Posts tagged happiness

Happier @ Work


I maintain a separate blog at Flourish Mentoring, which is dedicated to positive psychology based leadership and educational engagement topics. There I recently posted a series of 10 blog posts that are designed as mini-lessons (between 600-800 word each), all focused on being happier @ work.

I’m cross posting the links from that course here. Hope you enjoy reading the ten mini-lessons and are able to apply it to your work life.

Collected below are links to all the ten mini-lessons:

  1. Why Happiness (at Work)
  2. Helpful tips to be happier @ work
  3. Creating a positive, gratitude filled culture
  4. Finding meaning in work
  5. Orientation towards work and job crafting
  6. Remaining motivated at work
  7. Optimistic and Positive attitude
  8. Setting powerful goals
  9. Discovering and deploying strengths at work
  10. Leading positively

Do let me know how you liked the posts and whether you would like to see more of such themed collection of posts in the future?

ABCD and the Existential Givens

Long-time readers of this blog will be familiar with my ABCD model of psychology whereby I parse phenomena along 4 dimensions- Affective, Behavioral, Cognitive and Drive/Dynamic in nature.

I have also posted elsewhere about the four major goals of life. To recap, I believe that all humans are driven by these four major goals- Happiness, Success, Meaning and Integrity. If the parallels to ABCD are not obvious let me make it explicit.

The route to Happiness is via maximizing Positive Affect and minimizing negative Affect. Success is achieved by actively indulging in Behavior and by being engaged with the task at hand; Meaning is cognitively constructed and Integrity or morality at its core is about motivations or Drives.

All the above is more or less situated in the positive psychology paradigm, and the new Positive Psychology 2.0 looks beyond positivity to include existential concerns.

Now, I have been fascinated by the existential philosophy for quite some time, and have also explored its application to psychotherapy by Irwin Yalom etc. As per Yalom, we all must face up and try to resolve these four existential givens: Death, Isolation, Freedom/ responsibility; and Meaninglessness. All these are facts of life and we have to come to terms with them.

Death is inevitable; we can never truly get into the skin of the other, so existential loneliness also has to be dealt with; we are free to choose how to respond and that places a heavy burden of responsibility on us- we have to take ownership for our actions/ inaction;  finally given the cosmological perspective, our lives are perhaps meaningless- if anything we are burdened with providing an essence to our life(existence) , rather than otherwise.

Existential thinking is heavy stuff; but I guess all of us, start pondering such questions even when we are a small child; and continue revisiting them again and again, refining our tentative answers and resolutions to questions like these.

In the British school of existential therapy (cooper/Van Deurzen), these givens are seen as predictable tensions and paradoxes of the four dimensions of human existence, the physical, social, personal and spiritual realms (Umwelt, Mitwelt, Eigenwelt and Überwelt).

I find that fascinating. To me there appear to be two dimensions- one personal (Freedom/responsibility) vs interpersonal/ social (Isolation/ loneliness)  and the other Material/ physical (Death/ finitude/ embodiment) vs Spiritual/ psychological ( Meaninglessness/Un-Known). One has a focus on self , the other focus on others; the third a focus on the physical world, while the fourth is concerned with the spiritual realm.

And its easy to relate it to the ABCD/Four major goals of life:

The thoughts about Death (Physical) lead to embodied affective responses that can impact Happiness. Your behavior with others, whether you are able to connect authentically or not, determines your existential Isolation and loneliness (interpersonal) The interpersonal domain is also where you are able to taste your true Success/ Status. The drive towards personal Responsibility and freedom (personal) makes you moral and retain integrity. The recognition of oneself as a being striving for meaning, and impact in the real world, makes you paradoxically a spiritual person.

I like this marriage of Positive psychology and Existential Psychology and wish more and more people are driven towards the PP2.0 movement!

To Have or to Do? To Be or to Become?

A new study has recently caught the fancy of psychology journalists and is being touted as a support for renewed materialistic attitudes.

Jeff Woloson in Thailand. The birds atop Jeff'...

