It is easy to feel powerless against the recession. Headlines are rife with doom, and we have control of almost none of it: unemployment, the housing market and the national debt. In this constant stream of negativity, it is easy to focus on what we do not have control of and forget about what we do have control over.

How can one person feel worried sick while the next person is not? Why is one person depressed about the layoff while the next person is actually happy about it? The answer lies not in the circumstances but how we handle it.

I, myself, have been laid off during this recession, and I have struggled with depression and pessimism for most of my life (see “My Story: From Suicidal to The Happy Therapist“). Therefore I can deeply empathize with clients and students who tell me their story, which is usually peppered with words like “stuck,” “trapped” and “can’t.”

It is important to acknowledge sadness, hopelessness and worry. These feelings are not merely uncomfortable emotions — they are guideposts to feeling better; a divining rod to their belief system. In the very first class of Happiness 101, I tell students not to slap a plastic smiley face over their pain but to feel it and learn from it.

Positive psychology teaches that each emotion is feedback to us about our underlying belief system. It is here that we find choice and empowerment. For instance, if a man feels shame because he was swept away by the latest wave of layoffs, he might have an underlying belief like “If I am not providing for my family, I am a failure.” You will notice this belief statement leaves little room for extenuating circumstances — for instance high unemployment rates.

We do not have control over the world or national economy, but we do have control over our own belief system. In this example if the man replaced his belief with “As long as I am doing my best, I am okay,” instead of feeling shame, he might not only feel hope but possibly pride because his focus is on his efforts and not the outcome.

Whether suffering job loss, death of a loved one or a personal failure, we can always choose how we weather the storm. In his famous book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Nazi concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl wrote, “the last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

James Dean said, “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sail.” You might imagine that one person who believes he is helpless against the storm of the recession would have a very different feeling than the person who believes, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” (“Invictus,” William Ernest Henley)

After people have told their story and properly honored their feelings, they might be open to discussion about what they do have control over, rather than lamenting about what they do not. In the above example, this hard-working American had no control over being laid off. He can continue to apply for jobs but have no control over call-backs. He can do well in the interview but still not get the job.

Research has proven (Dan Gilbert, “Stumbling on Happiness”) that when people feel that they have no control, depression often follows. This is why it is important (at the appropriate time) to turn discussion toward what one does have control over.

In session, I challenge phrases like “I’m in a rock and a hard place,” “there’s nothing I can do” and “I am trapped.” Invariably I find that there are many choices — all at varying degrees of attractiveness.

For instance, the unemployed man might believe that his only option is to just keep applying for (local) jobs and pray that something comes through. When brainstorming, he might find several other options including: filing for bankruptcy, taking a job out of state, renting out the basement, filing for unemployment, asking for loans from friends, moving in with mom and dad and/or starting his own business. This man might find all of these options to be unsavory, but I have found that depression immediately begins to loosen its grip when we explore what is possible rather than lament over the lie that “there is no hope.”

We may not have control over the economy, but we do have control over our pessimism. If you believe that you are born pessimistic, I would like to point out that this too is a belief. Ironically if you believe yourself to be a born pessimist, you will behave accordingly, making no effort to change. Pessimism can not only poison one’s attitude toward braving the economic storm but it can adversely affect decisions that might have helped to pull you out of it.

For instance, if one says, “What’s the point in applying for the job? I’m not going to get it anyway” and he does not apply for the job, then his prediction comes true. Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you can’t, you’re right.” Hope is always a choice.

I have documented the progress of dozens of students and found that those who make the greatest progress are those who turn from hopeless to hopeful during the eight-week course. You can test your own level of optimism at www.authentichappiness.com and start improving your outlook by taking your cues from the father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, in his book, “Learned Optimism.”

