Psychologist Interview!

I had a super interesting interview with clinical psychologist and research assistant professor at Northwestern University , Stepthen Schueller. I was lucky enough to sit down and talk to him about all things psychology and happiness related. He was incredibly knowledgable and gave me some great information that totally connects to my project! The insight I got from him is beyond perfect to help me move forward with my project. Here are the main questions I asked him and his amazing, helpful answers.

You can listen to the full interview here :

Lily Dube: “Can you tell me a little bit about what positive psychology is?”

Stepthen Schueller: “Positive psychology is kind of like a sub area of psychology that’s been founded since 1998. The umbrella of positive psychology encompasses researchers in psychology that look at kind of optimal human functioning and there are kind of three main pillars that are talked about. One is the pillar of positive emotions, which is kind of the best way to think about that is kind of like the subjective state about happiness might be, and happiness is kind of a broad term. The second pillar would be positive character traits, so that is the characteristics of people that kind of facilitate optimal functioning and wellbeing and happiness. And then the last pillar would be positive institutions, so that’s social settings and governments, schools, that’s able to promote happiness and wellbeing and flourishing at both an individual and group level.”

LD: “Since the definition of happiness is so broad, what would you say your definition of it is?”

SS: “That’s always a fun question. So let me start with a little bit of my understanding of the field, and then like where I lie on some of the debates, but then I’ll also give you my more unique take on happiness. So usually when we talk about theories of happiness we divide things into two separate camps. So there’s hedonic theories of happiness and eudainomic theories of happiness. So hedonic theories of happiness is more about like how we feel. It’s a much more subjective way of thinking about happiness. And then eudainomic theories of happiness derives from the Greek term eudaimonia which means kind good spirit, so it’s kind of this idea that happiness is virtue and living a good life. And people talk about that as sort of a more objective theory of happiness so that like we think about virtue, meaning, and purpose, and those sorts of things. And the reason that’s a useful theory of happiness to have is because it avoids this idea that someone could be happy by living a pretty bad life. So if we look at a serial killer and they say ‘I’m happy killing people’ we can say like that’s actually not happiness like it doesn’t matter just what you say. On the other hand, that means people can also live a pretty good life and say that they’re completely unhappy. For example, like famous historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill are kind of like classic like depressives, they did great things in their life, but they didn’t feel completely good. So, I actually lean a little more to the hedonic tradition of happiness, I think that a person is ultimately the judge of their own happiness, and that if someone tells me that they’re miserable, no matter what they’re doing in their life, then I have to accept that that is some evidence to suggest that they’re lacking some sort of happiness. And kind of the most prevalent theory of hedonic kind of view of happiness is one that Ed Diener came up with. He uses this really fancy term called subjective wellbeing, and the reason Ed uses this term is because he was trying to get ten year and he was afraid that if he called his research ‘happiness’ no one would take him seriously as a scientist so he called it subjective wellbeing. But it says that happiness is a combination of high positive emotions, so feeling good a lot, low negative emotions, not feeling a lot of stress and anxiety and things like that, and then just a cognitive evaluation that your life is good, kind of taking all things together that you consider your life well off. And I think the reason that cognitive judgement part’s important is because we need the chance to kind of be able to frame things in the context of how they fit into our lives. So, I’m very much in the subjective wellbeing camp in terms of my view of happiness. When people ask me what I think of happiness I always say that happiness is positive goal pursuit, which is kind of a weird thing for people to wrap their head around, but the reason I say that is to me like happiness is about having something that you’re striving towards. Be it a specific goal, or kind of more amorphous goals like I want to be a caring person, and by getting closer to those things or feeling like we’re actualizing those goals in our life I think that’s kind of where we feel satisfaction and positive emotions and that if we feel like we’re being blocked from those goals in our lives, that’s where kind of negative emotions or dissatisfaction comes from. So, as I said, it’s kind of a weird way to define happiness, but I think it’s useful because as a clinical psychologist, I’m very interested in what we can do to help promote peoples’ happiness and so I think that that kind of framework and that definition both highlights what happiness is but also one of the pathways in getting there.”

LD: “Going off that, what are some methods that people in general can do to access their happiness?”

