Years from now, when you’re an octogenarian lying on your deathbed, surrounded by your family and reflecting on your life, what will have contributed to your daily happiness? Many people go day to day without thinking about what it is that’s representing the proverbial small change that they’re putting into their emotional bank account. When you look back on your life will you be so glad you washed all those dishes and kept a clean house? Will you ultimately find contentment in knowing you answered all those emails straight away?
People are often so focussed on their tasks and achievements, believing that completing and improving achievements will ultimately lead to being happy later on. Achievements might be loosely defined as the things you ‘do’ rather than the character strengths that actually make you who you are. ‘What do you do?’ is often the first question that’s asked after someone is introduced to you. When thinking about self-esteem, many people, when asked what they like about themselves will again focus on the things they can do, or achievements they have completed. For example, you might define yourself as ‘good at organising’ or say that you are ‘good at sport’ because you won some awards. This is not to say that achievements are not useful, but they might not make your soul soar, or celebrate what makes you unique. Similarly, the happiness tied to memories of graduations, job promotions and awards tends to be fleeting.
If you look at the venn diagram of your life, there will be sections dedicated to ‘job’, ‘partner’, ‘kids’, ‘house’, and maybe a small section for hobbies or health and wellbeing. When you’re asked how your day was, or are lying in bed going over daily events, you’re probably still focussing a large amount of your attention on what you ‘did’. Today, I folded laundry, or I filed a report. You’ll also likely be focussed on what tasks you didn’t do, and what you need to do tomorrow. How often do you reflect on your character strengths, and look for examples throughout the day where you invested in your long-term happiness?
Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage identifies that an activity which is far more fulfilling than using a skill, is exercising strength of character. These character strengths are the traits that are deeply embedded in who we are. This involves identifying and nourishing what makes you, you. Outside of work, family, possessions and achievements, what is it that defines you? Many people find this quite difficult to answer. They also find it difficult to envisage how investing in your character strengths translates into practical outcomes.
A group of psychologists have identified 24 cross-cultural character strengths that contribute to wellbeing. They might be things like ‘appreciation of beauty and excellence’, ‘curiosity and interest in the world’, or ‘love of learning’. The researchers developed a questionnaire which identifies an individual’s top five signature strengths. Next, they asked a group of 577 volunteers were to pick one of their signature strengths, and use it in a new way each day for a week. These people were significantly happier and less depressed than those in the control group. What’s even better is that well after the experiment ended the results had lasting effects.
Achieving tasks can provide you with some happiness, but it tends to be fleeting. Achor also noted that the correlation between traditional success and genuine happiness seems to be quite weak. Interestingly, when working and living at Harvard, Achor began to notice that four out of five students at Harvard were reportedly experiencing debilitating depression. You would think that students who have just found out they got into Harvard would be the happiest people in the world. For a short time, yes, they are excited but for many, the novelty wears off quickly. Why? Well, as Achor jokes, 99 percent of students who get into Harvard will no longer graduate in the top one percent. Once these hard-working, high achievers get into Harvard the bar is raised, new achievement goals need to be set, the competition is much stronger. So, it’s seems that while accomplishments and achievements are great, these alone will not necessarily be a recipe for life-long happiness and contentment.
When you look back at that venn diagram, what’s left beyond the job, house, partner and kids? I often say to clients that you need to invest in a sense of self outside of these things. Imagine again that you live a long life, and you’re an octogenarian. Imagine now that there is no more job, the kids are well and truly grown, and perhaps there is no partner any more. Then what? What will you use to define meaning in your current life? If that’s too scary, then consider going back in time to when you were a child. How would you have defined your character at age five or ten? Sure, there was school and homework, but what did you value? You might surprise yourself by how many of your long-forgotten childhood interests were early examples of you nourishing your character strengths. Do some of your childhood pastimes point to you being a nurturer or a leader? Many of these character strengths are probably still be relevant to your adult life, you’re just not using them.
When people are unhappy with a section of the diagram (‘I don’t have the right house’, or ‘I haven’t got the right job’, or ‘I haven’t met the right partner’), they tend fall back on achievement-based outcomes to remedy this. For example, someone who is single might tell themselves they need to be more social. But how exactly will you measure success at being more social? Or, someone who is unhappy with their job might say they need to try harder to find a better one. The problem with this type of problem-solving is that it relies too heavily on the myth of ‘I’ll be happy when…happens’. Think back to a time in life when you were desperate for something to happen. It may be finishing your degree, buying a house or falling pregnant with your first baby. Very possibly, you lived each day feeling like it was never going to happen, or at least that it was a long way away. You probably thought that once the event happened, you’d be really happy, right? It’s interesting to think about how long you were able to maintain that state of happiness. Probably not too long. Or, at least the happiness came and went and then you just came up with another goal- another degree, a bigger house, another child and so on.
