Pathways To Happiness | The Psychology Company
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Pathways to Happiness

| Pathways to Happiness | The Psychology Company

Pathways to Happiness

March 20th is International Happiness Day. Happiness is by its nature elusive. It is an emotion and like all emotions it comes and goes and nobody’s happy all the time, despite what social media may have you believe. In fact due to the brain’s negativity bias we are more prone to emotions such as anxiety and anger than we are to happiness, as mother nature really only cares about survival and reproduction-not wellbeing!  But psychologists do care about wellbeing and there has been growing interest over the last two decades on how we can help people experience more happiness, joy and contentment in their lives. This isn’t to suggest we should go through life always feeling happy (we couldn’t even if we tried) but we can actively try to cultivate happiness so that we can at least experience a little more of it.

 

Cultivating happiness hasn’t traditionally been the focus of Psychology. As a Counselling Psychologist I often work with people struggling with difficult emotions like anxiety, despair and anger. Psychotherapists and Psychologists, especially Clinical and Counselling Psychologists,  are trained in helping people overcome pain and suffering. However, about 25 years ago Psychology Professor Marty Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, realised that Psychology could not only focus on the causes of suffering and how to help people heal but also explore what enhances life and how to help people embrace a really good life. Dr Seligman’s research laid the foundation for ‘happiness science’ or ‘positive psychology’ which is now a huge discipline within psychology.  He describes Positive Psychology using the acronym PERMA which are the five things that positive psychologists measure and build.

    • Positive emotions; happiness, rapture, contentment. 
    • Engagement; being in a state of flow and are completely engaged in something.
    • Relationships; good friendships and partnerships.
    • Mattering; how much you matter, how much would you be missed if you weren’t around. M has traditionally been construed as meaning which has been defined as belonging to and serving something bigger than you but Marty has recently changed his mind on this and feels mattering is more at the heart of wellbeing.
    • Accomplishment; developing mastery, competence and achievement.

 

Let’s focus on the P for positive emotions and specifically happiness. Have you ever thought that if you found the right partner, secured that great job, had a baby, lost weight, got really fit, became wealthy then you would be happier? Well research tells us that this is a myth and life circumstances such as these contribute only around 10% to our happiness! There is one significant caveat I want to give to this which is if you live in a war zone, or live in poverty or live in an abusive relationship then that is going to make you very unhappy. So when we talk about 10% of happiness being impacted by life circumstances we are talking about people who are not in these dire situations. So what about the remaining 90%? Research suggests around 50% of our subjective experience of happiness is genetic and that we each have a kind of set point for happiness. But if we are unlucky and have a genetic predisposition that leans us more towards unhappiness then don’t be defeated as around 40% of our happiness is thought to be under our individual control which is great news as this means we can do things to cultivate happiness.

 

So let’s think about the roughly 40% slice of the pie and what we can do to cultivate our own happiness. Here I want to break happiness down into its two component parts; hedonic well being and eudaimonic well being. I am sure all of you have enjoyed a meal out with your friends at some point which is an example of hedonic well being. Hedonic well-being refers to a form of well-being primarily focused on the pursuit and experience of pleasure. It emphasizes the subjective feelings of happiness, joy, contentment, and satisfaction derived from pleasurable activities, experiences, and circumstances. Eudaimonic well-being on the other hand emphasizes the realization of one’s true potential, flourishing, and living in accordance with one’s values and virtues. If you have ever comforted a crying child in the early hours of the morning this probably didn’t give you much hedonic pleasure but may have given rise to eudaimonic well being which is more about meaning and fulfillment. Both hedonic and eudaimonic well-being can contribute to overall happiness, but they represent different paths to achieving it. In many cases, a balanced approach that incorporates elements of both hedonic and eudaimonic well-being may lead to the highest levels of happiness and life satisfaction. There are probably hundreds of practices that can help cultivate happiness so if you are a happiness seeker then I would suggest trying some and see if it helps you as there is no one size fits all. Unfortunately I can’t cover all the practices so if, after reading this blog, you want to get going on cultivating more happiness I would suggest trying either a kindness or gratitude practice. Practicing gratitude and kindness can contribute to both hedonic and eudaimonic happiness, but they tend to align more closely with eudaimonic well-being due to their emphasis on deeper aspects of fulfillment and meaning in life.

 

Kindness is characterized by thoughtful actions and words such as holding the door open for someone, donating blood or giving someone a compliment and it has an upbeat cheerful friendly quality to it. Research shows that practicing acts of kindness one day a week for four weeks or longer increases levels of happiness. While performing acts of kindness can undoubtedly bring about feelings of joy and fulfillment in the moment (hedonic well-being), they also contribute to eudaimonic well-being by fostering positive relationships, promoting a sense of connection to others and the community, and aligning with values such as compassion and altruism. By engaging in acts of kindness,you can experience a deeper sense of purpose and meaning in life as you contribute to the well-being of others and make a positive impact on the world around you. Kindness also has effects beyond happiness, for example one study showed acts of kindness led to down regulation of pro inflammatory genes. Another study with children showed acts of kindness led to kids becoming more popular with their classmates even when the acts of kindness were done outside of the classroom. However, one note of caution about practicing kindness…If you are already someone who gives a lot to others, especially if you sometimes sacrifice your own needs for others, then I would suggest trying another practice-maybe gratitude. 

 

Gratitude is the practice of acknowledging and appreciating the positive aspects of one’s life, including experiences, relationships, and personal circumstances. It involves recognizing the blessings, benefits, and acts of kindness received from others or from life in general, and feeling thankful for them. Gratitude is not only an emotion but also a mindset and a way of viewing the world with appreciation and thankfulness. Lots of studies have found that if you practice gratitude either by counting your blessings or writing and expressing gratitude is an antidote to taking things for granted and can neutralize negative emotions. And while gratitude can certainly lead to immediate feelings of pleasure and happiness (hedonic well-being), it also fosters a deeper sense of connection, purpose, and meaning in life (eudaimonic well-being) by helping you focus on what truly matters to you and fostering a sense of appreciation for the richness of your experiences. If you want to try and cultivate a sense of gratitude you could try keeping a gratitude journal, start and end your day with gratitude or expressing your gratitude to others.

 

I am sure we all agree that happiness is a great thing but a word of caution as I draw my reflections to a close. Pursuing happiness directly will lead to unhappiness! If you tightly monitor happiness by asking yourself ‘how happy am I’? all the time this will lead to unhappiness. However it is helpful to have an intentional aspect to cultivating happiness born out of valuing your own wellbeing. So what to do with this seeming contradiction?  Pursue happiness indirectly by breaking happiness down into its elements which include spiritual (e.g. meditate), physical (e.g. exercise), intellectual (e.g. learn new things), relational (e.g. be kind to people), emotional (e.g. gratitude practice) and pursue those elements.

 

I know life can bring about all sorts of physical, emotional and social pain but I hope that each and every one of you can also experience lasting moments of happiness. I wish you luck in your endeavour to cultivate more of it!