Get Happy Now

I think nearly all of us would agree that the last two years have been especially hard on the human race. It’s tough to be happy. Or would it be better to say it’s tough to find happiness? Or should you say that there are few things to be happy about?

What I’m getting at is the difficulty in defining the term “happiness.” I’m sometimes very unhappy. But the intensity doesn’t last. And I’m happier when I’m writing. I’m one of those who thinks happiness is a byproduct of what we do. But a movement has been under way for years to define happiness scientifically.

What’s new on the horizon? Sena found a news story about a New Jersey college offering the world’s first Master of Arts level online degree program in Happiness Studies. It’ll cost you only $17,700 according to the Centenary University web page about it (accessed March 26, 2022).

The course is four months and worth 30 credits. I’m no judge on whether it’s worth the hefty price tag.

The program will be directed by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, a teacher and writer in the areas of leadership and positive psychology. He looks happy. He’s very successful.

The program at Centenary is not the only game in town, though. This is just web clicking research, mind you, but there is The Science of Happiness Course based at Berkeley University of California (of course it’s in California!). It was launched in 2014. Like the Centenary program, it’s led by celebrity star level teachers from the school’s Greater Good Science Center: Emiliana Simon-Thomas, PhD (the director), and founder Dacher Keltner, PhD, author of best-seller Born to be Good (which I’ve never read). There is a free 8-week audit level Science of Happiness course available although you can earn a certificate by working a little harder, taking exams and paying $169.

Positive psychiatry has been championed by psychiatrist, Dr. Dilip Jeste, as he outlined his thoughts on it in Psychiatric Times (Positive Psychiatry: An Interview With Dilip V. Jeste, MD, February 22, 2016, Renato D. Alarcón, MD, MPH, Psychiatric Times, Vol 33 No 2, Volume 33, Issue 2). Some of his interesting comments give the impression you could overdo it:

Currently, there is no substitute for using DSM-5 and ICD-10 diagnoses that are required by Medicare and private health insurers and also for communication with various other health care systems. The positive psychiatry approach involves additional notations about the patient’s level of well-being and perceived stress along with strengths, including resilience, optimism, and social engagement. Validated rating scales for these measures are available and practical. This more complete depiction of a patient’s mental health is of much greater value for holistic management than just a DSM-5 diagnosis. The information obtained from these ratings may be shared with the patient and his or her family, and revisited during subsequent visits to document progress.

Positive psychiatry’s principles can be incorporated in a reformulation of behavioral or psychosocial interventions, whether they are supportive, psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, or another type. The goal is to enhance positive psychosocial characteristics to improve well-being, in addition to reducing symptoms and preventing relapse-which are at the core of traditional psychiatry.

There are, however, a few limitations to positive psychiatry-such as the potential social/political and ethical implications of the unbridled promotion of positive psychosocial characteristics. For example, one may appropriately object to the notion that optimism should be universally promoted through biological or other interventions. Therefore, a balanced approach to behavior modification is warranted.

He thought you could object to the idea that optimism should be the overriding goal. “The unbridled promotion of positive psychosocial characters.” Oops, I just noticed my mistake in using the word “characters” instead of “characteristics.” I corrected it and then thought it was probably just a Freudian slip, so I changed it back. What the heck.

That reminded me of a paper I read many years ago about adding a new psychiatric disorder to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM): Major Affective Disorder, pleasant type. I think some people missed the satire in this article (Bentall RP. A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder. J Med Ethics. 1992 Jun;18(2):94-8. doi: 10.1136/jme.18.2.94. PMID: 1619629; PMCID: PMC1376114.)

Bentall was objecting to the methods employed by the committees putting the DSM together, specifically how they decided on what is or is not a disease. I think the DSM-IV was in the preparation stage at the time he wrote the article.

I liked the response of one blogger to Bentall’s paper. The title of the post was “Major Affective Disorder, Pleasant Type” and subtitled “Cancer and Attitude.” She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and coping with it, not with unbridled positivity, but with a realistic, balanced outlook:

“But I don’t believe a positive attitude means that I am happy all the time. I like to think of myself as a positive realist. I have accepted that each day I live is an actual gift and I truly may not be here in 6 months or a year.”

“But I’ve also been very angry about it, and many times feel sad and hopeless. Being positive just means you believe in tomorrow. And I do believe I will be here tomorrow.”

I think I’m happy with letting her have the last word here.

Author: James Amos

I'm a retired consult-liaison psychiatrist. I navigated the path in a phased retirement program through the hospital where I was employed. I was fully retired as of June 30, 2020. This blog chronicles my journey.

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