Mark Sherman: On the habits of highly happy people

Mark-Sherman SQUARESome 40 years ago, I took a written exam in New York City to get my license as a psychologist. The only requirement, as I recall, was a Ph.D. in psychology and I had that. I passed the test and this meant I could now practice. Think about that. When someone tells you that you need “professional help,” that could mean me! I am professional help.

The fact that my degree was in experimental psych didn’t seem to matter to the State of New York, but I felt awkward about it, so I did take a brief course in family therapy before seeing the few clients I ever saw.

I haven’t seen one in more than 25 years. Nonetheless, by continuing to renew my license — look, you never know where your career life might take you — I have been kept on mailing lists for workshops. And one of the companies that sends me regular mailings is IBP, or the Institute for Brain Potential, in Haddonfield, NJ.


Their latest offering is “Developing Positive Emotional Habits: A 6-Hour Seminar for Health Professionals,” and the instructor is Mark Schneider, Ph.D. Like all the instructors on the IBP’s website, Dr. Schneider is described as “an outstanding speaker.” But Dr. Brian King, who presents on the same topic in Delaware and Pennsylvania, is “an outstanding and entertaining speaker, (who also) performs as a stand-up comedian.”

So, hey, that’s not fair. If I see Dr. Schneider in Poughkeepsie, all I’m getting is an outstanding speaker. But if I happen to live in the Delaware/Eastern PA area, I get a guy who is not only an outstanding (and entertaining) speaker but also does stand-up.

Of course, that’s not the important thing. The important thing isn’t who is presenting; it’s what I’ll get out of the seminar. Not as a “health professional,” which I really am not, but rather as a person constantly seeking a happier existence.

It consists of three parts: “The Joyful Brain: The Neurobiology of Happiness,” “Emotional Habits of Happy People,” and “Applying Positive Psychology to Strengthen Positive Emotions.” That first part doesn’t really interest me very much. I think if I see one more reference to the amygdala, I’m going to scream. And please, don’t talk to me about hippocampal pathology. I want to be happy. I don’t want to worry about my hippocampus.

Unfortunately, Part II doesn’t look like it will be too helpful either. One of the topics is “Savoring the Moment, e.g., stopping to smell the roses.” You know, one time I did stop to smell the roses. The owner of the roses yelled at me to get off his property, plus I wound up being late for an appointment.

Then there’s “Practicing Non-Judgmental Awareness of Self and Others.” Oh, yeah, sure, I’ll be non-judgmental when someone cuts me off in traffic, or keeps me waiting because they had to stop to smell some roses before they met me.

And what about “Reminding Oneself of Joyful States: the habit of recapturing positive memories as a means of facilitating healthy optimism”? Are you kidding me? When I recapture positive memories, all it does it make me feel nostalgic, depressed and old. I don’t want to remind myself of joyful states; I want to have joyful states.

Another part of the seminar talks about “unhealthy forms of mood regulation,” which include “escaping through food, alcohol and drugs, rumination, avoiding, inflaming, blaming and shaming.” That doesn’t offer me much. Okay, I’ve pretty much given up alcohol and drugs, but now you’re saying I can’t escape with food either? Please, if I can’t escape with drink, drugs or food, at least let me blame, shame and ruminate! Otherwise, what is there to live for?

The class does go on with what it calls “externalized habits,” and one of these is “Having Fun: Engaging the wonder and joy of the child’s mind.” My grandchildren live pretty far away from me, so does this mean I’m going to have to find a child living closer whose joy and wonder I can share? What would his or her parents have to say about that? Or does it mean I should appreciate the joy and wonder of my “inner child”? My wife and friends already say I can be childish, but they say it like it’s a bad thing. Hey, maybe they should take this seminar!

And finally, there is Part III, which lists 12 ways to “apply positive psychology to strengthen positive emotions.” These include “expressive writing” and “emotional communication.” Expressive writing focuses on “the benefits of writing what we have kept secret to reduce rumination, depression and shame.” Oh, yeah, this all works, until your spouse or child discovers what you had been keeping secret — like the yearning you’ve been having for your spouse’s best friend — and they start screaming at you.

I guess that screaming could be called “emotional communication” on their end. In the workshop, it means that you should “say what needs to be said in a way that leads to meaningful change.” Does this mean you should tell your spouse that he or she should lose weight? That will lead to meaningful change all right, like your sleeping on the couch for at least the next month.