Category Archives: Happiness

On the Road to Billings . . . and Well-Being . . . and Happiness

Baby Laugh

Tonight I have the honor of offering a public lecture in Billings. Situated as a part of a series of community suicide-related talks, my title is “Psychological Well-Being and the Pursuit of Happiness.” I suspect somewhere between 3 and 30 people will be in attendance. Although I’m hoping for 30, I’m realistically assuming that Rita and the program’s host will show. Counting me, that makes three!

To help get attendance over 3, someone suggested I edit this post to include the time and location. I’m on at 7pm till 8:30pm on the second floor of the MSU-B library, room 231. Hope to see you there.

Below, I’m pasting the handout for tonight. Being in the green lane, I’m trying to save paper and make these products available online. Here you go!

Psychological Well-Being and the Pursuit of Happiness

John Sommers-Flanagan, Ph.D.

Following is a summary of key points for John Sommers-Flanagan’s presentation for the Big Sky Youth Empowerment Program and Montana Social Scientists, LLC, Billings, MT – November 7, 2019

Introduction: Happiness can run very fast. So, let’s chase well-being instead

  1. The Many Roads to Well-Being. You can find well-being on emotional, mental, social, physical, spiritual/cultural, behavioral, and environmental roadways.
  2. It’s Natural, but not Helpful, to do the Opposite of What Creates Well-Being. If we want to catch well-being, we need to actively plan and pursue it.
  3. The Pennebaker Studies. Writing or talking about deeper emotions and thoughts will make you healthier (better immune functioning) and happier. Choking off our emotions is inadvisable.
  4. The Cherries Story. It’s not what happens to us . . . but what we think about what happens to us . . . that increases or decreases our misery. Focusing on your good qualities can be difficult, but doing so helps build a strong foundation.
  5. Savoring. Use the power of your mind to extend and expand positive experiences.
  6. Why Children (and Adults) Misbehave. When people feel a deep sense of belonging and socially useful, the need to misbehave and feelings of suicide diminish.
  7. Exercise is the Solution (No matter the question). Exercise reduces depression in youth and offsets the genetic predisposition toward depression in adults. You can stretch or lift or do cardio, but get moving!
  8. Holding Hands and Hugging is a Chemical Gift (or not). Consent, timing, and desirable companionship are foundational to whether touch contributes to health.
  9. If You Can’t Catch Happiness or Well-Being, Start Chasing Meaning. Regular involvement in spiritual, cultural, religious, or social justice groups will feel so good that you might experience happiness and well-being along the way.
  10. Remember gratitude. All too often we forget to notice and express gratitude. Put it on your planner; both you and the person who receives your gratitude will thank you for it.

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John Sommers-Flanagan is a Professor of Counseling at the University of Montana. For more information, go to his blog at johnsommersflanagan.com. John is solely responsible for the content of this handout. Good luck in your pursuit of wellness.

Happiness and Well-Being (in Livingston, Montana)

Cow

Yesterday, at the fabulous West Creek Ranch retreat center just North of Yellowstone Park, I introduced community leaders from Livingston, Montana to a man named James Pennebaker. It was a brief meeting. In fact, I’m not sure anyone remembers the formal introduction.

I should probably mention that James Pennebaker wasn’t in the room. The meeting consisted of me putting a short and inadequate description of one of his research studies up on a screen. The study went something like this:

Back in 1986, Pennebaker randomly assigned college students to one of two groups. The first group was instructed to write about personally traumatic life events. The second group was instructed to write about trivial topics. Both groups wrote on four consecutive days. Then, Pennebaker obtained health center records, self-reported mood ratings, physical symptoms, and physiological measures.

Pennebaker reported that, in the short-term, participants who wrote about trauma had higher blood pressure and more negative moods that the college students who wrote about trivia. But the longer term results were, IMHO, amazing. Generally, the students who wrote about trauma had fewer health center visits, better immune functioning, and overall improved physical health.

Pennebaker’s theory was that choking back important emotions takes a physical toll on the body and creates poorer health.

