Tuesday, September 30, 2008


And I have to say it now
It's been a good life all in all
It's really fine
To have a chance to hang around
And lie there by the fire
And watch the evening tire
While all my friends and my old lady
Sit and pass the pipe around

And talk of poems and prayers and promises
And things that we believe in
How sweet it is to love someone
How right it is to care
How long it's been since yesterday
And what about tomorrow
And what about our dreams
And all the memories we share

~~ Poems, Prayers, and Promises by John Denver

When I was nine, my babysitter gave me a 45 (that's a record, for those of you born after 1985) of John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads (apparently I sang it so often she got annoyed….) On the flip side was a little song called Poems, Prayers, and Promises. I remember sitting in my basement playroom the first time I listened to that song. At the ripe old age of nine, I sat with tears streaming down my face, reveling in the profundity and wisdom of John's message. It is a good life after all. And I promised myself that I would never allow life's challenges to cloud that perspective.

Now, in midlife, I still tear up when I listen. Because there are so many people who aren't happy despite what they have. Why are we so easily dissatisfied? Interestingly, a study was done in the late 70's in which accident victims, lottery winners, and a control group were polled on their life satisfaction. They found that after an initial period of adjustment (which was marked by elation for the lottery winners and depression for the paraplegics) they returned to their usual level of happiness. In other words, those who accepted and found positives in life beforehand, continued to do so. And complainers continued to be complainers.

I've recently found two new pearls of wisdom in The Science of Happiness by Stefan Klein, PhD. First, it's not enough to be happy-- we need to be aware of our happiness. My mother always said we need to count our blessings… science now says that she was right (LOL-- don't tell her that… she already says "told you so" more often than I'd like.) An Italian psychiatrist developed "Well-Being Therapy" to use with depressed patients. He asked them to keep a happiness diary in which they described in detail any happy moment in their day as well as their feelings. It was very successful-- after ten weeks their depression had lifted. When we keep track of positive moments our attention is brought to what makes us happy. And putting it in writing prevents our brain from diminishing the moment or dismissing the happiness later.

And the other bit I learned is that we are programmed to want everything (ack!-- we're doomed!). And, of most interest, the anticipation of something is far more powerful than the pleasure when we receive it. Apparently, when a reward is in sight, certain dopamine neurons fire like crazy so we experience pleasure. This was first demonstrated with monkeys, and later with humans. Monkeys were given apples. The sight of the apples started the neurons firing. Then, researchers lit a lamp before presenting the apples. Soon, the neurons started firing when the lamp was lit. But when an apple was offered, the neurons stopped firing. It's not the reward, but the expectation that gives us pleasure. So, we could lead a perfect life and still be unhappy… because we get bored. It seems to me that the best way to prevent this is to add variety to our lives. Studies have also shown that we don't have to increase the stimulation or constantly feel the need to raise the bar, because the memory of our expectation response isn't very long. Instead, we just need to rotate our sources of pleasure. (In other words, don't get into a rut!) Happiness doesn't come from getting something new. It comes from spicing up what we already have.

So go put a new spin on an old activity, surprise someone you love, try something that you haven't done in years. Maybe we can create happiness with what is already in our lives.


Charles Gramlich said...

I'm very lucky in that I really don't want a lot of things. I'm pretty happy with enough to eat and read and some time to write and walk in the woods. But definitely that expectation of reward is a huge thing, one of the major components of gambling.

Precie said...

Interesting. People have recommended doing a "thankful journal" in which you (okay, I) write down 5 things I'm thankful for each day. But I suspect a "happiness journal" would be much more effective for me...it's not the same as counting your blessings, which I could easily say I don't deserve or I could feel even more guilty for not appreciating.

A happiness journal, on the other hand, captures the act/sensation, not just the object of appreciation. I think I may have to try this!

Precie said...

Wow, I'm just "therapy"-ing myself all over your blog. Sorry!

K.Lawson Gilbert said...

"First, it's not enough to be happy-- we need to be aware of our happiness" -

Isn't that so true? I love it when I stop and say "I am so happy that I am hearing *that sound* or seeing *that sight* et.al.

We have to realize our happiness and state it to ourselves, in order for it to be validated. Glad you posted this today. My sister and I were discussing this topic. I am going to suggest the happiness journal to her. Thanks!

Aine said...

Charles~ I have simple wants, too. Definitely the reading and eating!

Precie~ Send yourself a bill! You're doing a great job. LOL!

Great observation of the difference between gratitude and the happiness journal. Thanks for pointing that out!

k.lawson gilbert~ You're welcome! I'm going to start my own happiness journal,too. I'm glad this idea resonates with others!

