I was initially skeptical when I heard that NPR was launching the series This I Believe, based on the old Edward R. Murrow program of the same name. But I'm always impressed when I catch a segment, which consists of someone explaining his or her worldview in three to five minutes, often zeroing in on a defining experience, hobby, or belief. They manage to sound polished and professional while still conveying the distinct personality of each essayist–some famous, some not. I usually find that I like each contributor, even if I don't agree with them.
I was jolted out of Monday-morning grogginess a few days back when the host (the esteemed public radio host/producer Jay Allison) introduced this week's This I Believer: Wayne Coyne, the singer/guitarist for the band The Flaming Lips. I'm a big fan. Then I got really excited when Coyne proceded to expound on a topic relevant to Greater Good, essentially offering his own theory on the nature of happiness.
His piece had a curious approach to the psychology of happiness–kind of a cross between Horatio Alger and Norman Vincent Peale. Check it out:
Try to be happy within the context of the life we are acutally living. Happiness is not a situation to be longed for or a convergence of lucky happenstance. Through the power of our own minds, we can help ourselves.
To back himself up, he pointed to his own 11-year(!) stint as a fry cook at Long John Silver's, which could have seemed like a dead-end job, but which he came to appreciate as a chance to get paid to daydream and nurture other ambitions. (Plus, "at least I had a job," he says.)
At first, part of me was taken aback by what could be construed as a rather conservative message, encouraging people to embrace the status quo. But I was also impressed by how Coyne's essay resonated with a major theme of positive psychology research: Gratitude. Robert Emmons, probably the leading researcher of gratitude in the world, has described gratitude as
a conscious, rational choice to focus on life's blessings rather than on its shortcomings… a universal human experience that can be either a random occurrence of grace or an attitude chosen to create a better life.
And, in line with Coyne's theory of happiness, Emmons (and many others) have found that boosting one's feelings of gratitude result in better health, increased positive emotions, a significantly rosier outlook on life, greater progress toward achieving personal goals, and maybe even more helpful behavior toward others.
So can anyone cultivate gratitude, or just those people who are capable of winning a few Grammies and producing some of the best albums of the 90s and the 21st Century? Or is gratitude what helped Coyne ascend from fast-food fry cook to indie-rock demi-god? So far, research suggests that, with the right kinds of practice, almost anyone is capable of reaping at least some of the short-term benefits of gratitude. But the jury's still out. I'd love to see Emmons and Coyne get together to discuss this further.