That’s how one of the most influential teachers in my life started off each class.
"Good morning good people..."
It wasn’t only her greeting, but throughout the entire class, she always treated each of us as if we were, indeed, good people.
That might have been the catalyst, or it might have been the time my normally demanding and critical father reached down, patted me on the head, and gave me a solid “Atta boy.” I don’t know.
But I do know that at some point, somewhere, I developed a driving curiosity about what it means to be this being called human.
Fast-forward to graduate school. I discovered Martin Seligman, whom some call the father of Positive Psychology. It turns out that Martin had received great acclaim for work he did in the area of learned helplessness. He discovered that after dogs were stressed and given no escape, that they would not take advantage of escapes when provided because they had learned to be helpless.
Martin was doing some research with inner-city youth trying to explain why some don’t try to escape out of poverty. All of a sudden it struck him in a great a-ha moment. He asked “Why am I studying the ones that succumb to these pressures? Why am I not studying the resilient ones; the ones that make it out in spite of all of the pressures against them?“ If we can find out what promotes their extraordinary coping mechanisms, then we can apply that learning to live extraordinary lives.
From that moment in the 1980s forward, a great body of scientific research has grown up leaving behind the question of how do we fix what’s wrong in favor of how do we build on what brings us that sense of wellbeing. The focus the research has been: can we become more skillful at creating a purposeful, creative, positive, meaningful, and joyful life. The resounding answer is "Yes."
So, in this monthly column, we will be looking at the tips and tricks that the research has given us to improve the quality of our lives by improving the quality of our thinking. This doesn’t mean we will eliminate, sadness, anger, or grief from our lives - but it does mean that when difficult times hit us they won’t knock us down as far and we won’t stay down as long.
Some of us are blessed with this skill naturally, although it usually doesn’t occur without having gone through some pain. We all have known this person. Always a kind thought, a positive spin, and a genuine contentment with life. Those of us who have not been blessed with those genes can take solace because science says these traits can be learned. The research says that about 60% of our happiness can be related to genes and environment. That leaves 40 % up to us, and if I can raise my happiness level even 10%, it might be worth a look-see.
Whether Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, young or old, there is one question we all can all agree on the response. When you ask this question in Kansas, New York City, Ghana, Iran, Russia, or Vietnam the answer to the question “what do you want in life? “ is universal, “to be happy.” Every month we will look at what it means and what it takes to be happy, to develop a sense of well-being.
What qualifications do I have to write this column? Well, I could give you a list of academic accomplishments and degrees and life experiences and courses that I’ve taught, but I believe none are more important than these two.
First will be what I write. It will be up to you to determine whether or not it has value for you and through that, you can judge my qualifications. Secondly, at the risk of slight arrogance, I will tell you that at 67 years of age I can honestly say that I am a happy man. Not a perfect man, not a man without self-doubt or recriminations but overall, a happy man, comfortable in my skin and my surroundings and at peace with most things (I’m still working on some stuff too!)
I invite you on this adventure. I will bring you stories of the research and the researchers; tips and tricks for making slight adjustments that produce wonderful results in our outlook and pieces of that amazing jigsaw puzzle we call our mind.