Psychology professor’s passion for happiness engages students through insightful presentation

Associate professor of psychology James Allen spoke about the psychology of happiness, a subject area in which he has done extensive research and currently teaches a class, on Wednesday March 27 in the MacVittie College Union Fireside Lounge.

Allen explained that while many have the notion that pursuing happiness is self-defeating, it is indeed possible to successfully pursue happiness. Having positive emotions allow people to achieve increased happiness.

Positive emotions include joy, gratitude, hope, awe, zest and love. Allen stressed the importance of finding these emotions, such as appreciating the positive things and being grateful for these things in one’s life as a way to increase one’s happiness. He also emphasized the importance of social interaction towards achieving greater happiness.

“Research indicates that positive emotions build resiliency and undo negative emotions,” Allen said. “They produce an upward spiral that continuously leads to more happiness.” 

When a person feels hopeful and harbors positive emotions, he or she is likely to enter an upward spiral in which people become more likely to interact with them, producing more positive emotions and continuing a positive feedback cycle that leads to increased happiness. 

Allen distinguished between activities that produced pleasure and activities that produced positive emotions, the latter of which are more beneficial to a person’s happiness. He said that while eating ice cream may bring some pleasure, spending time with someone and developing a strong social connection produces positive emotions, which leads to more long-term increased happiness than pleasure does. 

Allen urged listeners to aim for “real” positive emotions. 

“Faking it until you make it does not work; you cannot tell people who are suffering to ‘just force yourself to be positive,’” Allen said. 

Allen did, however, suggest ways to earnestly achieve these positive emotions. These included savoring time with family and friends, celebrating good news and looking for something that puts one in a positive “flow.”

This term was coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, and refers to a specific activity that a person can do that immerses them in a mental state of energetic focus and enjoyment of their involvement in the activity. 

The audience was asked to brainstorm examples of a “flow” activity. Some examples thought of were running, having a healthy debate, cleaning and writing. A flow activity is unique to each individual and will bring a person into complete absorption in the activity leading to positive emotions. 

Allen added that in order for harboring positive emotions to work, a person must not be constantly monitoring their happiness. For example, feeling grateful for one thing in your life and then checking to see if your overall state of mind is happier will not be effective. Gratitude, however, is an important positive emotion toward increasing happiness. 

Allen asked the audience to discuss things they were grateful for and mentioned that he was grateful to have the same spring break as his son so that they were able to spend time together. It is emotions like these that can enable a person to successfully pursue greater happiness. 

By cultivating genuine, positive emotions such as gratitude and hope, a person can achieve improved happiness.