Jeff Woloson in Thailand. The birds atop Jeff’s head and left arm are Brahminy Kites; the larger bird on his right arm is a young White-bellied Sea-eagle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a well known finding in psychology that experiential purchases, or experiences, are better for your happiness than material purchases, or possessions.

However, the picture, as always, is more nuanced and complicated. For starters, happiness means all things to all people, and is likely to be multi- dimensional. Secondly, a sole focus on material or experiential ‘purchases’ detracts from other useful ways of thinking about happiness, say in thinking that happiness can also arise from gifting or helping others.

Before we go further, I would like to break down happiness into its components. Happiness/ well-being, has been traditionally conceived as made up of three components that are measured separately. The first is an absence of negative emotions; the second is a presence of positive emotions and finally the third is satisfaction with life.

Now some of you may be wondering why we need to differentiate between a lack of negative emotions and a presence of positive emotions; if that’s you go back to positive psychology 101 tenet no. 1: negative emotions and positive emotions are separate constructs and an absence of one doesn’t guarantee the presence of the other.

It has also been found that for e.g. money has a different relationship to these; if your income is below a certain level you are likely to have a lot of struggle and negative emotions; beyond a certain income you don’t derive as much positive emotions as you should with increasing income and the line flattens, and finally measures of life satisfaction are more closely correlated with accumulated wealth than are measures of positive/ negative emotions.

The components are also measured differently; while life satisfaction can be reliably gauged from self report survey, a better measure of positive/ negative emotions are achieved by the experience sampling method.

To me, this break-up of well-being into negative emotions, positive emotions and life satisfaction seems incomplete and I propose adding another component to the mix: life outlook.

Life outlook, is how excited you are about the possibilities of the future, and in your ability to make your dreams come true; it is future oriented, unlike life satisfaction which is past oriented; though like life satisfaction, I believe, it can be reliably measured by self-report method. This involves an attitude of looking forward to whatever life has to offer; to be truly considered ‘happy’ one should be hopeful and optimistic, rather than resigned or pessimistic.

So well-being= ‘presence of +ve emotions’ + ‘lack of -ve emotions’ + ‘life satisfaction’ + ‘+ve life outlook’

I now want to return to the experiential vs materialistic purchases. In my opinion, materialistic purchases are about our (extrinsic / socially conditioned) ‘wants’ while experiential purchases are about our (intrinsic) ‘needs’.

And that leads me to posit that perhaps there are different selves involved when we undergo an experiential consumption vs a materialistic consumption. I’ll call these experiential (or experiencing) self and materialistic (or material) self.

Also recall the distinction Daniel Kahneman makes between experiencing self and remembering self and add to the mix the homo prospectus (you can know more about Prospection here)  concept of Martin Seligman, which I will refer to as the Anticipatory self. So what do we get:

    1. Materialistic self: focused on fulfilling one’s wants; if wants are thwarted discomfort ensues, but if they are met, at best, you are in a state of hedonistic pleasure.  So you have a pleasure-discomfort polarity. And this is what perhaps would be the ‘negative’ or unhelpful emotions axis. If you want to be happy you want to ensure that you are as less governed by this materialistic self as possible, because whether they be emotion of discomfort or emotions of lazy pleasure, they really serve no good. Acquiring material goods does help well being on this dimension and this self as a ‘to have’ attitude.
    2. Experiential/ experienced self: focused on fulfilling one’s needs; if needs are not met, pain ensues (and that makes us focus on how we can meet the needs), while if needs are being met one is joyous and on cloud 9. So you have a joy-pain polarity. And this is what perhaps would be the ‘positive’ or helpful emotions axis. If you want to be happy you want to ensure that you are as much governed by this experiential self as possible, because whether they be emotion of pain or joy  they really are serving immense good (pain for survival; joy for thriving via broaden and build) . Acquiring experiences does help well being on this dimension and this self as a ‘to do’ attitude.
    3. Remembered self: focused on creating a coherent narrative about the self, if narrative is coherent and as per the image one wants to have of oneself, then contentment happens; else their is a sense of regret. The polarity is contentment-regret. And this is what perhaps would be the life satisfaction axis. It entails a ‘to be’ attitude.
    4. Prospective/ Anticipatory self: focused on creating new futures and possibilities, this is the prospective self. If the ideal self seems reachable and we are confident about attaining it, hope ensues; otherwise there is resignation to fate. So the polarity is hope-resignation and the axis is the life outlook axis. It entails a ‘to become’ attitude.

