RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences’ Centre for Positive Psychology and Health has launched a ten-lecture series called the Science of Health and Happiness. Sharing the lecture content with thegloss.ie, this week, Professor Ciaran O’Boyle asks, what will ultimately make us happy? …
Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus drew attention to the importance of our mindsets, the way we think about things, for our wellbeing. He said:
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to the uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.”
Research in positive psychology over the past two decades has scientifically established the truth of Epictetus’s view by showing that we can influence our level of happiness by adopting a number of thinking strategies called mindsets.
According to leading psychologist Carol Dweck, mindsets are the views we adopt for ourselves, and these profoundly influence the way we lead our lives and, in turn, determine our levels of happiness and wellbeing. In her classic book, Mindset, Dweck distinguishes between a fixed and a growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that their qualities are carved in stone and they feel the need to prove themselves over and over especially by comparing themselves to others. They tend to avoid challenges, give up easily when confronted by adversity, see effort as fruitless or worse, dislike criticism and feel threatened by the success of others. People with a growth mindset believe that our basic qualities are flexible and that we can cultivate them through our efforts. They embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism and find lessons and inspiration in the success of others.
Dweck and many other researchers have shown that we can shift from a fixed to a growth mindset by learning to embrace challenges, to persist in the face of setbacks, to see effort as part of the journey, to learn from criticism and to find lessons and inspiration in the resilience of others. The important lesson here is that, whereas our happiness is influenced to some degree by our genetic make-up and by our circumstances, altering our mindset can have a profound effect on our level of happiness.
Mindset and the PERMA model of happiness
The pioneering psychologist, Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, developed a very useful way of thinking about happiness that goes beyond seeing it as consisting simply of positive emotions. Core components of happiness are influenced by the mindsets we adopt. In his PERMA model of happiness, Seligman identifies the key contributors to happiness as: 1. experiencing Positive emotions; 2. Engaging in activities that absorb us; 3. building and maintaining positive Relationships; 4. developing our sense of Meaning; 5. Accomplishing things that we consider to be important.
In considering your own level of happiness, it is worth thinking about how you are doing under each of these headings. You can assess your current level of happiness by completing PERMA Profiler which is available free on the Authentic Happiness website at the University of Pennsylvania.
A large and increasing body of research has demonstrated that showing gratitude contributes significantly to our happiness and wellbeing and also acts as a counterweight to the negative bias that most of us have. Gratitude has been shown to increase self-esteem and resilience, to enhance empathy and reduce aggression, to improve physical health, to improve sleep, and to help us form relationships. Researchers have established that keeping a “gratitude journal” is a very effective way of developing a grateful mindset.
The best way to do this is to reflect on the past day, few days, or week, and recall and write down three-five things you are especially grateful for. Some people do this daily while others find that a weekly schedule works best for them. This simple exercise has been shown to be highly beneficial in terms of increasing wellbeing and it is particularly powerful in orientating us to the good things in life. The further step of thanking people to whom you are grateful has been shown to further increase happiness.
Turning to the Stoic philosophers again, nearly 2,000 years ago, Seneca pointed to the importance of being grateful for what we have:
“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise person is content with his lot whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”
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