Tal Ben-Shahar is a best-selling author, academic and entrepreneur in the field of positive psychology. In 2006, his course on positive psychology became the most popular class at Harvard University. Since then he has cofounded Potentialife, a year-long leadership development programme that incorporates the latest in positive psychology, technology and behavioural science to support organisations in developing their people into flourishing leaders
This generation is the richest in history, with global wealth at a record-breaking all-time high of $263 trillion (€242.5 trillion). And yet, we are no happier than previous generations. In fact, depression and anxiety levels are higher than they were.
This doesn’t seem to make sense. World-renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi asks, “If we are so rich, why aren’t we happy?” Or, more pragmatically, how can we be happier?
That is a question I, and my peers in the field of positive psychology, have set out to answer, using rigorous academic research. From this research, positive psychology has provided a set of practical behaviours we can all adopt to become happier.
However, before we get there, a word of warning. The world – and the media – is full of supposed answers and quick wins to the big questions of life. The inconvenient truth is that, while it is often interesting and scientifically sound, simply learning new information leads to no meaningful change in behaviour in the vast majority of people. This article will be no exception.
How then, does positive psychology work in practice? The answer can be summed up simply; there is no substitute to taking action. I have spoken around the world to people about the behaviours that will allow them to be happier, but it is only when those people take control of their own lives and develop a process through which they can change their habits that my or my peers’ work can be said to have any real impact.
This is the main reason I set up the Potentialife leadership programme several years ago. It supports participants to adopt the scientifically proven behaviours of leadership over the course of a year.
For now, however, you can still benefit from the behaviours listed below, so long as you recognise that reading about them is only the start. Within each section are some practical techniques; try them out over the coming month and soon you may have a new habit. Most of you won’t do this, but those who do will have a much stronger likelihood of having a happier 2016. Happy new year.
1 Give yourself the permission to be human
In today’s world, there is a sense of disapproval towards painful emotions. Many people believe that experiencing emotions such as anxiety, sadness or envy means that something is wrong with them. In fact, the opposite is the case. There are only two types of people in the world who do not experience these painful emotions: psychopaths and dead people. When we reject painful emotions, we don’t give ourselves the permission to be human and these emotions intensify and we feel worse.
To lead a fulfilling, healthy life, we need to accept our emotions as we do other natural phenomena. If we repress an emotional reaction and refuse to accept it – whether anger or disappointment or joy – we create a knot in the channels that make up our emotional system. When we welcome everything that is human about us, we open up a space within which we can act and feel.
Next year will not be free of painful emotions. Learning to accept this fact, paradoxically, is likely to reduce the amount of pain we experience and increase our happiness.
Practical technique to try: Take 15 minutes on three consecutive days to write about something that is making you unhappy. You can write about the same thing each day, or about three different things. The key is to just write, without censoring what you write or don't write, and without judging yourself. The 45 minutes you spend fully accepting whatever it is that you are feeling, can help a great deal in overcoming emotional pain.
2 Wherever you go, there you are
Time pressure is pervasive and, to some extent, accounts for the culture-wide increase in rates of depression. We are, generally, too busy, trying to squeeze more and more activities into less and less time. Multi-tasking has become a buzz word – and one which more and more of us try to aspire to. At the turn of the century, Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman ran a study asking young mothers to report on how they felt during each of their daily activities. The findings were a surprise. The women were least happy when with their children. There is little doubt that the mothers love their children and yet, as a result of having too much to do, they could not enjoy the time they spent with them; they were multi-tasking. This way of living has increased exponentially with the advent of the smartphone. How often are we on our devices while walking, travelling and even in the middle of conversations with others? Technology offers many positives – and we all actively choose to use our phones. However, the net effect is materially destroying our productivity and our happiness. Constantly multitasking is a mistake. Positive psychology shows us that we should slow down, simplify our lives and, at least some of the time, engage with one thing at a time so that we are present in whatever that is. Psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn sums up this mindful approach in the title of his book Wherever You Go, There You Are. So, wherever you go in 2016, be there, savour the moment.
Practical technique to try: Take time out during your day to meditate – we recommend the Headspace app which starts with 10 free 10-minute sessions. Or, simply keep your phone on silent mode in your pocket for five minutes on your way to work and savour the world around you.
3 Exercise – just do it
More and more studies in the area of mind-body medicine show the mental health benefits of physical exercise. Michael Babyak, from Duke University Medical School, showed that exercising three times a week for 30 minutes was as helpful for patients diagnosed with major depressive disorder as our most powerful anti-depressant. Moreover, those who were on the drug, were four times more likely to relapse into depression than those who exercised once the intervention ended.
Of course, exercise is not a panacea and sometimes drugs are important – each case of depression or anxiety is different. However for most people, not exercising is like taking depressants. We have the need for exercise, and when this need is not fulfilled, we pay a price. Of course, you knew this before reading this article. The question is – are you acting on it?
In this case at least, Nike has got it right when it comes to a solution – just do it! Make 2016 your just-do-it year when it comes to exercise. And remember, sudden gym sign-ups around New Year are not necessarily the solution. Start small and build from there.
Practical technique to try: On three days this week, take a 30 minute walk. Or cycle instead of taking public transport. Maybe there's an exercise app you can download and try at home. Experiment to begin with – and once you find something that works, commit. Sustained, small changes can have a huge impact.
4 Appreciate the good – and the good will appreciate
One of the main barriers to happiness is that we tend to take for granted the good things in our lives. We may appreciate our good fortune after something bad happens, or almost happens, however we very quickly no longer notice the wonderful things in our lives. Think about your own experiences. If you were sick in bed for a few days and then walked outside you would appreciate the air around you.
When people have a close encounter with death, they begin to appreciate life more. The question we need to ask ourselves is: Must things get worse before we recognise how wonderful life was? The answer is no, if we make gratitude and appreciation a way of life, a habit.
There is a growing body of research within positive psychology on the benefits of gratitude. In an experiment run by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough subjects were divided into four groups. The first group was asked to write down at least five things they were grateful for every evening; the second group was asked to write down at least five hassles in their lives; the third group was asked to write five things they were better than others at; and the fourth group was asked to write down five major events in their lives.
The results were remarkable. Over the course of the experiment, group one were more optimistic, had fewer physical symptoms, were more likely to achieve goals and helped others more. In other words, when we appreciate all that is good in the world, that good grows; or appreciates!
Practical technique to try: Emmons and McCullough's gratitude exercise above is simple and takes two or three minutes a day. The key while doing the exercise is to focus, become mindful – rather than do it as a matter of routine.
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