By: Joshua Browne, M.P.S.
Unfortunate or Blessed?
A couple of weeks ago, an off-duty officer employed at my police department was walking in his apartment complex in route to check his mail box. Along the way, he was intercepted by two young males, who attempted to rob him at gun point. It appears the males were unaware he was an off-duty police officer carrying a concealed weapon. During the encounter, gun fire was exchanged. The off-duty officer sustained a non-life-threatening single gunshot wound to the foot, while one of the suspects incurred a single gunshot wound and the other two. Both suspects were apprehended at the hospital a short time later and are currently in custody. All involved are expected to make a full recovery. As you contemplate the title of this article, you are likely wondering, “How is this story related to the topic of happiness?”
I will answer that inquiry by posing a reflective question. Would you frame this encounter as positive or negative and what factors would you cite as reasons for your conclusions? Consider for a moment, that in most circumstances, multiple realities exist. Some might say the entire incident can only be framed in a negative light, since a heinous felony was committed, which could have resulted in the death of one or more persons. Further, even though the off-duty officer and both suspects will make a full physical recovery, psychological repercussions are likely to be incurred by the victim, who was forced to use deadly force to protect his life, while the assailants must confront the psychological and legal consequences of their actions. However, there exists at least one more reality.
Although the off-duty officer could have been senselessly murdered, he successfully confronted and stopped the threat, the wound he sustained was minor, the suspect’s wounds were non-life-threatening, both suspects were thwarted, apprehended and will now be required to face the legal consequences. Further, instead of choosing a victim incapable of defending himself, the suspects inadvertently selected an off-duty police officer capable of thwarting their robbery attempt. At a minimum, the off-duty officer’s intervention likely prevented the suspects from choosing a defenseless victim and possibly taking a life. Later in the article, I will discuss how individual framing of this scenario is related to their explanatory style, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Post Traumatic Growth and ultimately, happiness.
The Universal Human Craving
Regardless of our profession, age, gender, socioeconomic status or any number of other factors, humans crave happiness. Evidence of this ubiquitous longing can be viewed in the enormity of the academic and mainstream literature addressing the topic. However, as I have explored this theme with colleagues, friends, family and acquaintances, the disparity between the many definitions individuals embrace as they frame the nature of happiness is apparent. As I have contemplated the competing conceptualizations of happiness, one dichotomy repeatedly emerges, as some frame happiness as a destination, while others describe it as a process. In my opinion, by examining these two opposing viewpoints, we can deconstruct why some seem to realize happiness and contentment, while others continually seek, but never find.
Prior to a further exploration of the coveted concept of happiness, I believe a discussion of definitions is crucial. Although the meaning of happiness may seem self-evident, both scientific research and my personal experience reveals there is substantial disagreement regarding this concept. When asked to describe how they experience happiness, many use words such as pleasure, peace, contentment, elation, ecstasy, jubilation, delight, euphoria, and joy. Although I do not disagree with these designations, I suggest the context of how these emotions are experienced determines either sustained or fleeting happiness. In my opinion, transitory happiness is a cruel visitor, while consistent contentment is a healing companion. Does this mean truly happy people somehow escape the pain other mortals experience? If pain, struggle and tragedy are inevitable, how do some achieve steady levels of contentment?
The Explanatory Style of Happy and Unhappy People
One important component of the comprehensive answer can be understood by examining the explanatory style of both happy and unhappy people. Explanatory style can be described as the meaning individuals assign to an experience or concept. As you read on, please contemplate the true account outlined at the commencement of this article. While unhappy people often view challenges as happiness inhibitors requiring annihilation before serenity can return, happy people understand obstacles as opportunities to grow. Thus, individuals feeling consistent contentment define happiness as the joy they experience while striving towards their potential (Achor, 2010). Instead of stating, “I’ll be happy when I overcome this health challenge, when I get this promotion, when I graduate,” or even “when Friday comes,” happy people engage with the process of addressing the challenge, seeking the growth obtained while struggling through adversity, while focusing on gratitude for today and the opportunity for learning embedded in the obstacle.
Thus, happiness need not be delayed only to be realized once certain goals are reached or a specific challenge is finally bested, but instead, during the struggle, the striving, the failures and the incremental successes. Happy people cherish it all, realizing that with a heart full of gratitude, there is great purpose in the comprehensive process, from the commencement of a new venture, while incurring temporary failure, experiencing a nominal success, and finally when a high-level goal is achieved. When struggles inevitably come, happy people search for learning, opportunity and character growth, and although they struggle like every other human being on the planet, they are adept at reframing the event in a realistically optimistic manner. While they acknowledge the negative realities present, they also demonstrate aptitude at scanning for the positive possibilities that can be derived from the experience.
