I consider myself a positive psychologist. Not really sure what that means, but ever since I did a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology I felt like I found my niche. I believe pursuing well-being and happiness and flourishing are a valid goal in life. While alleviating pain and disease is important for a good life, for psychology I’m dubious as to whether alleviating disease is the only route towards increasing well-being and experiencing happiness.
Having said all of this I’m not completely convinced that happiness and well-being as most people conceptualize it is always attainable. First let’s define happiness, I think the most common definition is experiencing positive emotions. According to the Greater Good Science Center Magazine happiness involves feeling positive generally and about life overall. I’ve come to believe that it’s not always possible to feel positive in general or about life overall.
Life happens, suffering happens, ill-being happens, there’s no getting away from it. After many years of teaching about resilience and happiness, I’ve come to embrace the idea that maybe feeling less bad is a goal that is almost as worthy as feeling happy or experiencing well-being, it is a positive psychology concept. I’m not advocating for feeling less bad all the time, but I am advocating for some self-compassion during those times of difficulty and opting to try and feel less bad. I find myself telling students that if you add up feeling less bad over time, it could feel pretty darn good. Many times feeling less bad is easier to achieve than feeling happy.
Starting today what can you do differently to accept the idea of feeling less bad as good enough? Well first understand what happiness really is, dismystify the concept, most people feel they should just know what happiness is. Next, during those difficult times practice self-compassion. And lastly, plain and simply give yourself permission not to always need to be happy.
We all experience hardship and difficulty in life, what keeps some people upbeat and optimistic while others get down and pessimistic, is their explanatory style.
According to Dr. Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology and leading authority on optimism/pessimism, a person’s explanatory style can lead to optimism or pessimism. A person’s explanatory style refers to how a person explains to themselves the causes of events. A person’s explanatory style lies along three dimensions – permanent/temporary, pervasiveness/localized and personal/external. Pessimists explain negative events as permanent, pervasive and personal. Optimists explain negative events as temporary, localized and external. Let’s break this down.
Permanent refers to how reversible a negative event will be. Will the negative event last forever and/or happen over and over. Or is the negative event time bound and/or be a one shot deal. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you don’t get a promotion. You say to yourself, “I’ll never get promoted” (permanent) vs “I didn’t get promoted this time, thank heavens there’s another review in a few months” (temporary). Whereas the second explanation was temporary, I will have another chance, the first explanation is permanent, I will never get promoted. You went from not getting this promotion to never getting another promotion.
Pervasiveness refers to how many areas of a person’s life the negative event will bleed into or permeate. An example of pervasiveness is when the cake you are baking doesn’t turn out you say to yourself, “I give up I just can’t cook, I’m done” vs “This was a hard recipe, it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, but dinner sure was good.” Do you let the failed caked take all the joy out of every part of your cooking or do you realize that the failed cake means that this one time this one cake didn’t turn out well and has nothing to do with anything else in regard to your cooking.
Personalization refers to how much blame (not responsibility, blame, there’s a difference) a person takes for the negative event. In the failed cake examples above do you say, “I can’t do anything right!” vs “That was a hard recipe, it was a very confusing recipe.” Do you blame yourself or do you realistically acknowledge how hard the recipe was.
Being aware of what you say to yourself, your explanatory style, in the face of adversity is the first step towards becoming a more optimistic person.
The pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human right, the Declaration of Independence says so. The operative word here being pursuit. The Declaration of Independence doesn’t say you are guaranteed to be happy just because…, it says you are guaranteed the right to pursue happiness.
So what is happiness anyway? Before I tell you how happiness is defined, let me first tell you what it isn’t. It’s not marrying prince or princess charming, it isn’t having all the money in the world. Happiness isn’t a destination. You don’t achieve happiness as a permanent state. Happiness isn’t being in a good mood all the time and smiling all the time. It isn’t avoiding upsetting or negative feelings (actually it’s quite the opposite).
So how is happiness defined? According to Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky happiness is defined as a combination of feeling positive emotions and experiencing a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile. I’d say the positive emotions part is pretty self explanatory. So what gives our lives meaning, makes them good and worthwhile? Well, many things give our life meaning and value – organized religion, social support is a big one, service – as in doing for others, goal achieving, among other things. Let me give you an example. For the most part parents believe that children give their lives meaning and value. Children aren’t always a source of positive emotions (to put it mildly) but most parents unequivocally claim that, in the big picture, their children give their lives meaning and value and thus are a great source of happiness.
The last part of Dr. Lyubomirsky’s definition is important because we all engage in activities that, at the moment might not bring us positive emotions, they might not make us happy or bring us joy, however when all is said and done, these activities bring us immense satisfaction and happiness. It is kind of counter intuitive to the idea of happiness and the whole notion of positive emotions as a source of happiness. However, if we are talking about real, lasting happiness this idea is very important. Think about it, when you work really hard on a project that turns out well, you might not feel happy while you are working hard, but when it’s over you feel immense happiness and that happiness lasts for awhile. Same goes for when you exercise, try something new or do anything that challenges you. If being happy is so important, then I believe it is just as important to be aware that the activities that give our lives meaning and value and happiness might not be the same (by a long shot) as the ones that give us immediate positive emotions.
This week I’ve been thinking about hope and optimism. Hope and optimism tend to be used interchangeably therefore I’m going to make life easy and stick to the word hope. Hope is defined as believing the future will be a brighter one and knowing how to make that happen. Research is really clear – hope and psychological well-being are correlated. And I believe that at a time like this, hope is of the utmost importance for our survival, let alone well-being. Having hope is what will get us through!
I want to make something very, very clear. When I talk about hope I’m not talking about blind hope and I’m not talking about ignoring the difficulties in life. This is not an either/or proposition it’s an and proposition. I’m talking about feeling the entire spectrum of feelings AND including hope. However, I’m talking about a realistic hope, one that acknowledges the reality of the situation, enables us to deal with it and looks forward to making the future brighter. Usually this kind of hope is called realistic optimism (remember I’m using the word hope just to make things easier). And has a lot to do with our thoughts (See last weeks posting).
I know these are uncertain times. What’s the future going to look like, will the virus come back, will there be enough testing, will the kids go back to school in the fall, what will that look like, and on and on the uncertainty goes. Even though the future is uncertain it doesn’t mean we can’t have hope. The beauty of hope is, irrespective of what is happening around you, if you are a hopeful person you will always find things to be hopeful about. The beauty of hope is that it can happen during the tough times. Actually, at least for me, when things get tough, is when I am most hopeful. Hope is what gets me up in the morning after having had a bad day – the knowledge and excitement that I can make the new day a better one gives me hope. Remember a lot about being hopeful is what you tell yourself, your thoughts.
The beauty of hope is that since it is a belief in a brighter future and in one’s ability to achieve that future, hope prompts a person to action. And action fosters a sense of self-efficacy and self-control and when we feel self-efficacious and in control we feel good. In other words, put in very simple terms, when you are hopeful you act and when you act you tend to feel better.
So how do we have hope? There are many ways to help yourself be hopeful. Your Best Possible Future Exercise was developed by Laura King and has been proven to substantially increase hope. Hope researcher Shane Lopez says that the best way to be a hopeful person is to have hopeful people in your life, according to him hope is contagious. And last but not least, Action for Happiness does a monthly calendar on actions you can take everyday to increase happiness. Their Optimistic October calendar is full of hopeful ideas.