Monday 23 April 2012

The Science of Human Happiness

Martin Seligman is an American psychologist who has spent much of his career looking at human happiness, and here's your nutshell taster of his latest and greatest version. It's a simplification, but it's good enough for a taster.

Firstly, he isolates "happiness" in the narrow sense (think chocolate or champagne - lovely but short-lives and one dimensional) from what he calls "flourishing" - the deeper, richer, life-long sense of living a good life. To bring that point home, imagine looking back over your life from your death bed. If your enduring memory is "boy, I drank a lot of champagne", then you're unlikely to think of your life as well-spent. Flourishing, is what happens when you're living a life which, looked back on, will make you proud.

He's coined an acronym - PERMA - and here's what it means.

- stands for pleasures. Things like chocolate and champagne. These are important, but they last as long as the experience does, and they dull with rapid repeated use. There's only so much chocolate you can eat in a day. So find your pleasures and enjoy them greatly, but a life on the sofa eating chocolate is unlikely to make you flourish alone.

- stands for engagement. Think of two extremes. If you're slumped in a chair with no interest in the people or events around you, your engagement is very low (are you ay work by any chance??). If you're falling from an aircraft with no parachute, however, you're likely to be fully involved with the process. That's the spectrum of engagement, and the message is to find things which you find engaging. Find environments and activities which interest or inspire you to a very great extent.

- stands for relationships. Human being are social animals. Those who say they're not are actually struggling with something which is suppressing or concealing our natural attraction to living with, and enjoying the company of other human beings.

- stands for meaning and it's a big one. Let's go back to your deathbed (in a chirpy kind of way!). If you look back and see countless years of pointless work in the service of a rat race you grew to loathe, then, it means you saw little meaning in what you spent your time doing, and most of us would see that as a bad thing. If, on the other hand, you saw three wonderful happy children who grew up to raise eight beautiful grandchildren, and you saw a marriage which was a wonderful journey, and big contributions in your career, and wonderful painting holidays, and all your efforts to live a green life, then you might meet you maker with more of a smile on your face. Meaning is that stuff - the things which give us the sense that our lives have purpose; that we contributed and lived in ways and in areas which will persist when we're gone. What's meaningful depends on who you are, but without a sense of meaning, we don't flourish.
- stands for accomplishment. The sense that we have value to the world and to ourselves. That we can do things worth doing. Again, that's a movable feast and each of us will have different ideas about what makes a worthy accomplishment.
There is cross-over in each of these areas, so don't get too hung up on whether your taxidermy is about meaning or accomplishment - just recognise that it's a positive contribution.

So What Now?

Well, this is the best humankind knows about why people are happy, and it's straightforward enough for almost anyone to understand. It may even seem kind of obvious to you. But this PERMA framework can be used as an excellent scaffold upon which to build your flourishing life.

Why not assess yourself High/Medium/Low on each area? Take each in turn, and look at what's in it. Where are my pleasures? What do I love to indulge? Is my pleasure pot full or empty? What else do I want to put into it? Do the same for the others. If you spend even five minutes doing that, you'll probably come up with some powerful insights, and if you follow through and turn those insights into actions, you'll improve your happiness quite considerably.

Have fun with your PERMAing!

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1 comment:

  1. Really good to see this brief intro - I think positive psychology research has huge implications (and applications!) for coaching. Do you use any specific exercises? I've found 'Three good things' and 'using signature strengths' in a new way to be really useful - for myself and for clients (since we're all people!)