SS: “Yeah, I mean I think the stuff that you’ve talked about is like really basic stuff, I actually think that there are four things that are foundational to happiness. It’s physical health, good diet, being physically active, and having strong social connections. When we move on to these strategies that kind of like highlight some of these other aspects of things that people can do to make themselves happy, what I often tell people is like ‘it’s not rocket science, it’s the stuff our grandmothers told us years and years ago but we don’t listen to our grandmothers all the time.’ Being grateful, being kind…so there’s an emotion regulation model of happiness that highlights five different steps in a process. So there’s situation selection, situation modification, attentional deployment, cognitive change, and there’s a response modulation. Pretty much what they’re saying is, you have to pick something, you can make that thing a little nicer in some ways, you have to pay attention to it, you have to think about it in a way that’s beneficial, and then you have to respond appropriately. So taking advantage of picking the right thing, changing it in the right way, focusing on it correctly, thinking about it correctly, and then expressing it correcting, those are kind of the keys to unlocking happiness and I think kindness and gratitude and savoring and mindfulness, optimism, these things all kind of play into these aspects.

LD: “What is going on in the brain when people are happy? Or how does being happy affect peoples’ brain?”

SS: “Depending on the source of happiness, there’s different parts of the brain that light up, so it’s hard to know exactly. There’s definitely different signatures that show up in the brain based on the emotional reactions that we’re having. Some of them seem to respond to similar stimuli and other things look very different, so for example, the feeling of being overjoyed and ecstatic looks very different from the feeling of being like calm and at peace. And I think both of these are aspects of happiness. It does seem like these different components of happiness do have signatures that kind of show up in the brain. And again, I’m not a neuroscientist. It’s interesting because there are a lot of reactions our brain has to rewards and to anticipation of rewards. So if you give someone drugs, they’ll stimulate the pleasure centers in our brain. If you give people rewards they’ll stimulate those same pleasure centers in our brain. And if you give people the idea that they’re gonna receive rewards it’ll stimulate those same pleasure centers in the brain. So I think that what’s interesting about that is that we think about how happiness is kind of a cognitive or a phenomenon that we think about our lives, the way we imagine our lives, the way that we reflect on our lives, what we pay attention to our lives. Those processes modulate or change the response that goes into the pleasure centers of our brain, so the way that we kind of change in our mind can actually change the stuff that is somewhat outside of our control in terms of our brain and other ways.”

LD: “How do you do research if happiness is so subjective?”

SS: “One of the most widely used questionnaires in happiness is what’s known as the satisfaction with life questionnaire. So it’s a questionnaire from Ed Diener that is five questions. We come up with all these scales. And based on the theory of happiness that one might have, there are different questions, there are some that tap more eudainomic dimensions, so talking about meaning and purpose, sense of mastery in one’s life, if you have positive relationships. So everyone has kind of a slightly different theory. But the fact of the matter is, you ask people. And then with these standardized measures we are able to make comparisons across different groups. Another thing that is really useful if I’m working with someone clinically, it’s often useful to have people make their own scale. The biggest problem with the scales is to figure out if my happiness is the same as your happiness. The hardest thing to figure out is if my one equals your on and my two equals your two. But for myself, if I can figure out what my five is, and reliably say that six is higher than that and four is lower than that, that means something.”

LD: “Would you say that happiness is short term, fleeting emotional state or a more long term thing?”

SS: “I think there are components of both there. I was talking about this with some other researchers regarding exercise. Lots of people say they really like to exercise. Although in reality most people don’t really like to exercise, and if they like it so much then why do people avoid doing it so much? If we look at the short terms, exercise is often not fun. But afterwards, you feel positive, you feel like you accomplished something, and so there’s goodness that comes from that. And I think that a lot of happiness is this trade off between the short term and the longterm pleasures. I think that there’s lots of stuff, if we pursue them, they end up making us happier later on in terms of more positive emotions, but they also give us other sorts of benefits. And there’s lots of research that shows that people that have better self control and self regulation are happier in lots of regards. Because there’s lots of stuff we want in life that the short term outcomes and the longterm outcomes are in disagreement. There are certain times when being controlled in the short term stuff helps us better get longterm happiness. And going back to this theory of subjective wellbeing, positive emotions and negative emotions are definitely something that happen in the moment. That’s not all that happiness is, there’s this cognitive evaluation component that’s more longterm. Happiness has features of both.”