Last updated on 2nd September 2009
In a series of linked blog posts over the course of this month, I've discussed writing for health and wellbeing, assessment of one's own level of wellbeing, and using a broadened Best Possible Selves exercise. In today's post I take these ideas a step further by linking them to the research work of Professor Lyubomirsky and colleagues.
Sonja Lyubomirsky's website contains a wealth of useful information. A section entitled "What are the benefits of happiness" draws on her paper "The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success?" and other publications to state that " ... happiness does indeed have numerous positive byproducts, which appear to benefit not only individuals, but families, communities, and the society at large. The benefits of happiness include higher income and superior work outcomes (e.g., greater productivity and higher quality of work), larger social rewards (e.g., more satisfying and longer marriages, more friends, stronger social support, and richer social interactions), more activity, energy, and flow, and better physical health (e.g., a bolstered immune system, lowered stress levels, and less pain) and even longer life. The literature, my colleagues and I have found, also suggests that happy individuals are more creative, helpful, charitable, and self-confident, have better self-control, and show greater self-regulatory and coping abilities. On-going and future experimental and longitudinal studies that attempt to increase the long-term happiness of students and working adults will give us the opportunity to assess whether increases in durable happiness predict changes in other positive outcomes, such as altruistic behavior, creativity, work performance, physical health, and social relationships."
This very rosy picture is counter-balanced by research looking at genetic influences on happiness and the effects of hedonic adaptation. Many researchers agree that approximately 50% of our happiness level is genetically determined. It is also very widely agreed that humans tend to adapt to their circumstances, so a change that produces an increase in happiness is fairly rapidly adapted to and the individuals involved then return pretty much to their original happiness levels. Some authorities have even likened trying to consistently increase one's happiness as being as pointless as trying to increase one's height. On her website Lyubomirsky writes " ... my newest line of research focuses on hedonic adaptation to positive experience as a critical barrier to raising happiness. After all, if people become accustomed to (and take for granted) anything positive that happens to them, then how can they ever become happier? A new model suggests that adaptation to positive experience proceeds via two paths: 1) through diminished positive emotions and 2) through increased aspirations. The key to achieving increased and lasting well-being thereby lies in effortful, intentional activities that slow down or preclude the positive adaptation process. Current studies are testing the hypothesis that such activities share several properties that potentially help them to effectively forestall adaptation: they are dynamic, episodic, novel, and attention-enticing."
In an excellent (currently unpublished) state-of-the-art book chapter entitled "Change your actions, not your circumstances: an experimental test of the Sustainable Happiness Model", Lyubomirsky and her colleague Kennon Sheldon make a series of points that indicate how we might usefully extend the Best Possible Selves (BPS) exercise that I introduced in last week's blog. I've already suggested that it makes good sense to write about one's Best Possible Self in ways that link with intrinsic goals - physical health, personal growth, deep relationships, and community involvement - as these areas are more likely to satisfy key psychological needs for autonomy, competence & relatedness. I've suggested as well that one tries to keep one's imagined Best Possible Self linked to changes that one genuinely wants for oneself rather than getting side-tracked by 'oughts' and 'shoulds'. The Sustainable Happiness Model (SHM) now adds a further three suggestions. The model is based on the understanding that although about 50% of happiness is genetically determined, and only about 10% determined by one's life circumstances, "The remaining 40% of the variance, according to the SHM, is accounted for by what people do - that is, the intentional activities that they undertake within their daily lives".
So one implication of all this, when working further with the Best Possible Self exercise is to focus more on changing our activities rather than just our circumstances as we look at how we can take steps towards achieving our imagined Best Possible Self. Activities and circumstances overlap, but a key difference is that the more dynamic, varied nature of activities means that we adapt to them less easily. They don't sink back into the unnoticed background of "known, assumed circumstance" so quickly. For more on intelligent goal setting, see the handout "Skilful goal setting - ACT WISeST".
A second implication is that it pays to deliberately play with the activity to keep it fresh. To quote Lyubomirsky & Sheldon "For example, consider a person who initiates the activity of running as part of her daily health and self-maintenance efforts. This can be done with a sense of resignation and drudgery, but it can also be practiced as a way to obtain positive experiences. For example, running can be varied: One can run in different places (the state park versus one's neighborhood versus on a track), at different times (before work versus after), and with different purposes (to defuse a stressful day versus to lose weight versus to experience a new footpath through the woods). Also, one can run in ways that provide a wide variety of positive experiences - for example, one can run with a friend to catch up on each other's lives or with a camera to catch the morning light. Also, one can set goals that further enhance the interest and appeal of the activity - for example, to complete a half-marathon 6 weeks hence or to run every single trail in the nearby forest. The key, according to the SHM, is to engage in activity in such a way as to provide a continual stream of fresh, positive experiences. Of course, this is not easy, but it has the advantage of being an enjoyable adventure; after all, people are naturally inclined to find and follow intrinsic motivations, and to seek states of absorption and flow. However, as soon as the activity becomes rote or routinized, then its potential to influence SWB diminishes."
And a third implication of the SHM is that it's good to try to keep aware of the activities one is involved in - to notice, to appreciate, to savour. Here we potentially move into the whole area of meditation, relaxation and mindfulness trainings. I've already written a good deal in this blog about these areas, and there are a series of intriguing research studies highlighting that such mind-training methods boost happiness (e.g. Smith, Fredrickson).
I hope you've enjoyed this sequence of blog postings on increasing our levels of happiness and wellbeing. It can seem a bit paradoxical, but sustained increases in wellbeing are likely to require work and commitment. There is increasing understanding about how we can achieve these changes. This series of posts trace out one possible sequence. For further ideas on increasing happiness and wellbeing see Sonja Lyubomirsky's excellent book "The how of happiness" and also the more recent "Positivity" by Barbara Fredrickson.