Positive psychology – building blocks of happiness

This is the fifth blog/newsletter about the wellbeing courses that have ment something to me. Following on from last week I’m going to explore Positive Psychology in more detail.

Positive Psychology is a relatively new branch of psychology, which seeks to explore topics such as happiness, meaning and engagement. It does not suggest that the rest of psychology is “Negative Psychology” but merely seeks to explore aspects of human flourishing rather than exploring from what may be wrong with an individual.

Before thinking about how you go about raising your happiness level its worth considering the concept of happiness. One man’s happiness is clearly another’s hell and what do we mean by happiness anyway? Do we mean fun or positive emotions or meaning in life or flourishing?

Everyone has a different interpretation of what these things mean and also a different view on which of these things is the most important. For example “individual A” may view life as a sensorial ride to be enjoyed to the full by packing in the most positive, peak experiences that they can. “Individual B” might be on a mission. They have God given talents which they feel destined to use to create something new for society. “A” could view “B” as being dowdy and missing out on the wonder of life. “B” could view “A” as a selfish pleasure seeker, maximising their own wellbeing with scant regard for their impact on others or the environment.

It may be that A and B have much to learn from each other. “B” may realise that their mission can best be achieved by using the positive emotions generated by enjoying life. “A” might gain insight into the joy to be had from devoting energy and time to a project to help others.

Somewhere between “A” and “B” there are the 6.5 billion of the rest of us trying to make some sense out of life. There are lots of different ways to “measure” happiness but some of the most common ways is to ask a series of questions around satisfaction with life. The questions go something like this – “taking everything into account how satisfied are you with your life?” Rate yourself from 1 to 10, 1 being “I can’t go on” to 10 being “a perfect life”. (*the actual scales and descriptions are slightly different to this)

And, on average, the result is about 7. On average we are 7 out of 10 happy now and on average think we will be slightly more than 7 out of 10 in the future. Many interesting observations have arisen over the last few years. For example, despite the huge increase in material wealth in the last 30 years, this 7 out of 10 statistic has remained fairly constant. Secondly, once your basic needs for food, shelter and basic political stability are satisfied, people are no happier in the West than people in some of the most impoverished countries in the world.

Armed with basic questionnaires about happiness and wellbeing psychologists then begin to explore before and after scenarios. For example, I ask you how happy you are and then get you to take part in an activity. This may be a one off event, or be over several months or even a number of years. After the intervention you are asked the “happiness” question again and in this manner they seek to ascertain which activities in life have a positive impact on happiness and wellbeing. They also seek to distinguish between activities which heighten “happiness” in the short term and those which have a long term effect.

One of the most interesting aspects of this research is that there is a relationship between longevity and peoples self reported “happiness” – the happier people say they are the longer they live and the healthier they tend to be. So if you can do research on what are the building blocks of happiness then maybe you can introduce positive psychology techniques to government policies, education reforms, workplace practices and in personal relationships. As noted above there appears little relationship between increases in material wealth and “happiness” once the basic needs in life are satisfied.

The research seems to confirm that “happiness” and wellbeing is promoted when we do the following:

– take regular exercise
– nurture and develop personal relationships
– find meaning and engagement at work
– cherish what we have rather than coveting what we dont
– find little bits of magic every day
– play to our strengths
– help others
– spend more time living in the present
– feel a sense of autonomy – that we have chosen what we want to do in life

Interestingly the research suggests that there is no relationship between how happy a person is and how beautiful looking other people think they are. There is also little evidence to suggest that peoples happiness levels are affected by age (apart from a slight dip during the teen years!)

The main findings of this research are quite supportive of my decision to leave the world of corporate finance 9 years ago. I get to do what I love every day, I get to develop relationships with the Breathe therapists, I get to exercise when I want, I get to choose when I work and when I dont. The main down side is that I never made the jump from senior manager to partner at KPMG so maybe I earn 10% of what I would have if I had stayed on the same career path. The difference is that whereas my worklife was something to be endured I now have wonderful experiences throughout my day and get to meet amazing new people through the Breathe business.

Next week I’ll be looking at the barriers to happiness and how you can overcome these using practical exercises from Positive Psychology research

Posted on February 22, 2012, in Coaching, Meditation etc., positive psychology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: