Cheri Yarborough

Ask Dr. Cheri

Cheri Yarborough has a PhD in Psychology and worked for 14 years on a social services helpline in Milwaukee, Wis., and for 13 years as a trauma counselor. Readers may either e-mail her questions directly (cyarborough@earthlink.net) or send a letter to her c/o CCN, PO Box 232, Berryville AR 72616. Readers are encouraged to send questions on any subject from relationship problems to how to get along in the world. Letters will not be answered directly; instead, several will be chosen for this column, and they will be answered within the CCN pages in that manner. Letter-writers will not be identified by their real name.


What is it exactly that makes us happy?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Several years ago Dan Gilbert, a psychologist, gave talk about happiness. It has always stayed with me and during the doldrums of winter I like to think about the intriguing possibilities his message presented.

We're basically either born optimists or pessimists; we have the ability to change our outlooks on life.

You know the old saying about seeing a glass half-full or half-empty. Which do you usually see?

It seems that our frontal cortex (the part of our brain that is larger than any other mammal) is an experience simulator. It is our psychological immune system.

We often think happiness is a thing to be found. In reality, natural happiness is when we want what we have. Those of us who can synthesize happiness can generate chemicals that make us resilient and satisfied.

Even when major trauma happens, people who have the ability to synthesize these chemicals easily have a normal amount of happiness in their lives in as little as three months after a traumatic event. People who cannot synthesize these chemicals may never get over any type of trauma.

Psychologists often use the term "rationalization" (in layman's terms "justification") for having a particular view about events that happened in the past. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Pessimists often see themselves as "realists" and see optimists as dreamers. But many studies have shown that most people find exactly what they're looking for. If you think everyone is out to get you, your suspicions will often manifest in repeated examples of where you were taken advantage of. If you see people as open and friendly, you often find friends easily. It has to do with our own attitudes and the impression we make

on others first.

Gilbert also mentioned that our total freedom is not a panacea for happiness. The idea of having no boundaries is actually the enemy of happiness. When we have no limits on money, time energy or ideas, it was found that people flitted from one thing to another, never satisfied with what they had or where they were because they knew they had the ability to always get more. (We might see this as greed or sloth.)

We've often seen this in the media where young, rich socialites were given little or no structure as children and o expectations about what they should do with their lives. When we have no boundaries, our longings and worries are overblown.

So what can we do about our own happiness if we're not born optimists?

You can get inside your own head and re-program it. Of course it's easier the younger you are and the less baggage you have to overcome.

It begins by using a type of visualization and meditation where you become at peace with your self. This starts the process of finding joy in our daily lives (my grandfather use to do this by going fly-fishing). Finding a peaceful meditative activity rewards us by giving us a positive outlook on life. We begin to synthesize our own happiness by changing our brain chemistry.

Some people need pharmaceuticals to help do that, but most of us don't.

To paraphrase Shakespeare: there's nothing good or bad that thinking makes it so.