Is it possible to learn to be happy?

Dr Peter Honey on learning to be happy

I often read things giving advice on how to be happy. As a psychologist, I have a professional interest in reading self-help material and, as a human being, I’m naturally attracted to the idea of being happy, or perhaps I should say, happier since I already am fortunate in feeling happy most of the time.

My default position is to assume that just about anything beyond basic instincts can be learnt. This clearly applies to the acquisition of knowledge and skills but it is less clear when it comes to emotions. Since people’s descriptions of how it feels to experience strong emotions are uncannily similar the world over, it would appear that how to feel a given emotion is a given and does not have to be learnt. But when to feel an emotion almost certainly is learnt.

It’s subjective.

Take fear for example. The physical experience of being afraid; breaking into a sweat, heart pounding, etc; seems to be part of the human condition but when people are afraid varies enormously; open spaces, public speaking, heights, flying, elevators, spiders, snakes and so on.

The fact that the triggers for fear differ from person to person must mean that people have learnt when to feel afraid. If it was instinctive we would all be afraid of the same things.  In just the same way different experiences contribute to peoples happiness. Some people are happy fishing, others are happy train spotting and yet others are happy reading poetry. Personally I’m very happy when playing competitive association croquet – something totally puzzling to my non-croquet playing friends who choose to be happy doing different things that puzzle me! Like most things in life, one size certainly doesn’t fit all when it comes to happiness.

The small picture

Happiness by Design is by the behavioural scientist Paul Dolan. In his book, he maintains that we have learnt to focus on the wrong things. We pay attention to what we think makes us happy than what actually does. This explains why people stay in jobs whilst complaining about an over demanding boss, uncooperative colleagues and their tedious commute to work each day. According to Dolan, the tendency to succumb to inertia despite being unhappy most of the time at work, is because not enough attention is being paid to the moment to moment experiences. The mistake, it seems, is to underestimate the importance of lots of small things and the effect they have on happiness.

Because I’m happy

Dolan advocates three essential happiness-making steps; decide, design and do. Once you have decided the day-today things that give you pleasure, small things such as accomplishing certain tasks, reading, playing with your kids, chatting (even playing croquet!), you need to plan what changes to make so that you can do these things more often. Then, vitally, do them by implementing the plan.

I recognise these steps because they map perfectly onto the stages of the David Kolb’s Experimental Learning Cycle: review, conclude (Dolan’s ‘decide’), plan (Dola’s ‘design’) and do. In fact, even though it increases the steps from three to four, I find it more useful to split Dolan’s ‘decide’ into ‘review’ and ‘conclude’. This is because a vital stage in the thought processes is to review which experiences make you happy and which do not before reaching conclusions on what adjustments to make. In other words, I maintain that ‘decide’ is too vague when it comes to the actual mechanics of doing so.

The Learning Cycle

It is not in the least surprising that the stages in the learning cycle keep getting rediscovered by people working in other fields. This, I believe, is because the review-conclude-plan-do cycle is a universal truth; such a universal truth that people clamouring novelty and newness tend to dismiss the learning cycle as too simplistic, even banal. I remain stubbornly convinced that knowingly (accent on the knowingly) working through the stages of the learning cycle is the key to being an effective learner. Not only is learning is learnable, Dolan has helped us to see that happiness is too.


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