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Myth: you have the power over your own happiness

Myth: you have the power over your own happiness

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Myth busters

Anyone who thinks negatively, attracts negative situations and circumstances, says the Law of Attraction, the force of nature as explained in the bestseller The Secret (2006). So, what should we be doing? Think positively, and you will see that happiness, health and wealth will be within reach.

“As far as I am concerned, this is a myth,” says Madelon Peters, professor of Experimental Health Psychology, “because you cannot control your happiness to that degree”. This doesn't mean that you have no influence on it at all, as Positive Psychology has convincingly shown, according to Peters. This movement came from the United States and was devised by professor Martin Seligman, former chairman of the American Psychological Association.

Around the turn of the century, Seligman came up with the three-good-things-exercise - by now often researched and confirmed – which makes people feel significantly better. Peters: “Before you go to bed, you choose three things that made you happy that day, then you take the time to think about them. You do so every day, for a week. They don't need to be spectacular events; it is often about everyday things. Like a cup of coffee that tasted exceptionally good, or a nice conversation that you had with your daughter.”

Peters researched this exercise in a study including more than 250 patients suffering from chronic pain (mostly fibromyalgia). In this case, the intervention was part of a package in which test subjects were also encouraged to have more self-compassion, to enjoy the moment itself more, and to write a story about their own future.

It worked. Peters: “This package did not bring universal happiness, as is often professed in self-help circles, but it was just as effective as cognitive behaviour therapy. The effect was still as strong six months later. A year-and-a-half ago, we replicated the study and the results were exactly the same. The effect differs per person, some people notice very little difference, while others cheer up completely. On average, the result is minor mood improvement.”

The idea behind it is that people remember negative things much better than they do positive things, says Peters, which most likely has to do with evolution. “After all, it has always been more important to remember dangerous and threatening events than pleasant ones.”

Not everyone will benefit from the ‘three good things’. “There is no point in encouraging people who are suffering from severe depression, to think about happy events. There will be no link with their mood. Even though the exercise is used in a clinical setting, it is often used as part of a more extensive treatment. There is now such a thing as positive cognitive behaviour therapy, but little research has been done into this so far.” 

Before the summer, Peters - together with Elke Smeets - wrote the self-help book 'Geluk en Optimisme' (Happiness and Optimism). The book contains exercises such as the ones that the pain patients carried out and also explains positive psychology. For Peters, happiness has very little to do with the desire to have a fancy car and a large house. “It is more about self-development, friendships, love, about acceptance of what you already have, about the people around you.”

The aim is not to achieve an unruffled existence. “Ups and downs are part and parcel of life, but the question is, how deep is the suffering? As far as I’m concerned, the psychological consequences of sexual abuse at a young age or growing up in a war zone are not part of life.”

Mythbusters is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths on complex topics

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