on emotions.’

So, is developing positive thoughts completely ineffective? It all depends on what we understand by ‘think positive’. Tal Ben-Shahar teaches positive psychology at Harvard. Of the 1,400 students he lectures each term, 23 per cent say he has changed their life, according to the back cover of his book, Being Happy. The theoretical discourse of this doctor of psychology and philosophy is far deeper than that of the purveyors of instant happiness, who claim an accumulation of small happy events and the repetition of positive mantras is enough to attain nirvana.

A need for meaning

Ben-Shahar is not a fan of the hedonistic pursuit of happiness, which is individual and material. He introduces an essential extra element: meaning. ‘My own definition of happiness is an overall feeling of pleasure, replete with meaning,’ he says. A happy person finds joy in life, he writes, despite the bad times, the trials and setbacks along the way. He or she will experience happiness while finding a reason for his existence.

Ben-Shahar also states that it is not enough to find meaning in relation to the big picture. We also need meaning in our everyday lives. On a daily basis, we should actively nurture the relationships that nourish us, bring creativity into everything we do, and give ourselves time for activities that make us feel like we are flourishing. It is not so much a question of  the meaning of life as it is making sense of your own existence. The difference is significant. ‘[This] pursuit of happiness that is not about what you possess is a game everyone can win,’ says Ben-Shahar. ‘I feel sure that if “happy thinking” were to spread, it would provoke a quiet revolution in our society. At the heart of this, the twin objectives of the pursuit of happiness and helping others achieve the same goal will work together.’

Philosopher Vincent Cespedes also criticises what he calls ‘happyism’, a selfish and consumerist version of happiness. He suggests that rather than thinking of ‘having’ happiness in our lives or even ‘being’ happy, we connect it with sharing – ‘being charming to someone who has treated you in the same way, or offering joyful hospitality to others’. Cespedes doesn’t talk about ‘thoughts’or ‘beliefs’ – he believes true happiness comes when it is shared. It is contagious, intoxicating and sparkling, like champagne. And like champagne, it’s not made to be drunk alone.