Wednesday 15 September 2010

Happiness & Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology’s primary focus is on what people do right to obtain and maintain optimum happiness (Compton, 2005), by striving to understand and help people develop qualities that lead to greater personal fulfilment. The premise of positive psychology is to promote factors that allow individuals to thrive and flourish by encouraging a change of focus in psychology from a preoccupation with repairing the worst things to a greater emphasis on discovering and building upon positive qualities.

The concept of happiness is the corner stone of the assumptions of positive psychology. Happiness is characterised by the experience of more frequent positive affective states than negative ones as well as a perception that one is progressing toward important life goals (Tkach & Lyubomirsky, 2006). Identifying factors that contribute to happiness has proven to be challenging. Interestingly though, one thing that does stand out in the research to date is that the attainment and pursuit of pleasure may not always lead to happiness.

Certain kinds of environmental factors or conditions have been found to be associated with happiness and include such things as; individual income, labour market status, health, family, social relationships, moral values and many others (Carr, 2004; Selim, 2008; Diener, Oishi & Lucas, 2003). Ultimately, in the pursuit of understanding happiness, there are two main theoretical perspectives which focus on addressing the question of what makes people feel good and happy. These are the hedonic and eudaimonic approaches to happiness (Keyes, Shmotkin, & Ryff, 2002).

Hedonic well-being is based on the notion that increased pleasure and decreased pain leads to happiness. Hedonic concepts are based on the notion of subjective well-being. Subjective well-being is ascientific term that is commonly used to denote the ‘happy or good life’. It comprises of an affective component (high positive affect and low negative affect) and a cognitive component (satisfaction with life). It is proposed that an individual experiences happiness when positive affect and satisfaction with life are both high (Carruthers & Hood, 2004).

Eudaimonic well-being, on the other hand, is strongly reliant on Maslow’s ideas of self actualisation and Roger’s concept of the fully functioning person and their subjective well being. Eudaimonic happiness is therefore based on the premise that people feel happy if they experience life purpose, challenges and growth. This approach adopts Self-Determination Theory to conceptualise happiness (Keyes et al., 2002; Deci & Ryan, 2000). Self determination theory suggests that happiness is related to fulfilment in the areas of autonomy and competence.

From this perspective, by engaging in eudaimonic pursuits, subjective well being (happiness) will occur as a by product. Thus, life purpose and higher order meaning are believed to produce happiness. It appears that the general consensus is that happiness does not result from the pursuit of pleasure but from the development of individual strengths and virtues which ties in with the concept of positive psychology (Vella-Brodrick, Park & Peterson, 2009). The differences between eudaimonic and hedonic happiness are listed below:

Hedonic (Subjective Wellbeing)

- Presence of positive mood
- Absence of negative mood
- Satisfaction with various domains of life (e.g. work, leisure)
- Global life satisfaction

Eudaimonic (Psychological Wellbeing)

- Sense of control or autonomy
- Feeling of meaning and purpose
- Personal expressiveness
- Feelings of belongingness
- Social contribution
- Competence
- Personal growth
- Self acceptance

Positive Psychology views happiness from both the hedonistic and eudaimonic view in which they define happiness in terms of the pleasant life, the good life and the meaningful life (Norrish & Vella-Brodrick, 2008). Peterson et al., identified three pathways to happiness from the positive psychological view:

1. Pleasure is the process of maximising positive emotion and minimising negative emotion and is referred to as the pleasant life which involves enjoyable and positive experiences.

2. Engagement is the process of being immersed and absorbed in the task at hand and is referred to as the good life which involves being actively involved in life and all that it requires and demands. Thus the good life is considered to result from the individual cultivating and investing their signature strengths and virtues into their relationships, work and leisure (Seligman, 2002), thus applying the best of self during challenging activities that results in growth and a feeling of competence and satisfaction that brings about happiness.