Cultivating optimism is just one of 12 scientifically proven happiness activites suggested by Sonja Lyubomirsky in her book, “The How of Happiness.” Others include:

  • Expressing gratitude
  • Practicing acts of kindness
  • Nurturing relationships
  • Savoring life’s joys
  • Practicing religion or spirituality

Focusing on these activities (which you do have control over) will help you to feel empowered. Focusing on what you do not have control over will likely lead you to feel helpless and disempowered. There is much in this world over which we have no control — including the recession — but we always have control over our own positive attitude. The Nazis could not take it from Viktor Frankl. The recession can not take it from you. You always have a choice.

Frank Clayton, LPC

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In his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl noted that when fellow prisoners lost hope, they were dead within two weeks. The Nazis certainly cultivated an environment of hopelessness, but Frankl noted that hope was not something the Nazis could take from a prisoner; It had to be surrendered by its owner. The point of Frankl’s gripping story is that we always, always, always have a choice. We can always choose to be optimistic, despite the circumstances.

Optimists live longer, are liked more, make more money, are more happily married and are more likely to get the job and advance in their career more swiftly than their pessimistic counterparts. As you might imagine, optimists tend to be happier, while pessimists lean toward depression.

In her book, “The How of Happiness,” Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky pointed out that depressed people are not concerned that something bad will happen in their future. They are depressed because they forecast that nothing good will happen. Pessimism continues to cultivate their depression.

People are born optimistic and learn to be pessimistic. There is a spectrum of optimism ranging from Pollyanna to Eeyore, with many shades of gray in between. These shades are determined by one’s explanatory style.

When things go right or wrong, how do you explain it? In his book, “Learned Optimism,” Dr. Martin Seligman dissected optimism and pessimism and found three distinct components: permanence, pervasiveness and whether one blames themselves or external forces.

Here’s an example: If I have unsuccessfully tried to sell my car for the past three months, and I say it’s because “I can’t do anything right,” would this statement be true? Of course not. However, if this thought goes unchecked, I will experience feelings of hopelessness. When I used statements like these, it’s insinuated that I cannot ever do anything right, so there is a tone of permanence: that I could not do anything right yesterday, cannot do anything right today and will not be able to do anything right tomorrow. In these situations, I can ask myself, “Is it really true that I can never do anything right?” Even in a bad mood, it is easy to see that this statement is simply not true.

On the issue of pervasiveness, I made a very broad statement after experiencing frustration about a specific situation (difficulty selling the car). When I said, “I can’t do anything right,” I indicated that not only can I not sell my car, I cannot do anything right at work, at home, with friends, at play, etc. In other words, my bungling runs through and through, no matter what arena I may enter. How depressing. How false! Stopping to ask myself what things I do right in other areas of my life reminds me that while I might be having a difficult time in this particular situation, it does not mean I am entirely inept.

Finally, am I blaming myself or forces outside of myself? In the example, the optimist explains her difficulty in selling the car by saying, “It’s not a buyer’s market.” This takes self-blame out of the equation entirely. She is not using the words “I” or “me” in her explanation. Checking this statement for pervasiveness and permanence, it is easy to discern that there is hope because it is insinuated that the poor market for buying cars will pass, and because she used language for the specific situation, she is not proclaiming doom for all of her selling endeavors.

A word of caution about blaming outside forces: While optimists might not blame themselves for bad things that happen (or do not happen), this should be used cautiously. Attributing all happenings to outside forces can have a nasty backlash. If one blames “fate,” “luck” or other cosmic forces, it can result in giving oneself a pass rather than taking full responsibility for one’s actions. In Happiness 101, I teach empowerment with fervor. If you want to be happy, you absolutely must take full responsibility for that happiness.

This has been a crash course in the mechanics of optimism and pessimism. As I wrote in The Eight Steps to Happiness, you must start by being mindful. Become aware of your explanatory style. Catch yourself making negative statements and ask yourself, “Is that really true?” It is very likely you will realize that your pessimistic statement is not true at all and will find yourself feeling more hopeful.

