What's funny to me is that people have to learn to tell the difference between the two - like the way teenagers have to learn the important difference between "love" and "lust".
At the Royal Institution, Nettle explained how brain chemistry foils our pursuit of happiness in the modern world: "The things that you desire are not the things that you end up liking. The mechanisms of desire are insatiable. There are things that we really like and tire of less quickly — having good friends, the beauty of the natural world, spirituality. But our economic system plays into the psychology of wanting, and the psychology of liking gets drowned out."
This means you, parents: Quit worrying that your children are in some kind of mortal danger from having an "unhappy childhood", without medication or therapy. Quit meddling in their brains. You don't have control anyway. Be there for them, and they will learn.
... In essence, what the biology lesson tells us is that negative emotions are fundamental to the human condition, and it's no wonder they are difficult to eradicate. At the same time, by a trick of nature, our brains are designed to crave but never really achieve lasting happiness.
... Psychologists such as Seligman are convinced you can train yourself to be happier. His teams are developing new positive interventions (treatments) to counteract the brain's nagging insistence on seeking out bad news. The treatments work by boosting positive emotion about the past, by teaching people to savour the present, and by increasing the amount of engagement and meaning in their lives.
Since the days of Freud, the emphasis in consulting rooms has been on talk about negative effects of the past and how they damage people in the present. Seligman names this approach "victimology" and says research shows it to be worthless: "It is difficult to find even small effects of childhood events on adult personality, and there is no evidence at all of large effects."
I like all of these examples, especially the letter-writing part. It's not enough to just talk, you have to get the chance to place your thoughts in order first, and speak without interruption so they all come out. I've done this exercise many times in the past, usually with a girlfriend I was too shy to open up to. Reading a letter over the phone was also good middle-ground.
In one internet study, two interventions increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for at least six months. One exercise involves writing down three things that went well and why, every day for a week. The other is about identifying your signature strengths and using one of them in a new and different way every day for a week. A third technique involves writing a long letter to someone you're grateful to but have never properly thanked, and visiting them to read it out in person.
Seligman and his graduate students weep tears of joy when they do this exercise, but most Brits would probably rather be miserable than do it. So it's a relief to hear that it doesn't work particularly well. It has strong, but only brief, effects.
Oooo, take that, city dwellers! ;)
The British approach to wellbeing also emphasises good physical health and diet, proper sleep, relaxation and exercise, and spending time in the natural environment.
There you have it. Stress makes you unhappy, unhappiness causes stress. Both make you sick. We can either eliminate the things that stress us out, or work to minimize the stress we feel about particular things. Kind of obvious, actually.
But repeated stress weakens us. The stress response temporarily increases the level of cortisol, a vital hormone that regulates the whole immune system. This is a healthy response, designed to produce fight or flight only in cases of real danger. Unfortunately, the daily hassles of modern life induce repeated stress in some of us, subjecting our bodies to frequent pulses of cortisol. This unbalances the immune system and makes us ill.