Happiness For Dummies
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Psychologists believe that, to cope with life, a person must have coherence — optimism, with a sense of control; each of us needs to feel that life is generally understandable, manageable, and valuable.

For most people, it's easy to find one thing in life that gives them coherence, the sense of confidence they need to embrace life with all its twists and turns. Some people discover early on how valuable education is, for example, and they spend their entire lives learning everything they can about the world around them. For others, making money is the most important thing.

But there’s a problem with having only one source of coherence in your life: What if something comes along that takes that one thing away? What happens to your confidence then?

The trick is to diversify — to have multiple sources of coherence in your life at all times — and to keep in mind that needs change as you age. So you should always be looking ahead to retool your sense of coherence to fit the particular demands of the next stage of life.

Diversify your life to be happy

Stock brokers have one word for their clients — diversify, diversify, diversify! It’s the mantra of any successful investor, and it should be the mantra for all people when it comes to developing a sense of coherence.

What you need is a network of people and things in your life that collectively create a sense of confidence and satisfaction. The dictionary definition of coherence refers to various parts that stick together to form a whole. So, what are some of those possible parts? Consider the following:

  • Engaging in intellectual pursuits, such as reading The Wall Street Journal every day or taking courses at your local community college

  • Spending time with family

  • Developing long-term friendships

  • Building a career (as opposed to having a series of jobs)

  • Fostering a spiritual faith

  • Attending religious services

  • Participating in civic organizations

  • Volunteering

  • Doing hobbies

  • Caring for pets

  • Working as a missionary

  • Doing routine recreational activities such as golfing every Saturday morning with your friends

  • Joining a book club

  • Getting involved with your alumni association, such as tailgating at football games or doing fund-raising for your alma mater

  • Participating in community government

  • Working on your marriage

  • Participating in a prayer group

  • Getting regular exercise — jogging, walking, cycling, swimming, aerobics

  • Meditating

  • Attending AA meetings or other support groups

Review this list and count the number of these activities that make up your day-to-day life. A healthy recipe for coherence would include at least five such activities carried out on a weekly basis.

The more of these, or similar, activities you engage in on a consistent basis, the stronger your sense of coherence.

How coherence and happiness changes with age

Erik Erikson, one of the world’s most well-known psychologists, talked about how each of the various stages of life — childhood, adolescence, adulthood — is made up of different personal and interpersonal agendas.

For example, as children grow up, they first learn to trust the world around them, then exercise free will, make choices and become interested in different things, and finally develop an appetite for learning everything they can about the world around them. Adolescence is all about forming an identity — how you’re different from others — and seeking independence.

Young adults are all trying to build a social and economic life and deal with lots of “firsts” — first marriage, first job, first mortgage, first car. Middle-age adults are consolidating their gains — things they achieved as young adults — and working hard to maintain families, careers, and their health. And, the elderly spend a lot of time reflecting back on life and deciding whether their lives were meaningful.

Coherence — understanding life, managing life well, and feeling as if your life has value — changes as people age. To understand coherence in children, you have to be able to see the world through a child’s eyes. Parents are a child’s major, if not exclusive, source of coherence.

Teenagers, on the other hand, make sense of the crazy, emotional world in which they live primarily through peer relationships, and this, unfortunately, drives some parents nuts. Young adults rely on other young adults for coherence. And, somewhere in middle age, you begin to be the source of our own coherence. That’s the beauty of growing old.

The specific pursuits and activities that people rely on for a feeling of coherence at each life stage vary considerably and tend to be age-appropriate. It’s safe to say that few children belong to alumni associations or book clubs, but their parents can certainly enroll them in Sunday school classes. Coherence is not a static experience, but rather something that changes and evolves over time.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

W. Doyle Gentry, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, a distinguished Fellow in the American Psychological Association, and the Founding Editor of the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

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