We have to take happiness seriously. Yes, we do! The UK government is going to measure our happiness and as we all know, what gets measured gets done!
Positive psychology has been around now, in a formal way, for over 10 years. That is not long but after all Google has been around for about the same time. And Facebook for a fraction of that.
Of course, happiness is a lot older. To make a more precise statement about ‘happiness’, academic psychologists in Western countries have been studying happiness with a sense that ‘it is right to do this’ for a decade.
So what have we learned from ten years of the formal study of happiness by psychologists?
What does positive psychology tell us?
Positive psychology is little different from other topics in social sciences. It doesn’t tell us answers. It helps us ask the right questions. Most importantly, it helps us put aside questions that are simply the wrong questions.
What are the wrong questions to ask about happiness?
Are some people more happy than others?
We love to ask who is more intelligent, who is more good-looking and after all, who is more worthy. We like to line people up with the best in front and thereafter claim they will beat the front of the line forever and because they are in the front, permanently the best, that they are worthy of more respect, more love, more care, and sometimes even more food.
We know this is the wrong question for three reasons.
Wrong question – Reason 1
Yes, some people are better and some people are worse at specific tasks and they keep this rank order for a short space of time. They are also likely to build a portfolios around their strengths of today, but they don’t stay permanently on top. A top cricketer might become a cricket coach in time, for example, but he will no longer be the top batsman or bowler. Sensible people retire from competition at the right time!
If we are going to compete in the happiness stakes, most of our lives we must be losers. Logic fail?
Wrong question – Reason 2
Being good at one thing does not make us good at everything. Indeed, learning a skill takes time (around 10 000 hours of practice as a rule-of-thumb or ten years of organized practice) and we can generally only be good at one thing.
If we think about being good at something, we are going to make a choice. Some of us can choose to be good at happiness. Others will have to make do with being good at something else. Logic fail?
Wrong question – Reason 3
Asking who is the happiest is simply not a worthy question.
For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that one person is permanently good at one thing and with great good fortune also good at two or three other things: does that make them a more important person than someone who is not very competitive at any activity?
Should one child be loved more than another? How corrupting is that for the child who is supposed to be so much better? Lets not go there for if we do it is a case of morality fail, not so?
What is the right question about happiness?
If asking who is the happiest is the wrong question, then what is the right question?
What is happiness?
All these discussions about who is happy and who is not begs a simpler question: what is happiness?
Most of can recognize happiness in the same way that we recognize the difference between a good meal and an indifferent meal. We just can without necessarily being able to create a good meal ourselves.
Partly we fail to create good meals because we don’t want to learn the skills and do the work that goes into making a good meal. We try cheating with recipes. We add ready-made sauces. We can work on one or another principle ideas – for example, buy good ingredients (would we recognize them?).
The truth is good meals are produced by many factors brought together by someone who understands the issues, who has had a lot of practice, and who is paying attention on the day. Happiness is the same.
• We work with what we have in the moment
• We understand the issues
• We pay attention adjusting as we go
What are the issues surrounding happiness?
Positive psychologists and management theorists in a related field, positive organizational scholarship, have settled on a checklist of FOUR issues to guide our thinking at any moment. The four issues have been compressed into an acronym PERMA.
• Positive emotion
Positive emotion simply means play nice – not only with others but with ourselves.
A simple trick is to review each day and after reviewing what we feel and the stories we are telling ourselves (and others), we look over our stories and highlight what we went well.
It is astonishing how negative processes are allowed to crowd out positive processes. In part, it’s a survival thing – we attend to what scares us.
The trick to restoring a positive outlook is to make a (written) checklist of what did go well and mark what we would like to repeat and expand.
We are intensely sociable animals. Even the most introverted among us like to do things that make sense socially.
Sometimes an activity done alone, like writing poetry, really is sociable, as is the commute of a person who treks long hours to earn an income for his family. We will always prefer the activity that links us to the people we care about.
Indeed, we care about the people when we do things together. We like the people we do things for and with. Games designer, Jane McGonigal, suggests we like people better when we play games with them, for this reason. Sports bring us together, etc. etc.?
Giving mental space to our relationships makes even the most introverted of us happy.
Life also makes sense when we are working on something bigger than ourselves. Sometimes that means commuting for the sake of our families. Sometimes we use the ‘bigger than’ line as an excuse, e.g. when we go to university because the system requires us to. But we know the difference because when we don’t care about the wider meaning, we hate what we are doing and feel exhausted.
We have limitless energy when we really care about the ‘story that we are writing’. This is a good exercise as well. Write a few lines of your autobiography each night and ask whether you are writing about who you want to be – or about someone else. In a previous post, I’ve suggested that (necessity) entrepreneurs rewrite their story nightly. Writing our story coherently helps orient ourselves to what we care deeply about.
How we love to achieve! Solving problems is lovely. Triumphing over adversity is invigorating. Dreadful jobs are dispensed with so much more easily when we set them up as little challenges that we can tick of – there! there! there!
Setting little hurdles for ourselves improves the day.
Happiness Happening near you!
If you haven’t already seen Jane McGonigal’s presentation at School of Life (sermon actually) on 26 October 2010, it follows below.
Jane McGonigal is a games designer. She explains the theory of positive psychology. She explains how she used the theory to accelerate her recovery from concussion. She illustrates the theory by replacing the dreary world of ‘to do’ lists with the PERMA checklist. She weaves her vision for the world into the template of sermons as a children’s story.
It’s fun to watch and shows you where this happiness stuff has got to and where it is going.
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- Appreciative inquiry: a mini-case study
- Happiness getting confused with the pleasure of meanness