Recently, I met my mentor, Professor Alan Carr of the psychology department at UCD to talk about his new book Positive Psychology and You: A Self-Development Guide.
This book makes accessible the most up-to-date research on positive psychology and how it can be used in everyday life. There is a lot of hype about positive psychology that you have probably come across in the media. The message seems to be that you can use positive psychology to be blissfully happy all the time.
We would all love this, but Prof. Carr said in no uncertain terms that permanent bliss is a pipe dream. It's never going to happen and I agree. However, research on positive psychology shows that we could all do things to make us feel a bit happier, and improve the quality of our lives.
3 things that create happiness
These are genetic factors, our environment and what we do:
- Genetic factors: including the sort of nervous system we are born with. These factors contribute about 50% to our overall happiness, once our basic needs for food and shelter are met,
- Environmental factors contribute about 10% to our feeling of happiness. They include the amount of money we have and the sort of housing we live in and so forth.
- What we do or intentional activities create the other 40% of our happiness, so there is a lot we can do to increase our happiness.
Variety is the spice of life
A lot of research has focused on the sorts of things that make people feel more positive emotions. For example, mindfully savouring good food, beautiful scenery, or wonderful music; or reminiscing about great achievements, successes or celebrations.
This research shows that doing this regularly can boost happiness. The most positive effects occur when a variety of savouring exercises are used, rather than sticking to the same one every day. That is, studies confirm that variety is the spice of life!
Velcro & Teflon
The effects of savouring are temporary. This is because evolution has designed our brains to be Velcro for negative emotions and Teflon for positive emotions. For our prehistoric ancestors, prolonged strong negative emotions in response to danger, and brief positive emotions in response to the good things in life were essential adaptations for survival.
Humans who responded to the world in this way survived because they took great pains to avoid danger, and to persistently pursue the good things such as food, shelter, sex and productive social groups. Because evolution has wired our brains this way, with savouring, all we can hope for is to marginally prolong our experiences of positive emotions.
Another aspect of well-being is deep engagement in activities, like work or sport, that require a lot of skill and where mastery of these activities brings satisfaction and reward. This experience of doing an absorbing activity that challenges us to use our skills to the limit of our ability is called flow.
You may experience flow, for example, playing tennis or doing woodwork, or whatever skilled activities you really enjoy to the limit of your ability. When we experience flow, often we are unaware of ourselves or our emotional state, but afterwards, we enjoy the warm afterglow of the flow experience.
Gratitude & optimism
These have been extensively researched in positive psychology. Gratitude involves consciously taking a positive perspective on the past, while with optimism, we take a positive perspective on the future.
Research on these mindsets shows two main things. If we consciously set aside time every day to recall or write down in detail good things, however small, that occurred, then this will boost our well-being. It’s important to recall these good things for which we are grateful in sufficient detail to re-experience the positive emotions we felt when they occurred.
Taking an optimistic view of the future supports well-being, but only if the risks associated with doing this are low. So it’s good for our well-being to be optimistic about things like how other people will treat us today. It’s bad for our well-being to be optimistic about high-risk situations, like thinking it will be safe to drive through a red light when we are in a hurry.
There are so many more insights from Positive Psychology and You: A Self-Development Guide to talk about, so I will revisit Prof. Carr and his book soon.