The key to understanding why happiness is not maintained is in one key word- state. Happiness is a state of being, and it tends to be temporary, as identified by Aristotle. However, Eudaimonia added that happiness is a state that doesn’t necessarily apply to a person at any specific moment in his or her life. Rather, investing in happiness is something that continues throughout the entire course of one’s life. There’s no real end point where you can tick happiness off a checklist. More likely, you’re going to be a life-long learner with challenges best met by using them as an opportunity to learn more about yourself.
Certainly, there is benefit to be gained from learning to increase and lengthen the amount of time that’s spent in happiness, but it’s important to understand that happiness cannot be maintained by a single event. Even if that event is big, and emotionally significant. If you’re waiting for happiness to be triggered by some event, then you’ll always be waiting and chasing the impossible. It’s not practical or even possible to maintain any one given emotional state for a consistent amount of time. Emotions, by their very nature are fleeting. They rise and fall in cascades, like waves rather than continuing along in a straight line like train tracks.
A more realistic outcome is to learn to create lots of short, meaningful bursts of happiness in the everyday mundane. By adding daily deposits to your ‘happiness bank’ rather than waiting for big events, you’re more likely to be investing in a more meaningful long term gain. When people are feeling flat, unmotivated or uninspired, the field of mental health is often quick to pathologise. You must be depressed. The underlying assumption then is ‘if you can remove the depression, then you’ll be happy’. But the absence of depression is not necessarily equivalent to happiness. Often, depression is the space that exists in between thinking, feeling and existing where meaning in a person’s life has become lost. Identifying your character strengths and committing only a few minutes a day to nourishing them can drastically improve your happiness. Not just now, not just until the next achievement but well into your older adult years.
1. Identify your top 5 character strengths
Take the VIA Signature Strengths Assessment, University of Pennsylvania
2. Tune into what really makes you happy
Talk to those who know you well about what your character strengths might be. What do you get fired up about? Perhaps you have a strong sense of social responsibility but you never take the time to contribute to comments online? Maybe you have a strong need to nurture, but currently don’t even have so much as an office plant?
At the end of each day, think about identifying your happiest moment. Then, make a note to look for themes in what it is that you’re responding to. Maybe it was noticing that you practised true listening to a friend over coffee? Perhaps it was helping a lost tourist with directions, or even picking up litter? At the same time, learn not to listen to the ‘shoulds’ in your head. ‘I should be happy because I have a good job’ or, ‘I should be happy because my children are doing well at school’. Think back to your venn diagram of life and give some attention to that small chunk of time that’s left over after work, kids and so on.
3. Make a plan for daily practise
Practising your character strengths need not be time-consuming or involve expensive hobbies- just something you can dedicate 10 minutes to a day. For example, if one of your character strengths is love of learning then you might sign up for a ‘word of the day’ email and challenge yourself with new words each week. Similarly, say you discover that one of your top strengths is appreciation of beauty, but you work in a fluorescent lit office. Going outside to observe the changing colours of the leaves may boost your mood and make you feel more connected to the world.
Start with just one strength, and come up with a daily or weekly activity to honour it. The University of Pennsylvania has a list of 340 ways to use your character strengths if you need ideas (link below).
4. Write down your intention
Making a commitment for change is always more powerful if you write it down. For change to be maintained, it also needs to be relevant and meaningful. Jot down some ideas about why you are doing this. Think about the broader goal you want to achieve. Think about finishing the sentence ‘when I’m old, and looking back on my life I’ll be so happy because…’
5. Set an appointment with yourself to review
Make a note in your diary or on your phone for a time to review how you’re progressing with your goal and what changes you’ve noticed in yourself. Schedule this time like you would for any other appointment that you have a commitment to attending.
6. Celebrate change
It’s important to acknowledge your progress and celebrate personal development. What has this change (no matter how small) meant for your life? What are you noticing about yourself and about the world that you never noticed before?
Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American psychologist, 60(5), 410.
Shawn, A. (2010). The happiness advantage. The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, Crown Business, New York.