In this blog (which I initially wrote for the Hantu Collective) I’d like to briefly introduce positive psychology, existential thought and how they can come together to inspire people to live life to the fullest in all its facets. Along the way I’ll introduce the pillars of happiness, our main sources of anxiety and how we might re-define happiness to take charge of where we’re going.
What we work for:
An introduction to positive psychology – The science of happiness
If you ask people what they want (I mean ultimately, out of life) many will tell you that they want to live a good life, a life worth living or to be happy. People strive to feel good. But what does it mean to be happy or to do something meaningful? While this question has been around since the first philosophers in ancient Greek, only since 1999 have positive psychologists applied scientific methods to try and find answers to this question. Consider these two definitions I like:
- “Positive Psychology is the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions.” (Gable & Haidt, 2005)
- “Scientific study of virtue, meaning, resilience and wellbeing, as well as evidence based applications to improve the life of individual’s and society in the totality of life.” (Wong, 2011).
And with so much time out of each day spent working, ask yourself what you work for, what you want out of your job or through running your company – there tends to be a whole range of answers form different people. What I found is that if you dig a little deeper (by e.g. keep asking “why/what for?” – a technique we call laddering) what the answers have in common is that they’re ultimately about some form of feeling good. Money tends to be a means to an end (that leads to safety, security, opportunity and in the end again to some form of feeling good or meaningful) rather than an end in itself (making money for the sake of having money). Take a minute to think about how you spend your money or how having money makes you feel.
So what is happiness, wellbeing, feeling good – a good life?
The short answer is: It depends on what it is to YOU – your values and what’s important in your opinion. You may want to make your family proud, live in accordance to your parent’s or a God’s rules, you might want to offer your children the best life imaginable, make the world a better place or simply enjoy yourself as much as possible. What it means to be happy and lead a life worth living is a subjective thing. It’s up to each of us.
In 1999, the founding father of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman, decided it will be a good idea to look at questions such as “what makes life worth living?” and “what’s right with people?” rather than identifying the problem and then trying to get back to “normal”. He argued that there is more to life than getting back to where we were before we had problems and he realised that this had not really been looked at in a scientifically sound manner. Positive Psychology was on the map and it’s been growing enourmously.
Happiness and meaning are not new ideas in history, but exploring them through empirical methods and getting researchers from all over the world talking about it and contributing to the general knowledge – that was new. Because so far, more often than not: if something wasn’t broken then we didn’t try to fix it. Exploring what happiness actually consists of produced many results. The most compelling model in my opinion has been created by Carol Ryff who found 6 pillars of “Psychological Wellbeing”:
The pillars of a good life
- Relatedness – Building positive, meaningful relationships as well as managing difficult relationships.
- Competence – Having the skills to deal with the environment we live in.
- Autonomy – Acknowledging the choices we have available and being aware of its consequences; the ability to do what we want.
- Personal growth – Finding ways in which we can grow as a person and realising where we want to go.
- Self-acceptance – Seeing who we really are and how we see the world, accepting our reality as it is. Taking responsibility for our actions and non-actions.
- Meaning – Creating a sense of meaning and purpose in our daily lives and dealing with episodes of meaninglessness.
Now think about each of these and how they relate to your work or personal life. Do you have or create the conditions at work for any or all of these pillars to play a part in your daily routines? How could you tap into them more? Which ones are missing? What makes you unhappy when you work? Could you change anything so that more of these pillars are being addressed?
What we work against:
An introduction to existentialism – A philosophy of anxiety and freedom
In recent years the so-called “second wave” of positive psychology have started to include themes that are traditionally viewed as dark and “negative”; the sort of thing that we tend to avoid experiencing; the questions that can make us feel quite uncomfortable, yet are so important to take a look at. Questions such as:
Why am I feeling anxious? How do I make the right decisions? What am I doing this job for? I’m different – how can I have success without blending in/following the rules? How can I minimize risks but maximise success? Will I live long enough to harvest the fruits of my work? Who am I? And whose rules should I live by?
Existential thinkers argue that a certain degree of anxiety is inevitable in life, simply as a result of being alive and in the world with other people (the bare bones of existence). The following are the main themes in existential thought,
- Meaning & Purpose – Humans are meaning-making machines; we do it automatically. One of the worst feelings for us is when we’re not able to make sense of something; to a point where we would rather make up a dubious explanation and choose to believe it rather than not having one at all.
