Love Andy x
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
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