Hopelessness is a serious issue in our state. Utah ranks in the top 10 for suicide in the nation and is thefourth largest consumer of antidepressants in the country. This is why I have been teaching Happiness 101 to the public free of charge for the past two-and-a-half years. It is the reason I am teaching a six-week webinar in October — so people in the at-risk, rural areas of Utah may learn about optimism and other aspects of positive psychology. I want to restore hope to people who are depressed or suicidal and spread happiness.

Hopelessness breeds depression. Hope cultivates happiness. Which will you choose?

Frank Clayton, Licensed Professional Counselor (a.k.a. The Happy Therapist)

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I wrote a new KSL article today entitled “Hope for the Hopeless”. I think it may be my strongest article to date. I really do enjoy writing and appreciate that KSL gives me an avenue to express that – plus it might help someone to be more hopeful. 🙂

 

Frank~The Happy Therapist

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I recently spent several days with someone (who shall remain nameless). I noticed that many times when something did not go her way, she said “Of course”. She only uttered these two words but her tone and inflection implied “Of course it didn’t go my way. That’s just my luck!” If one has a belief that they are jinxed or unlucky, then it is easy to see proof of this belief where ever one goes. We usually magnify incidents that support our belief and minimize events that run contrary to that belief. In this example, any thing big or small that supported her belief that she was born beneath an unlucky star, she notices quickly and even reinforces her negative belief with her words: “Of course”. However, if something good were to happen, she would might say something like “I don’t believe it!”, “That never happens to me” or “Even a broken clock is write twice a day.” I am sure she is not aware that she is minimizing and maximizing to validate her belief system. I am equally sure that she has not consciously taken out her belief system, held up to the light of scrutiny and asked, “Is this REALLY true?”, “Is this what I really believe?” or “Is this belief serving me?” And that’s how people usually operate. Though our belief is a choice, it is often one we overlook. We make decisions (big and small) based on the belief assumptions without question – until something comes along that is big enough to jar us loose from autopilot to question that unchecked belief. That “something” might be as subtle as an article. Maybe even THIS article.
So, what unchecked beliefs are YOU operating on?
Do you think you’re unlucky? Do you think God is against you? Do you think that deep down you’re no good or unlovable? Do you think most people will take advantage of you if they can?
I invite you to think about it. Scrutinize it. If it’s not working for you, you might consider changing it. After all, you are the architect of your life.

Frank Clayton, LPC

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Frank recommends: buy it in BULK

Barbara Fredrickson‘s book is a must-read for anyone who is serious about being happier.
Dr. Fredrickson was studying positive emotions even before Positive Psychology was officially formed. In fact, it was her research that got Martin Seligman so excited that he was running up the stairs two at a time, singing her praises. Positivity is jam-packed with research backed studies that will bring hope to the hopeless and broaden and deepen the level of happiness of even the happiest of people – including me! The most important message of the book: there is a “tipping point” of positivity. Dr. Fredrickson likens this to the transformation that ice takes on when exposed to a certain temperature – when ice becomes water. Her research proves that human beings have such a point when we transform from languishing to flourishing. Teaming up with other researchers, Dr. Fredrickson reported the exact tipping point to be 2.9013 to 1. Rounding up, she suggests that people strive to experience 3 positive emotions to 1 negative one. She reports that the majority of people have a positivity ratio of 2 to 1 and are considered to be languishing. Those experiencing a ratio of 1 to 1 (or lower) are usually diagnosed with depression. What is your positivity ratio? You can find out right now. But before you click on, two things: She suggests testing yourself often to get a true measurement of your overall positivity, so if you score low, don’t sweat it – you might just be having a bad day. Also, I (the “Happy Therapist”) scored in the languishing range myself. But the great news is that Dr. Fredrickson not only tells you what your score is, more importantly she tells you specifically how to raise your positivity score, that you may flourish! You can take the a self-test at www.positivityratio.com .

