When I tell people that I am interested in psychology, the most common reaction I get is “Psycho parh parh kay psycho hojao gi.” There is so much that’s wrong with this sentence (the least of which is the abbreviation of psychology to psycho; its Psych, people), that I usually just smile and shrug off the scepticism instead of arguing. The fact of the matter is that psychology is more relevant to our everyday lives than most people realise, and it is definitely not synonymous with morbidity or depression.
I personally think that abnormal psychology — incorrectly assumed as the only kind — is extremely interesting. Learning about how our minds can turn against us gives us all the more reason to appreciate our own sanity. It is fascinating to discover that our mind is so powerful that it can imagine entire people and places so intensely that we think that they are real (as in the case of schizophrenia). It is amazing how our mind, in order to protect itself, can create entirely different personalities, with dissimilar mannerisms, gestures and even handwritings (as in the case of multiple personality disorder)!
However, that is only one facet of what the human mind is capable of. There is a whole other side of psychology which is not widely known, because this side is less dramatic, and thus less lucrative for the media to cash in on. This is the psychology of everyday life, the psychology of normalcy, if you will. There have been countless films made about abnormal psychology, such as Primal Fear (1996) and A Beautiful Mind (2001), but the psychology of routine life is largely ignored. Let’s face it: routine life and the little joys associated with it do not make for good cinema.
Nevertheless, this other side of psychology does exist. A relatively new field, it is called positive psychology. The positive psychology movement developed in 1998, when Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, after working on depression for 30 years, announced in his inaugural speech as the President of the American Psychiatric Association, that instead of focusing on lives that had gone desperately wrong, psychologists should focus on people for whom everything was going well. He argued that while psychologists knew almost everything about depression, they knew virtually nothing of the secrets of a happy life.
Dan Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, is one psychologist who has done a tremendous amount of research on positive psychology. In his book Stumbling On Happiness, and in a talk he gave on TED.com, he talks about how the human mind is capable of synthesising happiness. He collected data comparing levels of happiness of a group of people who had won lotteries and another group of people who had become paraplegic. This data showed that one year after winning the lottery or becoming paraplegic, both groups of people were equally happy!
Now, I know what you are thinking: “No way!” How is it possible that people, who had become unbelievably rich and people who had lost the use of their lower limbs, are equally happy with their lives? The reason for this, according to Dan Gilbert, is that we can synthesise happiness.
He argues that human beings have something of a psychological immune system, in which largely unconscious processes help us change our view of the world we live in, in order to feel better. Take the example of Moreese Bickham. He spent 37 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He was ultimately exonerated, at the age of 78, and upon being released, when asked about the whole experience, he said, “I don’t have one minute’s regret. It was a glorious experience.” He said these words despite spending most of his life being punished for a crime he did not even commit! That, my friends, is the power of our minds. It can synthesise happiness in the worst of circumstances, when we didn’t get what we want, making us as happy as we would be if we had got what we wanted.
In other words, the way we perceive the things that happen in our lives has a huge impact on our happiness or satisfaction. Shakespeare, of course, knew about this long before we did. He wrote:
“’Tis nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
This is just a fancy way of saying that despite our preferences and wants, we should not overestimate the desirability of one outcome over another, because no matter what happens, we can be happy either way.
So the next time you don’t get into the university of your choice, or lose a friend or don’t get that promotion you had so desperately wanted, remember: happiness is something you make for yourself, it is not something which can be chased. This, my friends, is a scientific fact.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 27th, 2011.