- Uncertainty & Decision making – Decisions can be tough to make. It’s because we naturally want to be sure that it’s the right choice before we go ahead and act. However, philosophically – thinking this down to the very essence – we cannot ever be sure of anything really. Even Newton’s laws of physics depend on circumstances and measurement equipment.
- Existential Guilt – the feeling of “I can always do more/better”. Even if you work yourself to total exhaustion, there is always a possibility of doing a little more. It can be hard to relax when you get the impression that everybody is doing so much more than you or knowing that you could do something rather than catching your breath.
- Freedom & Choice – We are free to do whatever we want – as long as we are prepared to live with the consequences. This is very liberating as we realize that there are no boundaries to what we are allowed to do (not even the law if we are prepared to accept the consequences). However, it also opens up an almost infinite amount of possibilities, which involves constant choice. It is easier if others make choices for us so that we can avoid the related anxiety and responsibility. But it also strips away our autonomy. This is the classic dilemma between taking a 9-5 job with little responsibility and working freelance.
- Responsibility – We are ultimately responsible for our actions and our life situation. True, some things we have no control over (our mother tongue for example or whether it’s raining and also a range of other people’s actions), but we cannot complain about struggling to find a job if we made choices in earlier life that prioritised enjoying yourself rather than working hard. People are very good at rejecting or playing down this notion, trying to make others responsible for what’s happening to them. However, as Nigel Marsh said: “If you don’t design your life, someone else will define it for you; and you might not like their idea of balance.”
- Isolation & Relatedness – We are social animals – we need other people. Relationships are a cornerstone of well-being. Yet other people are also a curse if sorts as we automatically compare ourselves to them. The mere existence of others makes us realise that we are different, isolated. They say that “we are born alone and we die alone”. Every person is completely unique, yet we try to become like others and feel inadequate if others are considered ‘better’.
- Temporality, Endings & Death – Everything comes to an end. All people die. Our time in our human bodies is limited – regardless of what you believe happens afterwards. And anything can remind us of out temporality: a round birthday, a colleague quitting, getting ill, even dying in a video game. The dilemma is that we all know it’s gonna happen but we don’t know when and how and actually we don’t really wanna think about that constantly as that would be paralysing.
I believe that in order to live a good life, we need a balance, we need to know what we’re going for and what we’re up against, our goals and the many challenges along the way. I realised that the so called “negative” things, feelings and elements of life are actually something that we can learn to embrace and value. Without uncertainty, life would be boring and predictable; endings provide meaning and give us a framework for existence; uncomfortable emotions are a great teacher and point out what’s important to us and our ultimate freedom to do whatever we want as long as we can accept the consequences to our actions opens up a world of opportunity!
If we know ourselves, our strengths and resources well enough and we’re aware of how we relate to the world around us, we can make informed, conscious decisions into a direction that seems right for us. If we can learn to accept and embrace that we can never be 100% sure, we can take a leap of faith into an exciting life that’s full of surprises and wonder. We will never be lastingly happy (as in always feeling great) but a full life is more than constant bliss. For me, a full life means existing in all its facets with all the ups and downs. There’s no happy if we don’t know what feeling sad is like. So I choose to live life courageously, to take risks, to face uncertainty and meaninglessness and create my own meaning; to consider myself happy even when I may not feel so good, re-phrasing happiness to include all of life’s lemons. That for me is existential buoyancy. Accepting life’s flow and learning to surf on top (including the occasional wipe out and periods of paddling against the waves). It’s knowing where you want to go while creating the resilience to bounce back when you’ve fallen off-track.
Positive Existential Coaching
In Positive Existential Coaching we learn what we want out of life and our work, we get to know our values and what’s important to us, we can address both the problems and obstacles in our way as well as work with our strengths and resources to make the most out of our possibilities. We build a strong foundation from which we can make difficult decisions and hence lead a life that we’re in charge of rather than following all the advice that is readily available out there.
My aim is to inspire people to live a more conscious life and see the positive in the challenging and uncomfortable. In my coaching I offer a safe place to think these things through, discover who you are challenge your worldview and transform it into something that works better for you. I may offer some thoughts, tools or techniques that may help you make positive changes and feel better about whatever it is that you do or want to do. If you would like to find out more about positive psychology, existential thought or Positive Existential Coaching, don’t hesitate to contact me! Here’s to an inspiring journey.