Positive Psychology – a little introduction

I was attracted to Positive Psychology by an article in the Sunday Times about six years ago entitled “Can you learn to be happier?”  The article was based on an interview with the leading light of the American Positive Psychology movement, Martin Seligman.  Running a wellbeing business which deals with physical and mental wellbeing I was enthusiastic and curious about the subject and was lucky to be amongst the first group of people in Europe to study for a masers degree in the subject.

My initial enthusiasm turned slightly to scepticism on day one.  Once you start to investigate the practicality of defining happiness/wellbeing and then measuring “it” many logical and practical problems arise. 

The most commonly used measure is Ed Dieners Satisfaction with life scale (SWL).  This asks people to rate their satisfaction with life on a scale from 1 to 7 .  It’s a reasonable wellbeing measurement because it enables values to be included.  For example you may consider a happy life to be one which is filled with pleasure with an absence of suffering.   If this is what you value and this is what you get then you can claim to be satisfied.  If you value meaning in your life and you find your life meaningful then you rate yourself as being satisfied.  The scale reflects values and enables hedonists to be compared to those looking for meaning. There are many other ways that researcher’s measure wellbeing but this one has an advantage because it is simple, clear and inclusive.

A typical piece of positive psychology research would seek to ask participants to rate their satisfaction and then get them to do an activity (anything from meditation to Scottish country line dancing).  They would then ask the participants to rate themselves using the scale during, after and often some months later.  Researchers would also compare groups of people.  For example, they would investigate people on different levels of income, country, age etc.

What they found was that the most satisfied (I’m going to change to the word to happy now even though that opens up whole can of worms – I just think satisfied sounds a bit smug).

What they found was that the happiest people were those having a close group of supportive friends, were in a loving relationship, were optimistic about the future and broadly they felt that their career and financial goals were moving in the right direction.  Hardly rocket science I know but interestingly what the research tends to suggest is that there is little or no relationship between your level of income and happiness.  Once you have enough to cover the basics and a roof over your head happiness levels are fairly consistent across the globe. 

However our level of happiness has a lot to do with how much I get paid compared to the people I know (or think I know or think I should know).  Some research suggests that, if offered a choice between, earning a high wage but being paid less than most of our work colleagues or being paid less but more than our colleagues we would take the latter option.

All these findings are interesting but are they based on fundamental flakiness?  It seems that due to strong heritable factors our self reported level of satisfaction hovers around a set point (Mehls set point).  No matter what we do it tends to move back to this point. Our natural wellbeing level may be 50% due to heritable factors, 10% due to our circumstances and 40% down to the choices we make in the present moment.  This seems to suggest that on a day to day basis we have a great deal of opportunity to choose to be happy but over the longer term we may have less influence

To me this is an empowering message.  Like personality our happiness and wellbeing levels are strongly influenced by our ancestors and its up to us to understand why our parents were influenced by their parents and environment and for us to create new patterns of behaviour.  Its a little like the Hindu idea of karma.  We are born with predispositions.  We have tendencies to behave in certain ways but we have a daily choice as to whether to examine those tendencies and explore whether they serve our long term goals and happiness.

At Breathe London we have put together a 30 day wellbeing plan with many interventions from the field of Positive Psychology – details at http://breathe-london.com/positive-psychology


Posted on October 26, 2011, in positive psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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