3. Meaning is the process of having a higher purpose in life than ourselves and is referred to as the meaningful life which involves using our strengths and personal qualities to serve this higher purpose. The meaningful life, like the good life, involves the individual applying their signature strengths in activities, but the difference is that these activities are perceived to contribute to the greater good in the meaningful life.

Ultimately, it is a combination of each of these three elements described above that positive psychology suggests would constitute authentic and stable happiness (Vella-Brodrick, Park & Peterson, 2009; Carruthers & Hood, 2004).

Flow and happiness

Another key contribution positive psychology has made to our understanding of the qualities and attributes of well-being is in the concept of flow. Flow is defined as an optimal state of engagement, happiness and peak experience that occurs when an individual is absorbed in an intrinsically motivating challenge (Norrish & Vella-Brodrick, 2008). Flow is typically characterised by being immersed in a specific activity that incorporates the following elements:

1. Concentration toward the task at hand that appears effortless and is not associated with mental strain or aggressive efforts to repress or control thinking (Vella-Brodrick, Park & Peterson, 2009),

2. Involvement in the task to the point where there is no need to think about what needs to be done before it is done (Vella-Brodrick, Park & Peterson, 2009), and

3. Enjoyment through being involved in and doing the specific activity (Vella-Brodrick, Park & Peterson, 2009).

The state of flow has been implicated in the pathways to happiness and thus expands further the concept of happiness beyond the pleasure state. To conclude on the influence of flow Csikszentmihalyi (1990) suggests that happiness is brought on by the experience of flow that allows people to enjoy life and function better in a number of different contexts (click here to watch Csikszentmihalyi’s TED Talk on Flow).

Personality Traits and Happiness

Personality studies indicate that happy and unhappy people have distinctive personality profiles. For example, happy people tend to be more extraverted, optimistic and usually have high self esteem. Happiness is also considered to be an emotion produced by positive and negative events and experiences (Selim, 2008). Interestingly, a number of reports have shown that extraverted individuals are happier than introverted individuals in the context of a broad range of life experiences (Carr, 2004; Tkach & Lyubomirsky, 2006; Furnham & Christoforou, 2007).

This has been attributed to the idea that extraverts react more strongly to positive stimuli designed to induce positive emotions when compared to introverts. Extraverts are also reported to have a better fit with their social environment that may trigger positive emotions of happiness. As such, extraverts are more likely to experience happiness than introverts who may not thrive in similar social settings (Furnham & Christoforou, 2007; Carr, 2004).

Happiness has also shown to be associated with easy sociability that involves natural, pleasant interaction with other people, another attribute typical of the extravert. Happiness of extraverts can be partially explained by their choice of enjoyable situations while those that are socially unskilled (e.g. introverts) may avoid such situations.

In contrast, unhappy people tend to have high levels of neuroticism. Neuroticism is the tendency to be vulnerable to feelings of anxiety and depression when faced with potentially stressful situations. Thus unhappy people are believed to be more reactive to unpleasant emotional stimuli compared to happier counterparts under the same conditions (Diener, Oishi & Lucas, 2003). Hofer, Busch and Kiessling (2008) support this point of view in stating that neuroticism is negatively associated with subjective well being (happiness) while openness to experience, agreeableness, extraversion and conscientiousness are positively related to subjective well being (happiness).

Biology of Happiness

This view purports that Individuals are born with the genetic makeup to be either "very” happy, reasonably content, or chronically dissatisfied. Positive emotions have been shown to coincide with higher levels of activity on the left side of the brain's prefrontal lobes. A key player seems to be the neurotransmitter dopamine, which carries “feel good” messages between brain cells. High levels of dopamine have been implicated in feelings of happiness while low levels may result in feelings of depression.

Lykken and Tellegen (1996) concluded from their study of twins that most people have an average level of happiness or a “set point” that is innate in them and therefore independent of environmental factors. They suggest that after we adjust to the effects of temporary highs and lows in emotionality (for example, happiness and sadness) we return to our biological “set point”. While it is understood that very intense feelings of joy or sadness may keep people off their “set point” for somewhat longer periods, it is believed that eventually every one returns to their baseline level of well being that is believed to be set by genetics (Compton, 2005).

