Lecture looks at finding, studying, and understanding happiness

The first lecture for this year’s Southern Oregon University campus theme of “Exploring Happiness” was given by two presenters Thursday evening in the Meese Room of the Hannon Library on campus.

The double-lecture, entitled “Finding, Pursuing, and Creating Happiness,” was presented by Michael Rousell, a psychologist and assistant professor of education at SOU, and Cody Christopherson, an assistant professor of psychology at SOU.

Rousell is the author of a book published in 2007 entitled “Sudden Influence: How Spontaneous Events Shape Our Lives.” Christopherson, who received a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Notre Dame in 2011, based his talk on the findings of his 112-page dissertation, “Can Happiness Be Successfully Pursued?” For this dissertation he conducted a randomized and controlled trial on the pursuit and assessment of happiness in subjects who intentionally sought it.

Rousell first talked about changing happiness mindsets spontaneously without consciously intending to, how “singular moments can change your life.” His talk centered on the element of surprise as a psychological key to changing one’s perspective and on his years of research on the role of hypnosis in bringing about that change.

According to Rousell, “mirror neurons” are the basis of hypnotism. These are neurons that activate both when an animal acts and experiences certain stimuli and when the animal observes the same action or stimuli in another animal, as if the observer was experiencing the same psychology as the participant. Although mirror neurons have been observed directly in primates and birds, there is only indirect evidence of them in humans, and the scientific community is divided over the existence and role of mirror neurons in humans.

But Rousell believes hypnotism settles the question.

“Hypnosis is all about mirror neurons,” he said. “When we look at a smiling baby, we smile ourselves. Because we have mirror neurons, we have the ability to experience others’ thoughts and feelings as our own. They are how we can experience vividly without being a part of that experience.”

Rousell’s interest in hypnotism began while studying at the University of Oregon, where he received his doctorate in 1991. After seeing a performance by the famous hypnotist Peter Reveen, “I read every book I could find on hypnosis, mostly out of the popular literature. I began hypnotizing anyone and everybody I could.”

This interest soon turned into a serious area of research for Rousell.

“I started to get burning questions,” he said. “Can you hypnotize people without them knowing it? Can you hypnotize people outside their awareness?”

Rousell’s conclusions place him outside the mainstream consensus of psychologists and neuroscientists. “The answer to those question is yes,” he said. He went on to describe his search for evidence.

“I’m always looking for evidence,” he said. “I’ve collected close to a thousand stories. Surprise was always a key element.” He discussed the role surprise plays in activating and orienting one’s attention and ultimately in changing a person’s life.

However, Rousell also admitted that he had not yet correlated his research to other cultures for comparison of data.

“All my evidence [for spontaneous hypnosis] is anecdotal,” he said. “And I have not operationalized [my research].”

“From an evolutionary point of view, we had to learn quickly from surprise. We didn’t get into the gene pool without it,” he said. He tied this in to “hemisphere specialization,” by which the human brain divides its labor between the two hemispheres, the left specializing in routine and analysis, the right side specializing in novelty and creativity. Although neither side of the brain works in isolation or independently, Rousell noted that quick thinking, spurred on by impressions, intuitions and feeling, is the primary domain of the brain’s right hemisphere.

In the second part of the presentation, Dr. Christopherson explored the other side of the question, sharing the results of his published research on the intentional and deliberate pursuit of happiness. He based his claims as to how this deliberate pursuit can work successfully on two randomized and controlled sociological studies he authored.

“As a psychologist, I have questions about behavior and whether they can be paradoxical, that is, the more effort you put into it, the less you get out of it,” he said. He asked the audience to call out examples of this. Responses included trying to sleep, parenting, and trying to fall in love.

Christopherson asked “What about the pursuit of happiness? Is happiness paradoxical?” He used the example, used by American social psychologist Daniel M. Wegner, of instructing a subject not to think of a white bear. This is a self-defeating behavior.

Christopherson credited Wegner with “unintentionally planting the seeds of the study of happiness.” He called the study of happiness “extremely difficult,” explaining some of the difficulties researchers have when studying this phenomenon.

These include measurements of subjective well-being, which rely on self-reports of people who can be highly influenced, and the impact of assessing happiness and the problem it raises of possibly affecting what is being measured. As Christopherson put it, “By making an inquiry, you’re changing the thing you’re asking about.”

The remainder of Christopherson’s talk was highly technical, focusing on the methodology and results of his two experiments on intentional happiness. The first asked whether the pursuit of happiness was self-defeating, and the second asked whether the assessment of happiness defeated the pursuit of happiness.

“Evidence shows that the assessment of happiness is not defeating to happiness. You’re actually better off assessing your own happiness than in answering nonsense questions,” Christopherson concluded. He added that the results of his studies are highly non-intuitive.

“One of the reasons introspection is sometimes [ineffective] is because we do it so poorly. The non-intuitive exception is when we are trained to do it through exercises such as mindfulness.” Mindfulness, one of three intervention practices mentioned by Christopherson, is a technique developed by psychologists and psychiatrists which places subjects in a “here-and-now” mindset to produce calming effects.

Another technique Christopherson used in his experiments is “gratitude.” Each night, subjects think of three good things that happened to them. Finally, Christopherson mentioned the technique of “signature strengths,” where subjects think of and dwell on good aspects about themselves. Christopherson did not favor this approach, calling it “too proprietary” and the least supported of the three techniques. He did not mention hypnosis, and during the question-and-answer session Rousell asked him how long it took for happiness to wear off after successful intervention practices. Christopherson said he was not sure.

Upcoming winter term presentations relating to the “Exploring Happiness” campus theme include a presentation on the politics of happiness by William Hughes, associate professor of political science at SOU. This lecture takes place Thursday, Jan. 31, at 7 p.m. in Stevenson Union 319 on the SOU campus.

On Tuesday, Feb. 5, at 7 p.m., Dr. Emma Seppala will present a lecture on “The Science of Compassion, Social Connection and Well-Being” in the Meese Room of the Hannon Library on campus. Seppala is the associate director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Seppala will also give a lecture on the role of yoga and meditation in mental health and well-being on Feb. 6 at 12:30 p.m. in the Meese Room.

An “International Poetry Night” is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 21 at 7 p.m. in the Meese Auditorium of SOU’s Art Building. The event features foreign language students reading poetry about happiness and discontent in several languages.

“The Business of Pursuing Happiness” is the title of a lecture to be given by Amy Cuddy of the Oregon Community Foundation, Joan McBee, associate professor of business management at SOU, and David Wilkerson of Ogden Roemer Wilkerson Architecture. This lecture takes place Monday, Feb. 25 at 5 p.m. in the Meese Room.

The relationship between happiness and education is the subject of a presentation set for Thursday, Feb. 28 at 7 p.m. in the Meese Room. This is a panel discussion presented by four faculty members in SOU’s School of Education, Margaret Perrow, William Greene, Younghee Kim and Amy Belcastro.

Finally, Mark Krause and Rachel Jochem, both from SOU’s psychology department, will ask “How much of happiness is all in your brain?” in a double-lecture set for March 6 at 4 p.m. in the Meese Room.

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