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Launching into happiness

What would you include if you could write your obituary?

I teach Psychology of Happiness this term and hope to blog about each class meeting.  Today was our first meeting and both readings (by Chris Peterson and Dan Gilbert) asked people to imagine themselves at life’s end.  What a strange way to begin a course on happiness! 

The main points today were the boom in happiness research (there used to be a 5:1 ratio of depression to happiness studies, but this has fallen to 2:1 recently), some reasons for this boom, and some debunking of what the course might be–for instance emphasizing that we as yet know little, but there’s a market for saying we know a lot.  Oh, and we introduced ourselves and did the syllabus.

But I keep going back to the bits of the readings about our last days.  Chris Peterson died last October at just age 62.  I didn’t know him well.  I remember hanging out with him as he grabbed a smoke at one of the positive psychology conferences, and a couple other brief visits.  But from his writings, and my meetings, and what I hear from mutual friends, I think his was an admirable life.  He seems to have had a true, non-idealized, love of psychology, seeing its beauty but not making of it more than it is.  He seems to have loved those dear to him, welcomed strangers without arrogance, and loved music.  Would those have been the things he wished to write about himself?

What is the role of imagining our final days in our well-being?  I know of no research on it.  If any of my psychology friends do know some I’d love to hear about it.  My guess is it’s hard to get at in the lab.  The short term effects might be quite unpleasant–perhaps leading us to think about what we’ve done that really doesn’t matter.  (I could be eating bonbons instead of blogging.  What *am* I thinking???) And so much of psychology methods focuses on the short term when so many of the great questions are about the long term.  (Thought experiment…does giving people cocaine make them happy?  Probably depends on whether you ask them right after they’ve taken it or longer term….but what if you can’t study them in the long run?  How many of our studies boosting happiness are, in essence, about cocaine-equivalents?)  So perhaps people have studied the obituary exercise and given up on it.  But I do remember a study Laura King did in which when people’s daily goals were related to their longer term goals they were less depressed, so perhaps more happy.  And from what perspective do we form and recall our longer term goals?

What would be our lives happily lived?

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2 Comments

  1. Kristi Salters-Pedneault says:

    This is a technique frequently used in Acceptance and Commitment therapy to help with values-directed behavior. I sometimes worry that having my clients imagine their obituary or tombstone is morbid, and it is definitely sometimes painful, but it can also be a powerful motivator when the current obituary doesn’t match up with the desired obituary. The other potential problem with this technique is that the obituary is public, whereas I am trying to get my clients to connect with the things they want to be doing in their lives that are meaningful to them, not to others (and not about making a public impression).

  2. ahrens317a says:

    Thanks, Kristi! The “sometimes painful” fits with the notion that this exercise would be tricky to study in the lab and in the short term. In principle you could make the obit private to get around at least some of the impression management issues. That would seem to make it harder to use the info from it as a therapist, though!

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