Keeping Happiness Inside the Cognitive Horizon
Earlier, I mentioned the definitional dichotomy, as some frame happiness as a destination, while others describe it as a process. If happiness is permitted to be constantly delayed until a specific destination is reached, such as the absence of trial or reaching an important goal, a destructive and merciless explanatory style is present, as the individual has decided happiness is a destination. If happiness is a destination, even when the obstacle is surmounted or the goal is reached, contentment remains for a short duration, only to flee once the individual identifies a new obstacle to hurdle, injustice to reconcile or additional achievement to pursue. Such an orientation chases happiness beyond the cognitive horizon, always to be pursued and never to be attained (Achor, 2010). However, if your explanatory style focuses on the personal growth achieved via daily striving, happiness is likely to be your companion.
Fortunately, explanatory styles need not remain fixed. A plethora of scientific studies have confirmed the neuropathways directing our focus can be rewired. This is a neurobiological process, meaning rewiring involves both the mind and the body. For example, Emmons & McCullough (2003) conducted a study in which they directed a cohort of research subjects to record 3 items of gratitude each day for 21 days, resulting in the participants reporting elevated levels of optimism and happiness. Numerous studies have reported expressing kindness, empathy, benevolence and other prosocial behaviors substantially elevate physical well-being, self-esteem, positive self-image, self-worth, relationship fulfilment, life satisfaction, positive emotions, psychological well-being and purpose (Lyubomrisky, 2007; Oman, 2007; Musick & Wilson, 2003). Additionally, providing social support to others has been shown to enhance personal emotional well-being substantially more than receiving it (Oman, 2007). These behaviors create new neuropathways capable of restructuring your focus towards present and consistent happiness. Even more exciting, the behaviors enumerated above are within your power to execute. Although effort and time are required to permanently rewire the brain towards learned optimism and happiness, some of the positive effects of engaging in the previously outlined behaviors can be experienced immediately.
Post Traumatic Growth and Joy
Earlier I mentioned the concept of Post Traumatic Growth, a reality gaining more attention in psychology research, as an alternative to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Several studies focusing on these paradigms have identified explanatory style as a key ingredient in predicting who will remain engulfed by PTSD, and who will pursue and realize the positive alternative of PTG (Plat et al., 2010). Although the concept of gaining character growth, due to courageously confronting difficult or traumatic circumstances is not a new paradigm, the focus of psychological research verifying this idea is a recent development. These studies have concluded that the objective reality of the circumstances involved in the traumatic event are less predictive of either PTSD or PTG, than the explanatory style, or the meaning the individual assigns to the experience (Plat et al., 2010). Thus, by embracing gratitude for the positive aspects of the incident, including the personal growth obtained as result, the individual can emerge from the traumatic experience a grateful, reflective, wiser and happier individual, as the joy experienced while striving for personal potential is appreciated.
Whether you have been exposed to a traumatic experience or are fatigued by the constant array of life challenges, joy need not reside beyond the cognitive horizon. You can choose to embrace gratitude for challenges, as they provide opportunities for you to stretch beyond your current capacity. It is within your power to cultivate gratitude for the process of striving for your potential and experience joy all along the way.
Sgt. Joshua Browne, M.P.S. is a police sergeant, adjunct professor within The George Washington University’s Master of Homeland Security Program, and founder of Heal the Badge Consulting. He authors articles and provides training courses in the realms of emotional resilience and altering organizational culture towards wellness. His efforts seek to realize the goal of fortifying law enforcement professionals, leaders and their families, by providing the necessary resilience tools for success within, outside and beyond the law enforcement career. He also utilizes his law enforcement and academic experience, to lead individuals outside of the first responder community, towards reconciling their traumatic experiences and realizing the meaning and growth embedded therein.
Achor, S. (2010). The happiness advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol., 84, 377-389.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want. New York, NY: Penguin.
Musick, M. A., & Wilson, J. (2003). Volunteering and depression: The role of psychological and social resources in different age groups. Social Sciences & Medicine, 56, 259-269.
Oman, D. (2007). Does volunteering foster physical health and longevity? In Altruism and health: Perspectives from empirical research (pp. 15-32). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Plat, M. J., Westerveld, G. J., Hunter, R. C., Olff, M., Frings-Dresen, M. H., & Sluiter, J. K. (2010). Post traumatic distress and growth: An empirical study of police officers. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 64, 55-72. Retrieved from www.eds.a.ebscohost.com