5 Easy Steps Towards A Happier You in 20209 January 2017 Categories: Happiness Well-being
Ask yourself this: “what kind of life would I wish for my children ?”
Many people would wish for a life filled with qualities such as happiness, fulfilment, contentment, love, achievement, personal growth, health or maybe friendship. Even though these are the elements of what a ‘good’ life may mean to us, we spend precious little time considering how to achieve them. After all, can you remember the last time you practised your ‘contentedness’ skills ? So for ease, let’s bring all of these elements together in the word ‘Well-being’. And if ‘well-being’ is what we want out of life, then surely there are some advantages to learning how to improve it ? Most of our formal learning takes place at school, and yet schools focus on passing exams for success in the workplace, rather than learning how to live happily. Similarly, if ‘well-being’ is what we want out of life then should we be electing governments who improve national well-being ? Imagine how different the world could be if governments placed the well-being of their people at the heart of their policies.
In his book ‘Flourish’ (2011) Dr Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, suggests that there are five key elements of ‘well-being’ for us:
Positive Emotions – the level to which we experience feelings of joy, love, happiness, optimism etc.
Engagement – how interested and passionate we are about the things we do in our lives – how readily we get ‘into the flow’
Relationships – how well we are able to give and receive love and build supportive relationships around us
Meaning – our strength of belief in a higher purpose or meaningful cause
Accomplishment – the dedication we show towards mastery, achievement & success
Let’s explore each of these 5 elements, consider the part that each plays in our ‘flourishing’, and offer some easy, practical ways to develop each one.
Do you know someone who seems to enjoy being permanently negative or critical ? They are usually the people who complain that it’s too cold in Winter and that it’s too hot in Summer. If they won the Euro-millions lottery, they would complain that the cheque was too big to hold. It is surprising how much negativity we create or fuel, and this potentially sets us up for anxiety, stress or depression. This trend has intensified with the growth of social media, the use of which has been linked to increasing depression in teenagers (Primack et al, University of Pittsburgh 2016). Contrast this to the benefits of positivity and optimism. In 2001 a study of Nuns was published. Starting back in the 1930s each nun had written a journal, around the age of 22, describing their calling, a short biography and their life experiences. The journals were examined for positive and negative words. The researchers then looked at mortality rates of the nuns many years later. Surprisingly the nuns who had written journals with more optimism and positive language lived longer than the nuns who had used negative or critical language.
So without being overly cheerful every waking minute of the day, in a fake and annoying way, how could we experience more positivity on a regular basis ?
Try this: at the end of every day, for 1 week, consider What-Went-Well today. Before you climb into bed write down three things that went well for you. Maybe your friend bought you a coffee to say ‘thanks for listening’. Maybe your partner got a promotion. Maybe you negotiated a great deal on a new car. For each of the three WWW’s write down why this good thing happened. Perhaps your friend bought you that coffee because you took the time to listen when others didn’t. Perhaps your partner got the promotion partly because you supported them. Perhaps you got that great deal on a car because you were pleasantly assertive in asking for it. Then finally write down how you could get some more of this good thing. For example, by taking more time to listen to your friends in their time of need, or being pleasantly assertive the next time you need to negotiate.
By training ourselves to literally ‘count our blessings’ every day, we start to unlock and develop the positive emotions that are linked to the fundamental human value of gratitude.
In his book ‘Flourish’, Dr Martin Seligman explains that Engagement is the level of interest and enthusiasm we have for what we do in our lives. This engagement could come from loving our job, a love of learning something new, or from our hobbies and leisure activities. Being ‘Engaged’ feels like you are in the ‘flow’ or in the ‘zone’, and comes about when your level of skill and ability fully meets the challenge before you.
Want to find something new to get Engaged in ?
Try this: Create a goal for yourself – perhaps something that will require you to learn a new skill or achieve something challenging. Maybe you always wanted to dance, maybe learning a new language would interest you, maybe signing up for a physical challenge. Step out of your comfort zone into your stretch zone, sign up and make it happen ! This approach requires some willpower, but brings many benefits – the feeling I enjoy the most is having something new and exciting to tell friends when they ask: “so what are you up to these days ?”
Already got something you’re passionate about ?
Try this: Scientists have proved that doing an act of kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase of well-being of any exercise they have tested. We sometimes lose sight of this in our busy lives, but other people hold the key to the best antidote to the downs of life, and provide the single most reliable up. Giving your time, sharing the benefit of your experience with others and using your skills for the benefit of others is a reliable way to feel better about oneself. How could you give your skills and time to help others ? As a keen cyclist I was looking for a way of giving something back to my community. I found Open Country, a charity devoted to helping those with a disability to access the countryside. I became a volunteer at their weekly tandem cycling club helping disabled people to enjoy cycling. Win / Win – I get to ride bikes AND do a good turn. Acts of kindness are the fast-track to a sense of well-being !
