[Tweet “‘The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.’ Benjamin Franklin”]
A good friend brought me some yellow chrysanthemums for my birthday recently.
It was a large bunch, a complete armful of flowers. It was so large, I separated them into two bunches and put one in my counselling room.
They were not like the small, sanitized selections you get at the local supermarket, cut to size and tailored to fit a vase, but an outrageously higgledy-piggledy bunch of different shapes and sizes. They seemed to explode in all directions from the container in which I placed them like a bright yellow sunburst.
These flowers had an effect on all who saw them and I personally found that, every time I came into the room where they were, my spirits lifted.
I felt happy.
What is happiness?
A little while ago I purchased a copy of ‘The Oxford Handbook of Happiness’
It cost me nearly £100 at the time. It’s a door-stop of a book and cites itself as ‘the definitive text for researchers and practitioners interested in human happiness..’
I’m halfway through and recommend it…but only if you have strong arms!
‘In recent decades there has been a shift in focus from psychological and social problems, what might be called the ‘dark side’ of humanity, to human wellbeing and flourishing.
The positive psychology movement, along with changes in attitudes towards organisational and societal health has generated a surge of interest in human happiness…’
But how do we interpret the notion of ‘happiness’ and what is the ‘recipe’ for happiness?
Like nailing jelly to the wall
Happiness is a nominalisation.It seems to mean different things to different people and, as an ethereal concept, can feel like we are grasping at shadows in trying to pin it down.
Abraham Lincoln even included ‘the pursuit of happiness’ as a legitimate human right in the American Declaration of Independence It is said he held a rather ‘epicurean’ notion of happiness, which has been somewhat misinterpreted over the years as a kind of hedonistic pursuit of status and the American dollar.
=”In fact, for Epicurus, the ‘pleasant life’ was one where abstaining from unnecessary desires achieves an inner tranquillity, or ‘ataraxia’, by being content with the simple things of life, for instance by choosing the pleasure of philosophical conversation with friends over the pursuit of physical pleasures like food and drink.
Lincoln would certainly have been familiar with the writings of this philosopher. So, it seems he was suggesting the recipe for happiness lies in the rejection of the hedonistic acquisition of ‘things’?
Like a lolly with no pop!
Life without happiness is like a lolly with no pop.
We should not, then, feel guilty about putting energy and focus into pursuing it yet many of my clients seem to feel they are not worthy and put the happiness of everyone else before their own. To those I repeat the words of the flight attendant when demonstrating safety routines pre take off;
‘If the oxygen mask should fall down, please place it on your self before helping others.’
Self care is not vanity.
In a week when the UK based mental health charity MIND announced local authorities in England spend an “unacceptably low” amount of money ( just 1.4%) on public mental health, perhaps we should consider effective ways of improving our happiness and well being as a nation.
According to the charity, local authorities plan to spend £76m on increasing physical activity, £160m on anti-smoking initiatives and £671m on sexual health services in 2014/15. This compares with just £40m on public mental health.
At the last Fusion Therapeutic Coaching Diploma work shop, we spent some time considering the recipe for happiness and wellbeing. The subject is central to the model. We have much more control over our present emotional state than we realise. Our mind and body are connected in a giant feedback loop.
When we are happy, we smile and if we smile, we feel happier.
Recently, in the USA Dr Amy Cuddy’s research has established the positive effects of ‘power poses’ on subjective wellbeing. As psychiatrist Milton Ericksoninsightfully observed so many years ago, when he asked his patients to count the chimney pots on the way home, ‘It’s hard to feel down when you look up.’
And what about Oxford-based Professor Russell Foster’s published research on the extraordinary effects of full spectrum light on our feel-good hormone, serotonin, or the benefits of improved oxygen supply to the brain through exercise and ‘eco therapy’?
It looks like we can ‘extract happiness’ from our environment?
But what does this tell us about the happiness state and subjective wellbeing and is depression simply the ‘absence of happiness?’
Getting ‘the recipe’ right
If we consider the ‘recipe’ for happiness, what might it be? What is it we need that will provide the right environment for happiness to flourish?
No one seems to agree. Even governments are intrigued. In Bhutan they do not measure the success of the nation by Gross Domestic Product but by Gross Domestic Happiness, something their prime minister Jigmi Thinley successfully promoted to the United Nations in 2012 who subsequently declared 20 March the
In 2014, the song ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams was even adopted as the anthem for the day and inspired millions of entertaining youtube clips from around the world.
A quick Google search reveals Happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being characterised by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.
The recent book ‘Happiness by Design’ by Professor Paul Dolan, internationally renowned expert on happiness, behaviour and public policy, suggests happiness is about ‘achieving the right balance between pleasure and purpose’.
But is it that simple…?
American psychiatrist and developer of Reality Therapy and Choice Theory, William Glasser (1925 – 2013) suggested we are driven by five genetic needs for survival, love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970) creator of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, proposed a theory of psychological health predicated linked to the fulfillment of our innate human needs.
‘Growth, self-actualization, the striving toward health, the quest for identity and autonomy, the yearning for excellence (and other ways of phrasing the striving “upward”) must by now be accepted beyond question as a widespread and perhaps universal human tendency’ (Maslow, 1954, Motivation and Personality, pp.xii-xiii)
This theory was developed by originators of the Human Givens Institute, Jo Griffen and Ivan Tyrell in their list of emotional needs and which I later interpreted with the mnenomic SAFE SPACE:
Safety, Attention, Family, friends and fun, Emotional intimacy, Status, Privacy, Achievement, Control and Engagement.
