That seems to be the premise of a three-part series This Emotional Life televised at the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) channel earlier this week. Hosted by Harvard psychologist and author Professor Daniel Gilbert, it features talks with experts on these issues as well as personal stories from ordinary people and thoughts from celebrities. http://www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife/series
The gist of the first episode is that one main component of our happiness is the success of our social relationships especially in relation to family, friends and our romantic partnerships. In the segment about friends, it is interesting to hear actor/comedian Chevy Chase raises the question of how many friends he has. He says: “Three. I don’t have a lot of friends.”
One would think that with his fame and success, he would have more. But then there are various types or levels of friendships. It is easy to find good-times friends, and some people tend to equate an acquaintance as a friendship. Chase is probably talking about the genuine or lasting kind of connection. It brings to mind this quote that I like: “”A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.”
The second episode discusses the emotions that can be obstacles to happiness such as anger, fear, depression and the tools that can help us regulate these emotions. The last episode “Rethinking Happiness”, which to me is the most interesting one, explores what is happiness and how can we attain it.
It points out that for thousands of years, happiness was a subject explored by poets and philosophers, but in the last few decades, psychologists and scientists have used scientific approaches to study it. In one study, participants in a room were asked to choose an art poster. One group was told that their decision was irreversible, while the other group was told that they could exchange the poster for another one at any time.
After that, they were told to rank the posters, and the people who couldn’t change their posters liked them more than the other group. The lesson from this study is that humans are pretty good at adapting: “People find ways to like things when they are stuck with them. When we don’t like our circumstances, we change the way we think about those circumstances”.
On the whole, the series is a mix of things that we already know as well as new and fresh insight.
The search for happiness can be simple, elusive, fulfilling, frustrating, or all of these, and will continue to fascinate us.