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Happiness breeds more happiness

"If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands!" That's the first line of a tune I sing with my two youngest granddaughters. By the time we've joyfully moved our way through all the verses, we are — happy, that is.

Are you? I don't hear much hand-clapping. It's not surprising.

Our economy is tanking, our nation's involved in across-the-world wars that seem never-ending and the political climate is — might I say it this way — less than positive. It's not surprising happiness is elusive.

What's most intriguing, however, is all this is going on at exactly the same time that extensive and ground-breaking research on emotion is concluding there's a lot to be happy about. Specifically, studies are finding happiness does not have to be elusive. In fact, happiness can be learned!

A very positive-thinking neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Richard J. Davidson, is central in much of this. He has "systematically uncover(ed) the architecture of emotion."

His findings suggest even for individuals who were born gloomy or anxious, "the plasticity" of the adult brain allows built-in sadness to be addressed and reversed — with a little training. Dr. Davidson uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and "brain mapping" to explore optimism and resilience in specific sample populations and develops training programs accordingly.

A significant portion of the recent issue of Oprah Magazine is devoted to this topic. One section highlights "Five Things Happy People Do." I'll give you a hint, (my personal favorite), "They find their most golden self." Just a little aside here: women who scored well on "golden-self" parameters (psychological well-being) weighed less, slept better and had fewer stress hormones and markers for heart disease.

This week, I spent time with two people who seem on their way to eudaimonic ("good spirit") well-being. I witnessed how they "designed their lives to bring in joy," as another author (Dr. Gabrielle LeBlanc) might summarize it.

My young-appearing, 70-year-old friend, Paul, uses daily meditation as his vehicle and pairs it with self-analysis and self-affirmation. A new acquaintance, Pamela, exudes happiness. Energetic in a totally captivating way, and ultra-clear in her understanding of what she needs to do to stay positive, her mood is contagious.

That's the part I resonate with the most. When I'm around thoughtful, optimistic and caring people I become more positive. "Remember, happiness is as contagious as gloom. It should be the first duty of those who are happy to let others know of their gladness." That's reportedly a quote from Maurice Maeterlinck, a long-deceased Nobel Prize winner with a history of well-managed depressive illness.

One of the Oprah Magazine articles suggests the route to happiness starts by "closing your eyes and (imagining) someone you love." This quiet-mind approach is simple and meditative. It also can evolve into something more structured such as "compassion training." But the message is the same — happiness can be "a do-it-yourself proposition."

Imagine this: What if even just a little more daily joy was within your reach? What if "don't worry, be happy" was not just a song. What if you were happy — and you knew it. Clap your hands!

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human services at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.