Psychologist Martin Seligman asserts happiness is not solely derived from external, momentary pleasures, and provides the acronym PERMA to summarize the view of the Positive Psychology movement about ingredients of a happiness ‘recipe’ as Pleasure, Engagement or flow, Relationships, Meaning and Acomplishments.
The CBT mantra is ‘change the thought, change the feeling.’ They believe if we are unhappy it is because we are thinking incorrectly and we are guilty of ‘cognitive distortion.’ But CBT often ignores context. Simply changing thoughts in a toxic environment is unlikely to increase happiness, if the root of our unhappiness is the dissonance resulting from unmet needs?
Our modern society seems to feel medication is the answer and we can feel happier by popping a ‘happiness pill’. Sadly, this popular notion is based on bad science. When the evidence from published and unpublished trials are considered, it is clear the antidepressants don’t work any better than placebo, have many unfavourable side effects and are beginning to negatively affect the delicately balanced eco system for our insects, birds, fish and animals.
Professor Irving Kirsch of the University of Hull, who led the study published in the online journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) Medicine, said the data submitted to the FDA would also have been submitted to the licensing authorities in Britain and Europe. It showed the drugs produced a “very small” improvement compared with placebo of two points on the 51-point Hamilton depression scale.
And more recent research into mindfulness meditation has found regular practice leads to high activity in the brain’s left prefrontal cortex, which in turn has been found to correlate with happiness.
So what is the pragmatic response to all this back ground information?
What can we do to provide a landscape and subsoil into which we can sow the seeds of happiness?
The wheel of life
The holistic coaching wheel with its sections relating to the major areas of life, is an excellent tool for focusing our attention and making the connection to what of our needs are not being met by our current lifestyle.
Using the wheel, we can also wonder about what a future happy life might look like by posing the question:
‘If you could have anything in the future and failure was not a possibility, what would make you happy?’
Working with a coach is an ideal way to firm up the picture by looking at the 8 key life areas, but it is also something you can do alone with the right prompts and questions.
We can get so many of our innate needs met from our working environment, by having work we find meaningful, rewarding and fulfilling.
Bearing in mind many of us spend a considerable amount of time at work, it’s a good idea to focus on your job and career and wonder ‘Is this what I really want to do?’
If you could have any job or any career, what would that be? Are there dreams and aspirations from your past which you had boxed up and put away on the shelf?
If you could have the perfect year at work, what would that look like? Break it down. Make a list of goals. Do you want to stay in your current job and make changes or get promoted?
Do you want another role in your current organisation or do you need to look for other employment? If you’re self employed, what changes need making? Is your work/life balance all you want it to be?
Do you need to work smarter rather than harder this year? Are you managing your schedule so that you are making the best and most efficient use of your time?
Having an idea of your perfect work life will give you an idea of how near or far you are from that now.
Do you need to win the lottery to be happy?
Many people say they just need enough to give them choices about the kind of life they live. If you had enough money, what would be the kind of life you would choose to live? Have a clear picture in your mind. What would you be doing that you don’t do now? Where would you be? Who would you be with?
What would your work life balance be? Would you give up work or make other changes?
Twelve months from now what would a perfectly healthy you look like? Do you need to lose weight, stop smoking or cut down on the alcohol?
When you consider a 100% healthy you, think about the lifestyle that would support that? And what do you need to do to get you there?
Write down as much detail as you need to construct a clear picture.
It may be that having a partner is not part of your plan right now. That’s ok too as long as you’re clear about why that is.
If you don’t have a partner and would like to have one, consider the kind of person who would make your ideal partner and construct a picture of their personality. Do they need to be gregarious and outgoing or would you prefer someone quiet to spend time at home with?
What qualities would you value in your ideal partner?
If you do have a partner, consider now how would you how you would like that partnership to look by the end of next year. Do you need to make changes? Is communication an issue? Are there problems which need addressing?
As the old saying goes, ‘you can’t choose your family but you can choose your friends.’
The friends and family situation can be a complicated picture for many people. Do you want less or more contact? Don’t confuse quantity with quality.
Again, communication is key. Are there issues that need resolving? When you consider the perfect picture, what does that look like?
Try drawing a spiral on a piece of paper.
At the centre, write down the names of those you are closest to and, as the spiral winds out, other names of those you are less connected to. Do you see enough of the people that really matter to you? Do you see too much of the others?
What would make you happy if failure was not possible and you could have anything you wanted?
To have good friends we need to be a good friend. Are you there for others? Do you put energy into nurturing your friendships?
The human brain loves to learn. Being bored can create depression and lethargy.
What are you doing to stretch and grow?
Consider this time next year. What new skills would you like to have or be learning about? How would that affect your life? Would it lead to new employment or a new hobby? Would you travel more or meet new people?
Are you happy where you live? Do you feel safe and secure there? Are there decorative changes you would like to make inside or outside the home?
Or would you rather be living somewhere else? What would your ideal home look like? where would it be? How would it feel to be in your perfect home and how would that affect the rest of you life?
Envision your life one year from now
Writing down the answers to clarify and embed the picture ensures your brain filters attach significance to it. Once you have a clearer idea of the life you want to live, you can construct a vision board and place on it words and images that illustrate the life you have identified as the one that willmake you happy.
Put it somewhere prominent where you can see it every day. Photograph the board and stick the picture in the notebook or diary.
Every day, close your eyes for a few moments and place yourself in that picture.
Imagine you are now living your preferred life.
The fruit cake of life
Like an enormous, rich fruit cake, life, it seems, is best when we have top quality ingredients in the right proportions, put together with love, care and attention.
And like all good fruit cakes, can improve so much when allowed to mature with time….