I’m digging deeper into Positive Psychology by reading Martin Seligman’s book Flourish. And I’ve been revisiting the work of Tal Ben-Shahar and his work on the science of happiness. There’s so much to this field that I’m becoming highly attuned to, and it’s getting me thinking.
The thing about this field of work is that much like the rest of psychology, the evidence for the insights is steeped in research. There have been multitude of experiments carried out to actually ‘test’ if certain things actually improve wellbeing and happiness.
Things like asking people to reflect on their day versus asking people to reflect on #3goodthings of their day. Reflection in and of itself is a useful technique to help you think about what happened in your day. Asking people to reflect specifically on three things that went well creates a sense of enjoyment in your day and a positive emotion linked to that. Done over a period of time, people who carry out normal journalling and reflecting, report no better improved wellbeing, whereas those who write their #3goodthings report increased feelings of positivity and happiness.
It seems obvious, but how many of us truly take the time to reflect on things that are going well? I find it incredibly hard to put into practise and can easily take for granted the things that went well. Articulating it, and writing it down helps cultivate a sense of optimism and hope for things improving and continually being better.
Things like how we cultivate better relationships. Through analyses of conversations between different types of relationships, we know that with your co-workers if you are sharing 3 positive comments for every 1 negative comment, you’re likely to have a healthy relationship with them. In your personal life, that ratio moves to 5:1 because of the bond between couples. What we also know is that moving below those numbers, and moving in the opposite direction of those ratios means that the relationships are likely to be negative and in most cases destructive. If the ratio moves higher in the positive, this suggests the relationships are hiding truths about the reality of working together or being with your partner.
Again it’s one of those things where we might think – yeah that makes sense, but how much conscious thought do we put to these things? After some point, most couples will start to fall into places of comfort with each other, and frustrations and annoyances get shared. It’s when those become more prevalent that the importance of being kind to partners can get lost. The same is true of workplace relationships – when annoyances become gossip become private conversations, goodwill gets lost and we stop being kind to each other.
Things like identifying your signature strengths and seeking out ways to put these into practise in a determined and clear way. Or looking back on activities or events and reflecting on how your strengths were at play during those times. When we play to our strengths, we often complete an activity feeling enthused, positive, ready to try again, and even invincible. You should check out http://www.authentichappiness.org where you can do an online free test to see what your strengths are.
We definitely don’t do this enough. As David D’Souza has commented, when we get to work we experience the reverse Superman effect. As we pass through the doors of being at work, we stop being our best selves, and become these automatons who are there to fulfil a job description and nothing more. Or when we’re undergoing an appraisal, the focus for many people seems to be about what’s not going well and areas for development are made the focus opposed to highlighting and truly celebrating achievements and positive outcomes.
Which is odd because we talk about performance management and identifying talent and coaching the high potentials, yet we’re rarely selecting people on the basis of their strengths. It’s often done on the basis of workplace competencies. We may have hired a person for their strengths, but at some point we will have said or implied ‘no sorry, your strengths are now getting in the way and we need you to just do this’.
Things like helping people build their resilience. When people feel equipped to deal with what comes their way, when they’re not being beaten down by the work or by people (metaphorically and literally), when they really understand how to ‘roll with the punches’, that’s when people can be their best. In a workshop recently a manager shared a reflection on how the previous eight months had been particularly trying but she can look back and sees a strength in her character for having experienced it, and for where she sees herself now. That’s an amazing example of resiliency and the capability and capacity for having that resiliency.
When we have this, through support networks, through friends, through communities, through effective training, through engagement, through inclusion, that’s when we feel special and we feel right. That’s when nothing can beat us down and everything is doable. Yet the focus tends to be “just get on with it, find your own way of dealing with stuff”. We’re passed that now. Or we should be.
Is it disingenuous to search out happiness? There are a good many people who will argue that you can’t artificially create happiness and that it has to be authentic. That doing things like the above creates a formula for activity which isn’t human and isn’t natural. Cobblers.
Is it disingenuous to cultivate happiness? I don’t believe it is. There’s a lot in life to present reality, to be cynical about, to feel downtrodden over, to hate, to resent, to just be negative over. Meaningfully doing things to notice and cultivate happiness means we help ourselves to build our own resilience and improve our wellbeing. If that feels disingenuous, then it is. If that feels like a worthwhile thing to do, then it totally is.