In a high-ceilinged room of Ely House, a carefully restored Georgian building just off Lower Baggot Street, a dozen people were seated quietly in a circle one evening last March for the first of six sessions of a course in positive psychology. Some were wearing suits, fresh from work; others, like myself, were dressed casually. A few had a smudge of grey on their forehead and it dawned on me that it was Ash Wednesday.
After a brief introduction outlining her professional credentials and working experience as a psychotherapist, Margaret Forde, the course convenor, asked us to stand, to introduce ourselves to the person seated beside us, and to tell that person one positive thing that had happened to us in the past seven days. ‘It doesn’t have to be something earth-shattering,’ Forde said. I shook hands with the young woman beside me, who smiled and told me she had just moved into a new apartment with a good friend. I smiled back, told her I had just received a commission to write an article for a newspaper and that this had made me happy. ‘Briefly,’ I added.
We sat back down, and Forde asked us to name things that make us happy. ‘Family,’ said one. ‘Friends,’ said another. ‘Drink.’ ‘Holidays.’ ‘Nature.’ ‘Work.’ ‘Love.’ ‘Peace.’ ‘Excitement.’ ‘Music.’ ‘Courses like this can make you happy,’ said the young woman beside me; ‘I’ve always been interested in psychology.’
The most striking feature of the room was the pair of Doric columns at one end, faux-supports to the corniced ceiling. Forde scribbled our suggestions onto a flipchart placed between the columns. She then turned to a clean page, drew a circle in the centre. ‘Ten per cent of our happiness comes from our circumstances,’ she said, marking off a small segment of the circle with the letter ‘c’, for circumstances. She sliced through the circle again, printing the letter ‘g’ inside this segment. ‘That’s got to do with genetics – 40 to 50 per cent. We’ve got a happiness set point.’ She told us about a study of lottery winners, whose happiness levels, the researchers found, soared in the aftermath of the win but took less than a year, on average, to return to pre-lottery-winning levels. ‘Your happiness peaks, and then comes back down to what it was previously,’ said Forde. ‘The same with troughs.’
‘Blue-collar workers in the US are only marginally less happy than American millionaires, research shows,’ she continued. ‘And this is terrific news, because the rest of the happiness circle’ – she inscribed the letter ‘a’ in the remaining segment – ‘that’s down to our attitudes and thoughts, which can change our lives so radically.’
The defining characteristic of happy people – and, as it turned out, the characteristic that received the most attention throughout Margaret Forde’s six-week course – was their ability to bounce back in the face of stresses, setbacks and tragedies. ‘I’m not going to wave a magic wand and turn you all into little airy-fairy Pollyannas and pretend that nothing ever goes wrong,’ she said. ‘But that sort of resilience displayed by happy people – that can be learned.’
On a recent visit to the house where I grew up in rural Tipperary, looking through the books I’d left in my old bedroom, I saw perhaps a dozen slim self-help volumes I’d bought in my late teens or early twenties. Occasionally interleaving slabs of secondhand Nietzsches and copiously underlined Salingers and coverless Chekhovs from my college years, the spines of stray titles like 23 Steps to Success and Achievement, Confidence in Just Seven Days, Six Pillars of Self-Esteem – books I had forgotten ever having read – stood out on the tightly packed shelves.
The names of the authors on the covers of these books were usually followed by initials denoting the degrees they had earned. The blurbs promised to reveal to the careful reader the secrets to boosting confidence, to conquering fears, to honing sexual prowess. I recalled now doing the exercises, trying out some of the tactics in a coffee shop, on a dance floor, walking down a pavement. Leafing through The Nice Guys’ Guide to Getting Girls once again, I recalled the aloof French girl who worked in the Enchanter vintage clothing store in Galway. Whenever I’d visit the shop, I’d try – as instructed – to make small talk in a casual, confident way, head up, chest out, even though my heart was thumping like a spent greyhound’s. My efforts made not the faintest impression on the French girl.
Over a decade since I’d last strutted between rails of sheepskins and grandfather shirts in the Enchanter, and since I’d last bought a self-help book, I now found myself listening to Margaret Forde’s soft, kind voice, suspicious of anything she might say that had the ring of a quick-fix nostrum. How can one honestly try to undo years of harmful thought patterns, part of me thought, in a twelve-hour night class? But, Forde’s approach was more scientific than those of the self-help books of my youth, and it was alluring to picture life brightening, if only by a solitary ray, through learning this discipline of positive thinking.
And so, for two hours every Wednesday evening over the next five weeks, I bracketed as best I could my reservations about the supposed benefits of adopting a sunny outlook on life, and instead allowed Margaret Forde to guide me through a range of exercises designed to teach us how to boost our resilience, increase the intensity of the positive feelings we already have, and limit the impact of negative feelings, that are inevitable, this side of heaven.
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