Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Road to Happiness

What makes us happy? In recent decades, researchers in psychology and economics have started using the tools of their profession to develop sophisticated, reliable models to answer this ageless question across countries and through time.

The emergence of positive psychology in the 1970s resulted from a desire among psychologists to emphasize individual strength and virtue in a field that had traditionally focused on treating mental illnesses and addressing emotional deficits. Since then, positive psychologists have made a lot of progress in identifying the things that bring us happiness. They have found that we experience happiness in many ways, through our emotional orientation to the past, present, and future; through the activities in which we are engaged; and in our ability to use our personal strengths and talents in work, leisure, relationships, and to contribute to something greater than ourselves.

Paralleling this development in psychology was a similar movement in the field of economics. Beginning in the 1970s, researchers started to find some truth to the axiom that “money doesn’t buy happiness” when they discovered that that nation’s level of happiness increases more slowly once it reaches a certain level of wealth. As a result, many economists believe measures of happiness complement measure of income or wealth by providing a more holistic gauge of well-being and life satisfaction.

Yesterday, one of my longtime friends, Dr. Elizabeth Dykens, Professor of Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt University and Co-Director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence on Developmental Disabilities, led a wonderful discussion at Special Olympics about how we can use the tools of positive psychology to study the happiness of people with intellectual disabilities. She is interested in learning the ways in which people with intellectual disabilities find happiness, hope, and contentment and live engaged lives with their families and communities.

So many times people with intellectual disabilities are defined by negatives—what they do not have or cannot do relative to others—causing many of us to forget that people with intellectual disabilities can be happy, lead meaningful lives, and bring happiness and fulfillment to the lives of others. In fact many studies note that having a family member with an intellectual disability can help us to lead richer, more meaningful lives, teach us patience, tolerance, and make us more able to accept differences with others.

My own experience suggests that millions of people with intellectual disabilities around the world lead engaged and happy lives, and find tremendous joy and meaning in relationships with family and friends. You don’t have to be a researcher to know this to be true.

What is your road to happiness?

1 comment:

  1. Interesting question. Since Sophie is only 3, I suppose I can give it a try to speak for her. Her road to happiness comes from playing with her siblings, going to preschool, watching her favorite tv show Yo Gabba Gabba, enjoying ice cream, visits to the beach, and playing with her two cats. She loves family reading time and is a big fan of music. The thing is, I could just as easily list the same things for her siblings who do not have a developmental disability. Don't we all yearn for acceptance, social interactions, friends, having the freedom to play and spend time doing the things that bring us joy? Sure it is true that the road to some of these things may be somewhat different. When her big brother started preschool, I toured the school and interviewed the director and that settled it. For Sophie, who just started preschool, there was a tour and interview, but there was also an IEP meeting. Her team consists of the director, teachers, therapists, case manager, and her parents. My 3 year old daughter's pretend play is more similar to that of her baby sister who is 22 months younger than that of peers her own age. She may need more support along the way and it may take her longer to get there, but I think her road to happiness resembles those of her siblings more than it differs from it.
    ---Jen Schrad (ReJenerationS)