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March 2015 Issue
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Happy trails

Wouldn’t it be great if you could bring this feeling into the office on Monday morning… some of the world’s best psychologists think you can. Photo: Mark Banham
It feels great to shoulder your pack and stride into the unknown, but have you ever wondered why? Perhaps not, but some of the world’s best psychologists have – and you need to know what they’ve found out

After a few decades living in a marketing saturated society where every product comes with an implicit promise of lasting bliss, when someone comes out and explicitly says ‘this will make you happy’, the only rational response is to turn the page. But wait, what I have to say here really will make you happy… or at least help you make yourself that way.

It’s easy to believe that any talk of finding happiness is either new-age happy-clappery or trying to sell you something – or both. But come on, we have the technology to land robots on Mars, split the atom and sell One Direction records, surely someone’s made some real progress on the ‘pursuit of happiness’ thing.

As it turns out, psychologists have – but they’ve taken their sweet time about it. A little over a century ago, psychologists like Wilhelm Wundt began looking at the depressed, addicted, schizophrenic and psychopathic among us with a view to making them a bit less cuckoo.

After a few decades, they used what they’d learned on progressively more sane people, but always taking the approach of finding out what’s wrong with us and making it less so. It was only in the last decade or two that psychologists like Martin Seligman, Dan Gilbert and Shawn Achor started making real headway on scientifically evaluating what is right with us and making it more so. Reading their books and listening to their lectures yields a wealth of information on the question: why am I happy in the hills, but miserable at work on Monday morning?

The first thing that’s worth knowing is that there’s more than one flavour of happiness. When most people think happiness, they’re thinking about what psychologists call ‘positive emotion’, that feeling you get when you find a five dollar note under the sofa. But there’s actually a bit more to it than that.

Positive emotion is great but the problem, according to Seligman, is that we get used to things – even good things.

‘Positive emotion habituates… rapidly. It’s all like French vanilla ice cream, the first taste is a 100 per cent; by the time you’re down to the sixth taste, it’s gone.’

A better long term proposition for acquiring ‘subjective well being’ is what Seligman calls ‘Eudaimonian  Flow’.

Go with the flow

Eudaimonian Flow is a bit of a tricky concept to explain, but it’s basically when you’re so focused on using a particular skill that you forget yourself, the activity takes over and your worries drift away. Musicians get it, dancers get it, and writers get it… and I think trampers get it, too.

How many times have you been on a trip, perhaps hopping from rock to rock along a river’s edge? It’s difficult at first, but soon enough you get into a rhythm, you lose track of time and next thing you know you’re at the hut. That’s flow and psychologists think getting it on a regular basis is one of the keys to long term happiness.

You can’t buy happiness… but you can synthesise it

Given an irreversible choice between two possibilities, people will come to genuinely believe that the one they chose is best – even if it was forced upon them. It’s a concept known as ‘synthesising happiness’.

In his lectures, Dan Gilbert gives the example of Pete Best, The Beatles’ original drummer who was dismissed in 1962 to be replaced by Ringo Starr. In a recent interview, Best was famously quoted as saying “I’m happier than I would have been with the Beatles”.

Most of us respond to that with “Yeah right!” but psychologists like Gilbert think that Best is being 100 per cent honest. That he’s reconciled events in his mind and is genuinely happy with how things turned out – and what’s more, that’s a perfectly natural way for people to deal with things. He describes it as a ‘psychological immune system’.

But, there’s a catch: if you have a choice, if the decision isn’t irreversible, then that ‘immune system’ doesn’t kick in and you’re forever left in a sort of psychological limbo wondering if you made the right call.

Think about it in terms of wilderness adventures. Saying things like ‘if you didn’t pack it, then you don’t need it’ and ‘if you’re always eating your best food then you’re always eating your best food’, are practically mantras among trampers. In the hills, your choices are limited and you’re highly committed to them.

Fast forward to civilisation on Monday morning and you’re besieged by choice: Should I switch to Apple or stick with Android? Does a Forester define me, or am I more of a Hilux kinda guy? And what’s more, a huge number of those choices are reversible – you can always flick-off the old one on Trademe and upgrade to a new, better decision.

Exercise is medicine

Shawn Achor, in his book The Happiness Advantage, quotes a study that tested 45 minutes of exercise, three times a week, against anti-depressant medication as an intervention against depression.

After four months, the patients given exercise not only bounced back as well as those given medication, but what’s interesting is that six months down the track 38 per cent of the medicated patients had relapsed… but only nine per cent of the exercisers had.

Which just goes to show, when you lace up your boots and go for a stroll, you’re taking one of the most powerful anti-depressants known to mankind.

What I’ve explained here is just barely scratching the surface. There’s a stack of other facets to the happiness prism. Having something to look forward to (like the summit, or pizza when you get home) helps enormously, as do acts of altruism – like helping a stranger across a river.

The thing is, most of this stuff is just a natural part of your average weekend away. There’s no real reason why it shouldn’t be part of your work day, though.

When you get home from your next trip try to bring the expedition mentality back with you; make room in your day for a bit of exercise, try to engineer flow into your work, commit to your decisions, help out a stranger and generally think like you’re in an alpine hut, not an office or a work site – you’ll be happy you did.