Positive relationships are essential to our well-being. I once met a lovely person who had been in a toxic relationship – she explained the period of low self-confidence and low self-esteem that was the result of subtle and prolonged pressure that her partner had placed on her. Restrictions that squashed her personal liberty and made her forget who she really was. This was a low point in her well-being. She bravely ditched the relationship and bounced back, wiser and stronger than before. The healthiest relationships are those where each person supports the other to be the best they can be – not turning them into someone else.
Want to build healthier relationships ? :
The Losada Ratio (Marcel Losado, 2005) suggests that we can build better relationships by looking at how we communicate with the people around us. Researchers recorded conversations between people in flourishing and challenging relationships and discovered that people in flourishing relationships, on average, said 5 positive statements for every 1 negative statement. That’s a ratio of 5:1. If the ratio reaches 11:1 then the positivity becomes over-done and insincere. Any fewer than 3:1 and the relationship may become rocky. Give it a try with the people in your life – it could also help you to develop a more positive mind-set. The Losada ratio principle could also help you to personally assess your own communication style – whether you criticise and correct weaknesses or build others’ strengths.
This ingredient to greater ‘well-being’ is all about the big cause or inspiration in our lives. A link has been discovered between people who have a higher cause, spirituality, or a sense of life purpose, and their greater sense of well-being. This is brought to life in the film ‘Field Of Dreams’ as Kevin Costner is called to build a baseball ground for a higher purpose. Since the evolution of early man, Spirituality has brought people many positive emotions – hope, trust, faith, peace, joy, forgiveness, compassion. All of these contribute to a sense of well-being. And yet it doesn’t have to be about Spirituality – it could just as easily be your passion for protecting the environment, or volunteering for a worthwhile charity.
Want to develop more Meaning in your life ? Try This:
It’s a bit morbid this one, but try writing your own obituary. What would you like to be remembered for when you’re gone ? It can be quite enlightening. From personal experience, this activity made me realise that I didn’t want an obituary that read “Simon worked 50 hours-a-week his whole life to deliver 98% availability, doing a job he disliked intently”. Instead I wanted my obituary to read: “Simon was a happy, wise and loving father and husband who made a difference to the people around him”. And there it was… the moment of realisation that I wanted a more fulfilling job, and I needed to regain my happiness. Have a go at yours and see what happens !
I often wonder why humans have more of an innate desire to achieve things than other species on planet Earth. We don’t hear David Attenborough describing how sloths have been working on faster climbing methods !? And yet, whether it’s a revolutionary new design, developing pioneering treatments, or sporting world records, there seems to be a strong part of us that desires the sensation of accomplishing something meaningful. I see this in most people I meet – friends who love competitive bike racing and neighbours who climb mountains, just for the enjoyment of accomplishing something that challenges them. These achievements help us to feel satisfied and proud because of the discomfort or dedication that the task has required us to overcome. I have also witnessed that, in our lowest moments, people often forget many of their accomplishments and unique talents. Remembering our personal accomplishments, and recalling instances of dedication or triumph, is a powerful antidote to depression.
To develop your well-being with a greater sense of Accomplishment, try this:
LIST OF PRIDE: throughout this year, regularly note down all of the things that you are pleased with yourself for achieving. It doesn’t have to be a big achievement to get onto your List Of Pride, but you should feel like it is genuinely something you did that you’re proud of. Try and be specific about which bit of the achievement you are especially pleased about. For an extra boost, next to each item on your list describe the skills that you demonstrated to achieve it. Reviewing your list in times of low self-esteem or at the end of the year can help you remember your strengths and re-connect with the more confident ‘you’ from an earlier time.
RE-LIVE THE HIGHLIGHTS: positive psychologist Martin Seligman suggests this technique can be used in two ways. Firstly, in re-living our own moments of pride and success in order that we cement our own feelings of self-confidence by re-connecting to a strong version of ourselves in our moment of success. Secondly, Seligman recommends that we help others to re-live their own moments of triumph in more detail. For example, parents will often praise their children for a sporting success, but he recommends that we engage with them in a more detailed run through of that exact moment: “so talk me through how you scored that winning goal !” “Who else in the team was there with you” “How did you get past their defense” “where did you take the shot from” etc. Seligman’s research on this tells us that re-living these moments helps others to have a stronger connection with, and recall of, the powerful confidence emotions attached. This builds more resilience to stress and depression.
In summary, the 5 elements of ‘well-being’ can be developed with some simple activities, to enhance our happiness and build stronger resilience. In today’s commercial world, the current treatment of depression and stress (which are predicted to be the world’s most widespread illnesses in the future) is with drugs that purely reduce the symptoms. The symptoms are removed but nothing is put in its place to avoid re-occurrence. Positive Psychology focuses on re-programming our thinking with more positive patterns so that the reliance on medicine can be minimised. These improvements are more sustainable, and have greater long term success.
For a friendly informal chat about how to develop more Well-being and Resilience for you or your team further please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Simon Thomas (DHypPsych. CIPD ISMA)