Since 1986, Pennebaker and others have conducted much more research on this phenomenon. The results have been similar. As a consequence, over time, Pennebaker has “penned” several books on this topic, including:

  • Opening Up: The healing power of expressing emotions
  • Writing to Heal: A guided journal for recovering from trauma & emotional upheaval
  • Expressive Writing: Words that heal
  • The Secret Life of Pronouns: What our words say about us
  • Opening Up by Writing It Down

As most of you know, after a couple decades presenting on suicide assessment and treatment, Rita and I have pivoted toward happiness and well-being. The coolest thing about talking about happiness and well-being is that doing so is WAY MORE FUN, and it results in meeting and laughing with very cool people, like the Livingston professionals.

Speaking of Livingston professionals, just in case you forgot that you met James Pennebaker, here’s a link to my powerpoints from yesterday: Livingston 2019 Final

I hope you had as much fun listening as I did talking.

On the Road from Suicide to Happiness: Please Send Directions!

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Buddhists often say that life is suffering. Some days, for many of us, that feels about right.

But on other days, the inverse also rings true. Life is joy. Joy is the dialectical sunshine that intermittently breaks through clouds of suffering to interrupt our melancholy.

Don’t worry. Even though there’s currently a September Winter Storm Warning happening in Montana, I’m not going all weather on you. Besides, there’s not much I love more than clouds, rain, and winter storms. Also, to be fair, Buddha and the Buddhists recognized long ago that there’s a road we can take to get away from storms of suffering.

Maybe it’s my penchant for bad weather that’s drawn me, for the past two years, deeply into the professional monsoon of clinical depression, suicide assessment, and suicide interventions. What’s odd about that is that I don’t believe that depression or suicidality should be as pathologized as they have been. I’m a proponent of the right to die. I also find light and hope in the existential perspective that encourages us to embrace and integrate our darker, depressive sides, so we can emerge more whole and, as the existentialist Kirk Schneider likes to say, experience a Rediscovery of Awe.

For the past two years, focusing on suicide has felt very important. Our society isn’t very good at discussing suicide in an open and balanced way. All too often, suicide gets inaccurately conflated with illness or shame or moral weakness. These inaccuracies have inspired me to talk openly about suicide whenever given the opportunity.

But, to be honest, talking and writing about suicide—even from a professional perspective—isn’t all that fun. Those who know me know how much I like to tell funny stories. For years, I’ve had an untreated addiction to showing Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes cartoons during presentations. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find suicide cartoons that are workshop-worthy. When I show my cartoon with the white rat in the cage hanging itself and the lab scientist saying, “Looks like discouraging data on the antidepressant” if there’s any laughter it’s a painful and strained laughter, at best.

I do have one amazing depression cartoon; it’s a Gary Larson Far Side scene of a sad looking man on a bed in a messy room with the caption, “The bluebird of happiness long absent from his life, Ned is visited by the Chicken of Depression.”

But let me get out of my addiction and to the point. In my work on suicide prevention and intervention, I’ve slowly realized that we need to paddle upstream. I won’t stop talking about depression and suicide, but I want to more explicitly acknowledge that disabling depression and tragic suicides are often the inverse of well-being or happiness turned upside down. To address this effort at integration, I’m preparing materials to teach and present on the science of happiness. This is where I need your help. Yes, please send more suicide and depression cartoons, but even more importantly, send me happiness cartoons! I’m expanding my focus, and getting ready to spend more time talking about how we can all live happier and more meaningful lives. One way I’m doing this is by teaching a new “Happiness” course this spring at the University of Montana.

As background, I should let you know that I’m familiar with the Yale Happiness Class, the Penn Positive Psychology Center, and other popular resources. Although I’ll use this mainstream material, I want to do something different.

Here’s how you can help.

I’m looking for lecture material and happiness lab activities. Examples include,

Lecture content

  • Video clips
  • Songs with meaning
  • Demonstration activities
  • Quirky/meaningful stories

Lab activities

  • 30-60 minute specific experiential activities that can deepen student learning
  • Evidence-based experiential activities that demonstrate how to counter depression or embrace meaning

Because I’ll be delivering the course to undergraduates, as you contemplate sending me a map with directions to happiness, please put on your 19-year-old hat and help me find destinations with academic substance, but that will still appeal to the college-age generation.

