Three types of heart happiness defined

by Carolyn Thomas  @HeartSisters

Dr. Martin Seligman is considered the father of what’s known as the positive psychology movement. He was once elected president of the American Psychological Association by the largest vote in that organization’s history, which must have made this self-described “natural born pessimist” feel almost happy. He’s also the author of a book that I often recommend to heart patients called Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. This gem, originally published 20 years ago, is still a valuable tool for learning skills that decades of research have shown may actually enhance our sense of wellbeing – a commodity that’s in short supply for the freshly-diagnosed heart patient. Dr. Seligman lists some basic identifiable types of the elusive state we call happiness:

‘Happiness’ is a scientifically unwieldy notion, but there are three different forms of it you can pursue:  

“For the Pleasant Life, you aim to have as much positive emotion as possible and learn the skills to amplify positive emotion.

“For the Engaged Life, you identify your highest strengths and talents and re-craft your life to use them as much as you can in work, love, friendship, parenting, and leisure.

“For the Meaningful Life, you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.”

But for freshly-diagnosed heart attack survivors – or for any human being struggling within the chaos of an unexpected traumatic event – even the prospect of somehow ever again having a pleasant, engaged or meaningful life can feel like far too much to grasp at first.

“Pleasant?”  Who can entertain the prospect of a “pleasant” life when every new bout of terrifying chest pain leaves us frozen in fearful exhaustion: “Is this something? Is it nothing? Should I call 911?”

“Engaged?”  This would involve identifying those “strengths or talents” that we may have once had long ago, but now require simply too much energy to even contemplate.

“Meaningful?”  Does this involve forcing ourselves to be remotely interested in others during a time when we are understandably focused only on whether or not we’ll survive the night? Indeed, some of Dr. Seligman’s detractors have criticized his field of  positive psychology as being intentionally oblivious to stark realities. But his response to this is:

   “The very good news is there is quite a number of internal circumstances under your voluntary control.

“If you decide to change them (and be warned that none of these changes come without real effort), your level of happiness is likely to increase lastingly.”

In other words, he maintains that, despite whatever is happening in your life right at this moment – from a death in the family to a life-altering illness or losing a job – we each have something deep down inside our psychosocial wiring that we can control, even when all around us life seems to be reminding us how puny and powerless we actually are.  As Dr. Seligman observes:

“I have been studying optimists and pessimists for the past 25 years. The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault.”

“When something bad happens to a pessimist, she’s likely to get into a sort of dark and hopeless mental muttering that has her thinking things like: ‘Why me? Ain’t if awful? It’s permanant and everything is ruined and it’s all their fault.’ 

“The optimist’s explanation?  ‘It was bad luck. I’ll be able to handle it. I learn from my experiences.’ 

“With this kind of reasoning, an optimist feels a greater sense of control over her future – and her health.”

Which one are you?

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   I wrote more about the importance of maintaining social connections after a cardiac diagnosis in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” . You can ask for it at your local bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use the JHUPress code HTWN to save 30% off the cover price).

See also:  

“Smile, Though Your Heart is Aching”: is Fake Smiling Unhealthy?

Three Things That Make You Happy – and Three Things That Won’t

Does Getting Older Mean Getting Happier?

How Optimism Can Be Good for Women’s Hearts

Even Heart Patients Can Learn to be Optimists

Change your Story, Change the Storyteller


6 thoughts on “Three types of heart happiness defined

  1. Great post.

    Carolyn, as in all things, it’s not so black and white. As a recovering pessimist, I agree that one must discover, cultivate and practice optimistic behaviors. (uh-oh..I feel the pessimist lurking..) Unfortunately, it’s not just that it’s not easy when hit with chronic discouragement and actual physical pain and infirmities, it’s either difficult to do, and can leave one with a feeling of a false mask that one must wear on top of said pain and discouragement.

    I had to sort through the existential crisis and come to peace with mortality and find an eternal vision that worked for me. That way, I can view the setbacks and discouragements and yes, pain, with a temporary attitude. I would like to believe that these things are not a permanent fixture – and some new thought thinkers would say I can CHANGE that belief – but I’m still dealing with the current reality. I am more than willing to let that go, however, whenever the opportunity presents itself (smile).

    There is a great book titled The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo. “Reclaim yesterday, Enjoy today, and Master Tomorrow.” It started me on the realization that my pessimism had much to do with my life and experiences BEFORE heart disease, though HD is no picnic and not for wusses.

    There is a self-test that shows you in six categories of questions, where the positives/negatives exist in your perceptions and how your life over time has created this. The good news is that it can start you down the road of a deeper understanding of your attitudes and can lay the groundwork for a path to shift it. Part of this for me, was the realization that even the most restricted and debilitated of people can have a rich inner life. You work with what you have. Much like the convict whose life becomes a 6×8 cell, you make of it what you can.

    I am optimistic that in the long run (and I mean eternal), it will be INCREDIBLE; I just need to remember that there ARE gifts right here and now and I must be on the look-out for them. Sheesh, have I changed into an optimist? My friends would never say so unless I am giving a pep talk.

    Zorba the Greek had some good quotes.

    Here’s one:
    Basil: I don’t want any trouble.
    Alexis Zorba: Life is trouble. Only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and *look* for trouble.

    I was searching for another quote that went something like this: “I am a fatalistic optimist”, but I only found optimistic quotes. Guess I’ll stop here!

    xoxo Mary


    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful response, Mary – and for the links. I agree with Zimbardo’s thoughts on how what happens BEFORE a traumatic health crisis can often impact how we are able to react to that crisis. Makes sense, doesn’t it? I suspect that the real trauma hits when our coping skills hit the saturation point – I spent most of my life adapting, adjusting, rolling with the punches, no matter what. But surviving a heart attack seemed to push me right over the edge – for a distressingly long time.


      1. PS Mary, love this quote from your link (via Chauncey DePew): “An optimist will tell you the glass is half-full; the pessimist, half-empty; and the engineer will tell you the glass is twice the size it needs to be!”


    2. I agree fully with Dr Seligman. I went through rough patches in most of my 53 years of my life. I decided to get involved in helping others get information to help them live healthily, and this has helped me a great deal to be happy. I would encourage everybody to be involved in meaningful living.


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