Should we strive for happiness or should we just accept our lot in life? Should our goal be to flourish and, if so, how do we achieve that state?
In 2006 at a Google conference David Cameron, the then leader of the opposition, said: “It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money, and it’s time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB – general well-being”. To his credit, Cameron saw through his initiative and the Measuring National Well-being Programme was created. Interestingly it shows that reported personal well-being in the UK has improved every year since 2012, when data was first collected. This suggests that an increasing number of people in the UK are feeling positive about their lives.
But how do we increase the happiness in our lives? Well, an evidence-based approach called positive psychology suggests that it has the answers.
Dr Martin Seligman, often referred to as the founder of positive psychology, thinks that there are changes that we can make to find a greater level of wellbeing in our lives. Seligman originally promoted the idea of positive psychology in 1988 during his time as president of the American Psychological Association. Since then tens of millions of dollars have been spent on research and development into the subject.
At its core, positive psychology is the study of human flourishing. As Seligman says it is the “scientific study of optimal human functioning [that] aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive”. It differs from many other areas of psychology in that it focuses on personal growth rather than on treating mental illness.
Research Into Happiness
So what does the research tell us about what factors can affect our happiness?
- Age – Research shows that we get happier the older we get, apart from during our midlife period (between the ages of 40-50).
- Gender – Research suggests that men are happier than women, although men and women differ in how they define happiness.
- Personal Finances – Research suggests that money ceases to increase levels of happiness after a person makes over $75,000 a year (about £53,000), and that people overestimate the influence of wealth by 100%.
- Education and Intelligence – research suggests that happiness isn’t increased if we have a good education or a high IQ level.
- Parenthood – research is mixed on the merits of parenthood on increasing happiness. Some research shows that couples are less satisfied after the birth of their first child and that parents prefer doing almost anything else other than looking after their children. However, self-reports of happiness completed by parents are higher than those of non-parents.
- Marriage – the research strongly suggests that married people are happier than single people. Interestingly, married people’s happiness is also closely linked to the happiness of their spouses.
- Social ties – Having strong social bonds through family and friends can increase happiness levels.
- Weather – Research suggests that living in a sunny area doesn’t make us happier.
- Religion – people who are religious are known to have better emotional wellbeing. However, this might be due to higher levels of social interaction as a result of being part of a religious organisation.
- Political views – Studies show that on average conservatives are happier than liberals. This is attributed to conservatives having a greater acceptance of income inequalities.
So, what does make us happier?
Seligman has developed a wellbeing theory which has 5 elements which are incorporated into the mnemonic PERMA. The 5 elements can be seen as ways to actively increase our own happiness and wellbeing. Below I outline the 5 elements and how you can apply them into your daily life.
As obvious as it sounds experiencing and enjoying positive emotions such as gratitude, satisfaction, hope, or love increases our wellbeing. However, it is also recognised that very often things or events that can lead to increased happiness can often be short lived. For example, research into lottery winners shows that 12 months after their win they were no happier than they were before. Some research suggests that only events within the last 3 months can increase happiness.
What do you enjoy doing most? What makes you happy? Work out what gives you pleasure and start doing more of it. If you are not experiencing positive emotions often enough try to work out why. Think about the things you enjoy doing, whether in your personal or professional life. For example, find opportunities to use your talents and your strengths more often; enjoy the company of friends; go to the theatre; go to the lake district and enjoy the scenery.
Sometimes described as flow, engagement is when we are so immersed in a task that we lose track of time. We become completely absorbed in the job at hand, enjoying the task for its own sake. The activity being done needs to be sufficiently challenging to stretch our skills and abilities. Good examples of moments of flow might include playing a musical instrument, playing a sport or an interesting project at work.
Think about the tasks that you do that require skill and effort. The tasks that are challenging but achievable based upon your skills set. Think about the things that are you are passionate about. Think about how engrossed you become while you are doing it, to the point where your focus is absolute and everything else fades into the background.
Perhaps there are even tasks where you are so engaged you experience a feeling bliss or even ecstasy. Perhaps there are things you do at work that totally engross you or hobbies and sports that you are love doing. If you can’t think of anything consider things you have done in the past that you enjoyed or think about new skills that you could develop.
Relationships are vital in building positive emotions, whether through friendships, family or work colleagues. Humans are social animals and we thrive when building relationships with others. Indeed research shows that people who are socially isolated are more at risk of depression.
Think about your social network, the people who are important in your life and make a concerted effort to reach out to them as often as possible. For example, pick up the phone and ring your parents or children, take a friend out for a meal or arrange a team-building activity with work colleagues.
Meaning comes from serving a cause bigger than our ourselves. Whether through religion, humanitarian or environmental endeavours, having a purpose and meaning in life is shown to increase our wellbeing. Having a meaning to our lives is shown to be more fulfilling than the pursuit of pleasure or material wealth. Finding meaning in life is about learning that there is something greater than you.
What causes, beliefs or values are important to you? How can you strive to actively work towards those ideals? Perhaps your religion is important to you, or a concern for the environment, or a charitable cause that you feel strongly about. Seek opportunities to get involved in causes you believe in, join organisations that represent your values, volunteer to promote beliefs you are passionate about.
Having realistic goals in our life and the ambition to achieve them offers us a sense of accomplishment, pride or satisfaction. This element is about the pursuit of success and mastery for its own worth. Whether it is through mastering a new skill, winning a competition or completing a qualification our accomplishments help us to thrive and flourish.
What are your goals? What do you hope to achieve in both your personal and professional life? Consider the skills you want to master, whether it is learning to sing, improving your sporting performance or artistic ability. Perhaps you could spend some time mapping out your career goals, whether it is to get better at your job, get a new job or to gain a promotion. Perhaps you have an urge to take up a new practical hobby such as woodwork, knitting or gardening.
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