Anonymous said...

I do a similar thing to the journal in that on a blue day I look out the window and force myself to find something that cheers me. It could be a tree, a dog, a child playing in the street. Then I write about 300 words on why it has made me realise life isn't all that bad. It really shifts my focus away from my misery. I feel better every time. I am enjoying your blog, by the way!

SzélsőFa said...

That's a wonderful message, Aine!
You know, some of the blogs I read, including yours, can give me some little pleasure.
I click on the url of these blogs in anticipation of some useful information, friendly words, encouragement, experience.

Just a few weeks ago, our family has started developing a new habit. Everytime we have a family meal, and we do have on every evening on weekdays and every mid-day and evening on weekends; we sat silently for a while.
This is when some families say a prayer, we tried that too, but now we try something different.
Each of us, one after another tells what s/he liked most about that particular day. What made her/him happy.
My son usually says he won against the computer in a game, or his friends came over. My daughter finds pleasure in dancing at school, my husband sometimes refers to one of his activities in the renovation of our house, and so on.
It is a useful activity indeed.

Aine said...

Selma~ I'm happy to see you! Thanks for sharing your journal technique. I wonder if you are getting an enhanced therapeutic experience. In addition to acknowledging your sources of happiness you are also engaging in an activity that is a passion, or energy-producing for you.

Szelsofa~ aww, thanks! You've just given me a wonderful dose of validation. :)

I love your family sharing idea! I once read a simliar idea that involves an "appreciation plate." Once a week, each family member gets a turn using the appreciation plate for dinner (they suggested getting a brightly colored plate or something that stands out from your regular dishware). All other family members must share one reason that they appreciate that person. And of course, since it's often Mom who sets the table, she can strategically place it at the seat of the family member who needs it most that day.

Geraldine said...

I finally am realising in the past couple of years what REALLY counts in life and what doesn't. There is much to be learned in our times of struggles and lacking, isn't there? I am grateful to be loved, to be healthy and to be looking forward to so much I still want to achieve. Thanks Aine, interesting post and thoughts to ponder.


Hoodie said...

Wow, what a great post. I come from a community that really stresses giving and doing and service and all of that. I was amazed one day when a lady mentioned, "and don't forget to be happy, or what's the point?" She talked about giving ourselves permission to be happy. I think, for some reason, people feel like if they're stressed and overworked than they are doing what's right and that "happiness" is an indulgence that we can easily feel guilty for. At least I know a lot of people who feel that way.

This post has helped me look around and feel content with what I've created in my life and to reflect on the things that really have made me happy. It really isn't the getting, but the changing. I'm sure I'll be back to reread this one.

Vesper said...

A "happiness journal" - what a great idea!
You're so right, Aine, much too often we fail to recognise the happy moments in our lives.
As for the anticipation vs. posession, I completely agree, for I have my own examples. They're mostly related to books or films, which first I struggle to find, then wait for quite impatiently, and, finally, when I have them, I keep them unopened for a while, close to me, where I can see them and touch them, while I try (unconsciously) to extend just a little bit more the pleasure of anticipation.

Vesper said...

And the song is beautiful...

Aine said...

geraldine~ It is so important to realize one's priorities. Working in nursing homes for years, I heard that advice many times from my clients.

hoodie~ Thanks! Feeling guilt for being happy-- yikes. Taking care of oneself is the first step in caring for others. I'm glad I hit on a topic that is needed.

vesper~ You've got admirable discipline! I am a sucker for instant gratification. And I know the instant I am unwrapping a new purchase or gift that 80% of the fun is over, but I just can't help myself. I think I'll try your approach next time.

I'm glad you enjoyed the song!

Sarah Hina said...

Well said, Aine. :)

I was particularly motivated by your reminder to not get into a rut. To acknowledge that newness is stimulating, but focus that energy and anticipation on interests that will make us feel good about ourselves, too. To find a way to share those with the people we love. It's hard work. But infinitely worth it. Otherwise, we're condemned to a life of self-inflicted dissatisfaction.

I think I'll be returning to this post in the future. As for that happiness journal--I know what I'll be writing about today. :)

Aine said...

Sarah~ It is such hard work to not fall into the "grass is greener" trap. I catch myself there more often than I'd like. I was so heartened when I read that the memory of our expectation response is relatively short. Being aware of that fact gives me hope that we can experience happiness from familiar sources throughout our lifetime. (In midlife one starts to question such things... midlife? looking around to see who I'm talking to... Me? Nah!!)

Anonymous said...

It's all about the journey, the quest, the gift not yet opened.