As always, thanks for reading. I wish you a weekend (and life) filled (at least intermittently) with the sort of happiness and joy that’s palpable enough to sustain you until the next bluebird of happiness lands on your shoulder. And if you live in Montana, be sure to stay warm in the winter storm.

John S-F

Confirmation Bias on My Way to Spearfish, South Dakota

Confirmation bias is an insidious cognitive process that typically travels just below our awareness. Here’s how it worked for me today.

I’m on my way to Spearfish, SD to do a “Tough Kids, Cool Counseling” workshop tomorrow and keynote on Friday. My belief is that it’s always hard to pack up and get everything ready and make it to the airport. Usually I hold a negative confirmation bias in my mind. This negative bias involves a belief or working hypothesis that the world will conspire against me and stress me out in the process of trying to arrive at the airport in a timely manner.

First, I’m in my office and about to turn off my computer and my office phone rings. Rarely does my phone ring anymore and it’s even more rare that I answer it with only 10 minutes left before my pre-planned office departure time. But my impulses take over and I answer it. It’s the associate dean and our development officer wondering if I have a few minutes to talk. They rush down and we meet for a few minutes, which puts me only slightly behind as I head to the copy machine for, of course, some last minute copies.

Second, Rita is driving me to the airport. She asks me what route she should take (please note: Rita almost never asks ME what route to take and so this is an anomaly in and of itself). I rise to the bait and tell her my quickest route to the airport.

Third, my best route to the airport begins crumbling when we have to stop for a train.

Fourth, my best route has a back-up option in case of a train. We take it. It leads us directly into road construction.

Fifth, we circumnavigate (I love that word) the road construction and make it to the airport.

Sixth, my confirmation number is in a “pre-check-in” email on my cell phone. I pull out my phone and sort through 53 emails, twice, before concluding that it has apparently disappeared.

Seventh, I get checked in anyway and head through security and upstairs only to discover that Liquid Planet’s espresso machine is broken and I can’t have my pre-flight white chocolate mocha and . . .

Eighth, I have to drag my bags and myself downstairs to use the restroom because the road construction has taken over the upstairs airport bathroom.

But now I’m here, sitting and waiting to board my flight and marveling at how today, for some odd reason, I was able to monitor the universe’s push-back and yet not get sucked into a bad mood. Of course, given that I saw the confirmation bias coming, I was able to simultaneously notice the universe’s positive encouragement as well. After all:

1. The associate dean and development officer are two of the nicest people on the planet and they wanted me to speak at a fancy College of Education and Human Sciences event and that sounds like fun.
2. The copy machine worked perfectly and there was NO LINE!
3. It was a beautiful, sunny day in Missoula as I bicycled back and forth from the University on my perfectly functional bike that didn’t get a flat tire.
4. Rita shared half an avocado with me while at home.
5. The toilet flushed without incident.
6. The car started without incident.
7. The circumnavigation went well and it reminded me of how much I like the word circumnavigation. I was also reminded that Rita is an excellent driver and stupendous conversationalist.
8. The guy at the United Airlines desk was nice and efficient.
9. I got to be in the TSA pre-screening category (not that it makes any difference in the Missoula airport).
10. Instead of getting a white chocolate mocha that I didn’t need I got exercise on my way to and from the restroom.
11. I still got here in time to write this post.
12. And, I’m on my way to Spearfish, South Dakota to have an excellent time with some cool professionals who have dedicated their lives to helping others.

Seriously, it would be difficulty to conclude, despite my usual negative confirmation bias about trips to the airport, that this day (and perhaps my whole life) is anything other than infused with most excellent good fortune.

I wish you all the best with your own confirmation bias challenges. Your homework assignment is to intentionally count the positive events in your life and intentionally not count or dwell too much on the less-positive events.