Happiness and disposition go together. Are they controllable?

By Sue Baker

Dr. Karen Schwartz, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, put a positive spin on the subject of happiness when she spoke to residents in May. Happiness versus misery depends on one's disposition, she said, and she assured a rapt audience that although one's disposition is greatly affected by genetics, it can definitely be influenced by the choices made by an individual.

The choices of friends and of activities are among the important determinants of what happens to a person, according to Dr. Schwartz. In particular, social connections need to be fostered and encouraged. Positive emotions such as joy, pride and a sense of purpose often are related to the ability to connect with others and have meaningful relationships.

What can one do? Among her suggestions were actively being a good friend, for example by visiting others who are sick or alone. Practicing gratitude by writing letters and expressing gratitude in person will improve one's disposition, as will making a date with someone or embarking on a new activity.

Self-awareness is important, so learning enough about one's self to change can be the key to modifying disposition. It is critical to identify any underlying problems that may reduce a person's capacity to feel happy. Depression, which is often characterized by a lack of interest in activities, is treatable if recognized early.

Schwartz closed with Eleanor Roosevelt's recommendation: "Smile!" Not only the person who smiles but those who observe it will feel happier.

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