The secret of happiness is to count your blessings while others are adding up their troubles.
— William Penn
Normally I’m known as a “nice guy:” easygoing, fair, pretty calm and generally happy. But several years ago I planned a weekend conference on psychodrama that unglued me. Planning the conference took six months and included the usual things; arranging for a block of rooms, guaranteeing registrants, coordinating lunches and dinners, and keeping the cost down wherever I could.
As a clinical professor, the presentations and training itself were easy. I could lecture and demonstrate the use of role-playing in dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, show videos of how to apply group principles to people with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities, and demonstrate the various ways to deescalate a fight that had broken out between two members of a group. But guaranteeing payment for a block of rooms and coordinating the coffee sent shivers down my spine.
The pre-registration looked good enough to cover the costs. On the drive from New Jersey to Stockbridge, Mass. where the conference was to be held, I received a call on my cell phone. The shift manager explained that more people had shown up for the conference than anticipated and they could not be accommodated. They did not have reservations and he had no other options than to send them elsewhere.
I lost it.
In my car, alone, I began screaming at the top of my lungs. “You promised me they could accommodate up to 75 people! Now you’re telling me you only have room for 50! I’ve spent six months planning this damn thing with your hotel, we have a contract! You can’t tell me last minute that there is no place for these people — they’ll never trust me again! I’ll never be able to run another conference!” As Albert Ellis might have said, I was “awfulizing.”
Driving on the New York State Thruway I swerved, screamed, and generally worked myself up into what my mother would have called a “tizzy.”
I came to a tollbooth and dug into my pocket to pay. As the window went down I was still shrieking into the phone. I expected to pay and go, but instead the tollbooth operator said something that changed my life.
“There is no toll for you today, sir.”
“Don’t start with me,” I said in a huff. “Just take my money, please.”
“The car in front of you paid the toll. He said to tell you it was a random act of kindness — and to have a nice day.”
“It has never happened before. He actually gave me more than what your toll is and told me to apply any leftovers to the car behind you.”
I thanked him, drove off, and told the guy at the hotel I would call him back in 10 minutes. The timing and impact of the random act of kindness caused a shift in me — a profound one. Instead of being so focused on the problem, it allowed me to shift into a more positive frame of mind. I calmed down, and called back the hotel.
The events coordinator got on the phone and told me it was a misunderstanding. It wasn’t that they didn’t have reservations for rooms, it was that these people didn’t have reservations for Saturday night dinner. This was an easy problem to fix as they staggered the seating times. The conference went off without a hitch.
I was happy, the participants were happy, the hotel was happy. But if I had kept shouting everyone would have suffered. I’d have been in a foul mood for the entire ride up, and, even if the mistake was taken care of, I would have wasted a lot of precious energy and time on being negative. This random act of kindness was my first experience in positive psychology.
This new discipline helps us not only count our blessings, but analyze and optimize their use as well. This field of inquiry opening up in psychology is more than a passing fad. Positive psychology is rapidly emerging as the direction for many researchers and practitioners. Long mired in the work of understanding negative conditions, emotions, and feelings, psychology is taking a completely different view on understanding best how to benefit the human condition. Rather than to simply ameliorate the conditions of depression and negative symptoms, positive psychology is a direct effort to both quash the frequency and intensity of depression and anxiety, and directly increase the happiness we experience in life. What positive psychology endeavors to do is to make us flourish in our life.
Researchers from around the globe have focused on determining the factors that we can identify as affecting our positive emotions. More specifically, the research is more often than not tailored into practical application of enhancing these factors.
Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania is now introduced as “The Father of Positive Psychology.” He is, arguably, the world’s most influential living psychologist. The former president of the American Psychological Association changed the way psychologists understood and treated depression by introducing a theory of learned helplessness in the mid-1970s. He has now changed the way we understand happiness.
His work on depression years earlier took a research-based approach to interventions and outcomes. This isn’t simply a matter of saying ‘think happy thoughts and you’ll feel better,’ this is a highly scientific approach toward understanding the methods and techniques which have the greatest potential of increasing a sense of well-being and happiness and identifying which of them may work best for you.
Consider the exercise called Three Blessings. It is already one of the classics in the field. This amazingly simple technique has been shown to have a powerful, positive effect on reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, while simultaneously increasing a sense of joy and well-being.
The task is simple enough. As your day comes to a close, allow yourself to think about three things that happened during the day that you are most happy about, and why you believe they happened.
The simple elegance of this exercise is part of the appeal, and in some ways the stumbling block people may find difficulty overcoming. Could it really be that something so easy could have such profound results? The unequivocal answer is yes!
The outcome from doing this exercise is astonishing. Participants doing this exercise for one week increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for six months. This is not a misprint. One week of doing this had a lasting effect for six months. While newer research suggests that this technique may actually be more effective if done less frequently rather than more frequently, the basics of the technique have value, a very positive one. The information is pouring in from all corners of the globe, and it is becoming clear that positive psychology is free, easy, effective, and worth the try. For a bit more on the history of this and other experiments launching positive psychology here is an interview with Dr. Seligman.
I encourage you to reflect this evening on the three blessings in your day. You may want to write these down and think about why they may have come into your life. Try this twice more during the week and note how you feel. If you need more encouragement to try this, consider these words from Charles Dickens: “Reflect on your present blessings, on which every man has many, not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”