From the biological perspective, depending on an individual’s genes, some people may have a natural enthusiasm for life, deriving pleasure from ordinary activities, or may require unusual adventures. But regardless of what makes us happy, a quiet walk or a jungle safari, after the initial high, we return to our happiness set-point regulated by our level of dopamine. For some people it is suggested that their set point may lean towards positive emotionality (high level of dopamine) whereby they will tend to be cheerful most of the time. Those with a set point directed more towards negative emotionality (low dopamine) will tend to gravitate toward varying degrees of pessimism and anxiety. It is also proposed that the biologically-programmed set-point isn't really a point, it's a range.

In this context we can influence this rage thus being able to alter our “set point” by creating an environment that is more conducive to feelings of happiness. That is why factors such as family environment, education level, and cultural factors all have an impact on an individual’s sense of happiness and wellbeing (Compton, 2005). Thus, rather than being a carte blanche on the individual’s state of happiness, the biological view still considers environmental factors to be an influence on the more enduring trait of happiness but only within the confines of a set-point range.

Happiness and Culture

When it comes to happiness, culture is considered to play a significant role. Researchers have concluded that most people across the globe do desire some form and degree of happiness. But that pursuit of happiness varies greatly depending on one's culture and circumstances (Carr, 2004). For example, very poor nations and those in dramatic political change invariably report the lowest levels of subjective well-being. Conversely, many of the wealthy and democratic Scandinavian countries consistently report the highest levels of happiness.

But a culture can also be poor in resources and rich in happiness as well. Latin American nations, for example, appear to have a more positive orientation and value happiness more than other countries (Maddux, 2004). At the other end of the scale, East Asian and African nations often place other values ahead of happiness, such as mastery and pleasing one's family or group (Carr, 2004).

Thus, how we individually define and experience happiness has as much to do with our cultural influences as it does with our personality, biological dispositions, personal goals and other individual factors. What this means is that while most people in practically every society will likely desire some form of well-being (both psychologically and physically), what they value will greatly determine what shape that pursuit of happiness is and what it will look like once acquired.

Because of such cultural variance in what factors contribute to high levels of happiness and well-being, it must be concluded that there are more determinants to happiness beyond the scope of what positive psychology currently understands. What is perhaps important to understand is that each culture finds its own sources of well-being and maximises these by building from their own cultural resources to pursue their own individual happiness.

Authentic Happiness

Positive psychology uses the term authentic happiness to describe the combination of behaviours that constitutes happiness and a good life. Authenticity in this context refers to both the ability to recognise and take responsibility for one’s own psychological experiences and the ability to act in ways that are consistent with those experiences. Authentic happiness is thought to derive from the identification and cultivation of signature strengths and virtues (Robbins, 2009).

Thus, authentic happiness suggests that we all have signature strengths that we use in challenging times to bring about change. The idea is that individuals should focus on their strengths and not their weaknesses in order to attain authentic happiness. The focus is on drawing on those strengths and using them as tools to maximise meaningful life. Greater authenticity was also linked to less depression and less perceived stress and fewer complaints of physical problems, creating a conducive climate for happiness (Compton, 2005).

Seligman (2002) differentiates between strengths and talents as they are often confused in the identification of individual signature strengths. It is suggested that strengths are moral traits while talents are innate. Talents are said to be relatively automatic whereas strengths are more voluntary. Although talent does not involve a choice about possessing it, there is a choice of whether to burnish it and where to deploy it. Strength on the other hand involves choices about when to use it and whether to keep building it (Seligman, 2002).

It is argued that signature strengths are built from the discovery and ownership of the strengths that an individual already possess. Seligman and his colleagues have identified 24 signature strengths and 6 virtues that are believed to be necessary for one to attain the authentic happiness.