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THE POWER OF PURPOSE

Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” Phil Landfield blurted out as we commiserated about his ongoing battle with Parkinson’s disease. Landfield is a good friend and outstanding scientist. His mind is still sharp, but his body is becoming increasingly locked into slow and dysfunctional movements as his disease progresses.

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MAKING THE DECISION TO BE HAPPY

It is amazing how much of a difference perception can make in health and well-being. Eric is one of the inspiring people I have met who are managing their serious illnesses with courage and living meaningful, satisfying lives. I met him at a large conference on Parkinson’s disease where patients and support groups were learning about recent advances in understanding and treating the illness. Eric had participated in a clinical trial that involved surgery and receiving monthly drug infusions.

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BE HAPPY AND FLOURISH

Cecilia, a young office intern working during her summer break as a receptionist, was one of the happiest people you will ever meet. She had a radiant smile and a cordial, welcoming voice that was still pleasant at the end of a long day spent talking with clients, many who were very unhappy about their health.

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BE HAPPY AND FLOURISH

Cecilia, a young office intern working during her summer break as a receptionist, was one of the happiest people you will ever meet. She had a radiant smile and a cordial, welcoming voice that was still pleasant at the end of a long day spent talking with clients, many who were very unhappy about their health.


I asked Cecilia what she wanted to do in life. Without hesitation, she beamed she was going into social work, helping troubled adolescents. She was already doing it as a volunteer, primarily working with girls having problems in that tumultuous stage of growing up. She excitedly discussed what she was doing and how it was making a difference in the girls’ lives.


Having a strong purpose in life and serving others in a worthy cause promotes happiness at any age. I am always encouraged about the future when I meet young people like Cecilia who are idealists and highly principled. It is one of the joys of teaching college students.


What is genuine happiness and how can it be achieved? Many of the great teachings in the major world religions and ancient Greek philosophy provide guidance about striving to attain happiness as the highest state of human flourishing. They often use synonyms for happiness, including “joyful” and “blessed.” While it has long been standard fare for philosophy and theology, until recently there has

been little scientific research on the nature of happiness and how it is intimately intertwined with attitude and health. This has begun to change with the publication of some well-designed research studies broadly examining happiness and life satisfaction, virtues, purpose and meaning for human flourishing.


For example, two major, seemingly conflicting philosophical doctrines on happiness proposed in the third century BCE in Greece are still being debated today. Aristuppus and Epicurus advocated hedonism, declaring maximizing pleasure and minimizing suffering was the best way to achieve happiness. Aristotle considered hedonism vulgar, believing it provided only transient, empty joy. Instead, he argued only a life that rationally cultivated virtue – essentially principled, meaningful living – would promote human flourishing and genuine happiness.


Christopher Peterson, Nansook Park and Martin Seligman, leaders in the Positive Psychology movement, published the results of their rigorous 2005 research study that analyzed the degree of happiness derived through hedonism, engagement and virtuous living. Their test group consisted of 845 adults ranging from 18 to 65 years old that spanned the broad range of social and politically

diverse individuals in today’s society. The test batteries for each participant provided measures of their satisfaction with life and scores on three possible orientations to happiness: hedonism (positive emotions, positive sensations); engagement (being mindfully engaged in what one is doing); and meaning (strong purpose, meaningful living). The researchers then analyzed how life satisfaction correlated with the level of happiness for each of the three orientations, individually, with combinations of two together and all three.


The authors concluded no matter how they evaluated the results, those with the highest scores in all three orientations to happiness were the most satisfied with their life. Conversely, those with the lowest happiness scores in all three orientations had the lowest life satisfaction ratings. Rather than one orientation dominating, a blend of the three approaches was the most effective.


Thus there were elements of truth in both the hedonistic and Aristotelian arguments. The happiest individuals enjoyed pleasurable events, were engaged in what they did and lived purposeful, meaningful lives. The authors agreed with Aristotle that pursuit of pleasure was an ineffective way to increase happiness because people revert to a genetically determined emotional baseline after a pleasurable experience. But lasting increases in happiness – flourishing – can be attained through cultivating purposeful, meaningful living and mindfulness training for actualized engagement.


Strive to be both happy and flourish. The hedonism component (positive emotions and sensations) of being happy is easily available in modern society. One example is the great pleasure found in simple events, such as grilling outside on a pleasant summer’s day with friends, talking and playing lawn games such as corn hole. Another activity that combines pleasure and engagement is the Best Friends program that pairs a volunteer with an Alzheimer’s patient. Group gatherings for a sing-along with accompanying music are joyous energetic events where it is difficult to pick out who is the volunteer and who has profound memory problems.


Cultivating a highly principled, meaningful life sounds far more daunting, so let me suggest a simple but very effective exercise: practicing gratitude. The goal of this practice is to increase awareness of how much we depend on positive interactions with one another. It acknowledges gratitude is a two-way street: It is both given and received. Recognizing another’s positive act has two rewarding benefits. First, the person knows you appreciate their effort. They feel good about it. You benefit by increased awareness of vital interactions with others and feel positive about showing your gratitude. By the same token, you feel rewarded when another person appreciates your help.


Increasing awareness and appreciation of gratitude is simple. For six consecutive evenings, write down and comment on three instances where you have either received thanks for something you have done or expressed gratitude to another person for their action. Remember there are many ways to express gratitude: clapping, a gracious smile or word, complementing a job well done, a handshake, a pat on the back, a thumbs up, even a high five. In this digital age, gratitude can also be expressed by phone, email, text messages and (although I have mixed emotions in considering this one) twitter. Briefly detail the event and how you felt about it. After trying this for a week, it would be great to know what you think. You can email me at dongash@khtnow.com.   

DON MARSHALL GASH, PH.D.

Don Marshall Gash earned his Ph.D. from Dartmouth College and did his postdoctoral training at the University of Southern California. He is a professor at the University of Kentucky, as well as a neuroscientist and inventor. Gash has published over 200 scientific papers and five drug development patents. He is also the business founder/partner for Independence Assistance, Avast Therapeutics and Neuroway (d.b.a. KY Healthcare Training).

more articles by Don Marshall Gash