What IS “Positivity” exactly? Well, Dr. Fredrickson uses the word in place of “happiness”, deeming the word “happiness” as to broad and vague. “Positivity”, however is way of life stemming from joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe and love. She offers a new toolkit and specific exercises in her book on how to cultivate more of these feelings. Dr. Fredrickson also has a section on decreasing negativity, including how to deal with negative people. I personally loved the concept of “social aikido” (page 175).

My only criticism of Positivity is that Dr. Fredrickson at times offers so much research to support her points that one could get mired down in the data. I urge you to not let this dissuade you. There is true gold in Positivity and urge not only buy it, but buy it in bulk. You’ll want to give a copy to all your friends (and maybe even a few “enemies”). I will be using Positivity extensively in the next semester of Happiness 101. Join us.

Frank Clayton (a.k.a. The Happy Therapist)
Licensed Professional Counselor

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In my previous post (Be Right or Be Happy) I invited you to join us in the ranks of optimists. Well, last night I found out, I am not an optimist. In fact, I am “severely hopeless” according to the Optimism Test found at www.authentichappiness.com It might be tempting to dismiss the findings but actually I think it’s accurate. This could be one of the more important findings of my own path to be happier. You see, Martin Seligman purports that optimism can be dissected into two parts permanence and pervasiveness. So, when things go wrong, do you say something like “I’m so stupid!”? Can you see the pervasiveness and permanence of this label you have slapped onto yourself? In contrast, “Sometimes I do really stupid things” leaves room for hope. Okay, you made a mistake but are not damning yourself for all eternity. The latter statement also gives wiggle room that sometimes you do things right too – so it is not pervasive. These differences are subtle but significant. So, in taking the test and honestly looking at how I respond to such boo-boos, I am quick to judge myself harshly. This is GREAT! I feel the way I imagine kids who have struggled with a learning disorder might feel when being diagnosed: on the one hand, it’s difficult to be diagnosed as “severely pessimistic” but now I can DO something about it! Now I can make a conscious choice to start watching my self-talk and (out loud) language more carefully for words like “never”, “always” and labels. I can replace these words with more optimistic choices such as “sometimes” or “maybe”. While I’m dissecting optimism and pessimism, I offer one last tidbit courtesy of Sonja Lyubomirsky. In her book, The How of Happiness, she adds one other dimension to the mix: internal vs. external. Do you blame yourself or external circumstances? Let’s look at two examples:
You lost a race. Your response:
A. I’m a loser
B. It wasn’t my day
In the first example, it is permanent, pervasive and internal. The second statement is temporary, transient and external.
Are you a true optimist? Take the challenge: go to www.authentichappiness.com

A final thought about your words, care of that prolific writer, Anonymous:
“Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

Frank Clayton
Licensed Professional Counselor
Aspiring Optimist

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laughingIn her book, The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky writes this about people struggling with depression, “Their problem, it turns out, is not so much that they anticipate bad things will come to pass as that they cannot believe that GOOD things will.” Hopelessness is one of the key components to depression. Concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl described in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning that when one of his peers knuckled under Nazi abuse and gave up hope, they were dead within two weeks. Hope and optimism are important ingredients in the recipe of Happiness. They are future oriented. It lifts our spirits when we have something to look forward to – something enjoyable – something FUN! As the old saying goes, “Know thyself”. It is very important that you understand what is FUN for you. Please think of things now that are fun for you. Write them down. I suggest that when you write them down because during turbulent times, we can have great difficulty thinking of anything fun at all. Writing this down will begin, what I call, “The Arsenal”. It is anything that will help to pull you out of a down mood (jokes, movies, songs and FUN activities). You might start by remembering fun times. You should start to see a pattern emerge as you write your list. Also, please ask yourself, “Is this REALLY fun?” For instance, you might have “crossword puzzles” filed in your head as fun, but is it really? It might be for you, but I ask you to think carefully about each item on your list. Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology has much to say on this subject. In the next article I will discuss important points of fun and how you can get more mileage out of it and ultimately be Happier.

To really get your fun factory into high gear, check out this article by psychologist James Messina. It will definately help you with your list and get you thinking about what fun really is.

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