An experiment in happiness: “Be the change you want to see in the world”
I began this year in the fortunate position of being ahead of the curve as I had just completed Tim LeBon’s 10 week positive psychologycourse at City University. This meant that in January I could skip the articles and forget the usual New Year resolutions we all beat ourselves up about in February for having already abandoned, as I was already armed with everything I needed to carry out my own happiness experiment in 2012.
The positive psychology course could have been subtitled “10 weeks to happiness” as most of the participants had made significant improvements to their happiness levels by the end of the 10 weeks. We left armed with a range of simple tools and interventions which, if mastered and used regularly, can have a very positive impact on your life. When I began the course in October I was in a similar position to many of the other students in that I had done some reading on the subject of positive psychology but had not put a great deal of what I had read into practice – the course proved to be the catalyst for change which we all needed.
The course was a great mixture of gaining an academic understanding of the current principles and theories of positive psychology (a relatively new branch of psychology begun in 1998 by Professor Martin Seligman) and of having the opportunity to apply these ideas in our personal and working lives.
I have always been interested in the theories and benefits of optimum nutrition, popularised by Patrick Holford. This is a way of living a life of optimum physical health by taking personal responsibility for one’s own physical well-being through lifestyle and nutrition choices rather than abdicating responsibility to health practioners. Positive psychology, in my view, gives us the opportunity to achieve optimum mental health and the resilience to bounce back from life’s challenges without resorting to a medically prescribed “happy pill”. In the same way as optimum physical health is not merely the absence of illness, optimum mental health is not merely the absence of negative emotions or depression. Both theories aim to help us achieve a similar outcome – a life in which we are positively flourishing and thriving and living life to the full.
We initially looked at the “happiness formula” formulated by Professor Seligman and his team which is:
Sonja Lyubomirsky, contains 12 practical happiness inducing activities which are simple to implement. The book also demonstrated that having the possibility to influence our happiness levels by 40% is hugely significant. The pessimists on the course were secretly thinking that if we can only influence our happiness levels by 40% it is not worth trying!
The second book was “Positivity” by Barbara Fredrickson which illustrates that even those who are genetically pre-determined to be die-hard pessimists can improve their positivity ratio by using her broaden and build theory and by focusing on achieving the crucial tipping point of 3 to 1 positive versus negative experiences. One of the first interventions we were asked to complete on the course was to write a daily gratitude journal of three good things and to focus on how your behaviour caused the positive thing. I have realised that when you appreciate what you have, what you have appreciates in value. I now not only practice this personally every day but have introduced this positive intervention in my workplace as well.
Other topics we covered looked at 3 different routes to happiness; the pleasant life (a hedonistic approach in which temporary pleasures can elate us for a while but as we quickly habituate ourselves to them their effect diminishes), the engaged life (made up of flow experiences which use our signature strengths) and a meaningful life (in which we have a sense of purpose and connectedness and use our signature strengths in the service of something that you believe is larger than you are).
I was in a similar position to many other students in that taking a hedonistic approach to life presented me with no particular problems. However I had always had a nagging doubt at the back of my mind that there had to be a scientific explanation to the fact that the first cup of coffee in the morning always made me much happier than any subsequent cups. I have always tried to live a meaningful life and giving back to communities less fortunate than ourselves (particularly the bottom billion in Africa) is hugely important to me and a great source of pleasure.
However I gained 3 important insights from this topic. The first one was that although I was familiar with the concept of “flow”, having read Mihály Csikszentmihály’s book on the subject, I had not chosen to put this in to practice in my daily life and did not always live an engaged life. The second insight was the concept of signature strengths, a completely new concept to me, which illustrates how we can become significantly happier by focusing on our strengths. Having previously always focused on my weaknesses, this was a revelation. Once you have taken the easy strengths tests which are available online (see links below), you can think of ways to use your signature strengths in different ways and situations. The third insight was the importance of making giving personal. I became a convert to the idea of acts of kindness practiced at a very personal level (another of our interventions from class) and was inspired to watch the film “Pay it forward”. I have now set up an Acts of Kindness challenge in my workplace and try to think of little things I can do on a daily basis to “Pay it forward”, such as leaving a surprise bunch of flowers for my dog walker as an extra thank you.
We also looked at the concepts of hope, optimism and luck and at the importance of having a positive explanatory style in relation to the situations and events which life throws at us. We focused on how optimists are capable of seeing good things as permanent, pervasive and personal and bad things as temporary, specific and temporary whereas pessimists do the opposite. Optimism can be learned and your explanatory style can be worked at.
The concept of hope and the importance of perseverance and taking the long view were brought home to me by watching “Shawshank’s Redemption” a film recommended on the course. I also read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” and learned that if you can survive the horrors of concentration camp life and still be hopeful and optimistic about the human race, then everything is possible. This quote from the book was really enlightening:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose - one's own way”.
The concept of luck as a route to happiness was not something I had previously considered, but reading Richard Wiseman’s “The Luck Factor” which demonstrates that there are 12 key principles which affect our luck and that we are all in control of these 12 principles. I recently started putting one of the first principles in to practice, “lucky people build and maintain a strong network of luck”. This basically means that the bigger your network, the more opportunities come your way, so it is a great idea to constantly think of new ways to meet people. It is not about having hundreds of “friends” on Facebook but having a network of friends and contacts with whom you are on first name terms. As a practical example I recently moved house and decided to invite all my new neighbours to a “Pot Luck” party as a way of getting to know people quickly. Many of them who had lived there for years said that they had never met their neighbours! I am applying one principle of this book each month both in my personal life and at work. The principles can also be found on this website if you do not have time to read the book: http://www.theluckfactor.com/
Other aspects of the course which I will be focusing on in 2012 are lessons about savouring, mindfulness and meditation which we practised briefly in class. This made me aware how little we live in the present and how important it is to master this skill if we want to be happy. I will be signing up for a course on Mindfulness in the near future and intend putting this in to practice in my daily life. We also learned about the significant role which positive relationships play in our happiness and of the importance of emotional intelligence in our overall well-being. These are concepts which I will be studying further now that the course is over.
10 weeks is, of course, only a short period of study and I would not claim to have mastered all the concepts we were taught or indeed to have put everything in to practice yet. It is now a month since the course finished and I still feel that I derived so much personal benefit from the course that I want to both continue studying and applying positive psychology more deeply and to continue to pass my knowledge (limited though it is at this stage) on to others. I am implementing the teachings in my personal and work life and am already reaping the benefits.
I have never previously struggled with being hopeful about the future, but I have at times struggled with being optimistic about today. Above all this is what Tim LeBon’s 10 week positive psychology course has taught me; that if we want to change our happiness levels we have to make that change happen. To quote Mahatma Gandhi “Be the change you want to see in the world”. If you would like to learn more, I would recommend you look at the course reading list as a starting point, sign up for the next 10 week course and start to take massive action. Try out your own happiness experiment and this time next year you could be ahead of the curve too.
My personal top 10 lessons from the course
1. Be grateful and keep a positive attitude
2. Take the long view - post-traumatic growth is possible
3. Be kind and make generosity personal
4. Always stay inspired
5. Focus on strengths and use them creatively
6. Share knowledge about positive psychology
7. Never stop learning but take MASSIVE action
8. Be hopeful about the future and optimistic about today
9. Meet new people, try new experiences, learn new skills and get involved
10. Make a difference and be the change you want to see in the world.
Course Reading List:
Used with permission from Michael Noyes