So whats the answer? Should we do or be, become or have; I think we need to indulge in all of these, in moderation, but ‘to become’ seems to be the best bet for your well being and flourishing!

Lastly, we know that material purchases impact our unhelpful emotions axis as well as our life satisfaction axis; while I guess experiential purchases will help our prospective self too in addition to our experienced self as its only via accumulated experiences that we become.  But I have a feeling that there may be other ways to increase life satisfaction and life outlook and would love to hear your thoughts on the same.

Buddha’s Brain

Buddha Daibutsu, Kamakura, Japan. This statue,...

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I recently came across an authors@google talk by Rick Hanson, who is the author of ‘Buddha‘s Brain:  the practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom’ and was immediately drawn by the similarity of the framework he uses and my ABCD model. Rick draws a lot from the Buddhist tradition and its humbling to find many similarities between what buddha preached thousands of years ago and what neuroscience tell us today.

In particular the root cause of suffering is believed to be due to

1) trying to avoid unescapable threats/ pains etc like ageing and death.

2) pursuit of pleasures/opportunities etc that are fleeting in nature/ not permanent.

3) trying to separate from and become individuated while the nature of reality is connected and interdependent.

4) trying to stabilize  that which keeps on changing

The roots of these Rick believes are tied up to the three (I’ve extended them to 4) motivational systems that govern us. These are:

1) Avoid system – reigning this in leads to Calm , a sense of peace and increase in a feeling of moment-to-moment Happiness.

2) Approach system –  properly aligning this leads to Contentment, a sense of gratitude and increase in feelings of Well-being.

3) Attach system – properly utilizing this leads to Caring, a sense of loving-kindness and increase in feelings of Love.

4) Absorb system – properly using this leads to Creativity, a sense of insight and increase in feelings of Wisdom.

To me these are absolutely aligned to the ABCD model; the Avoid system is primarily about reacting to -ve (or even +ve ) Affect; Approach system is driven by how Behaviouraly actively or passively you respond to opportunities;  the Attach system is all about the dynamics driving the Self-other relational issues; while the Absorb system is the more Cognitively focussed one driven by broad /  narrow focus concerns.


Rick also thinks that these are related to how the learning (synaptic strength modification)  , regulation (inhibition or excitation due to firing)  and selection (the decision to fire based on summation of inputs)  happens in brains at synapse levels and that reigning these systems leads to Mindfulness (attention relevant/leading to learning) , Virtue (self-regulation of behaviour)  and Wisdom (the ability to make informed choices) at the macro level. As Rick believes that not only brains lead to minds, but what and how our minds act also affects our neural wiring due to self-directed neuroplasticity, he advocates practising mindfulness, virtue and wisdom to rewire your brain to take it to the Buddha’s state.

Here one might pause and consider what mind actually is. some would equate it simply as mind is what the brain does, but more reflection shows that mind is multidimensional (ya…. fits the ABCD model). To me, mind is a result of:

1)  Brain Activity

2) Body rootedness (embodied cognition)

3) Embedded with Other minds (relational construct)

4) Shaped/interpreted by culture

Another thing to note about Rick is that he is a fan of Paul Mc lean’s tripartite brain; extending both the MacLean model and Rick associations and aligning with ABCD model, I see the evolution of brain as:

1) Brain-stem (Reptilian brain) : the relative brain sizes in reptiles or those driven by this Avoid mode system should be proportional to their land areas that they need to defend as in territorial defence; this is what I predict, the greater the area/ territory they typically defend the bigger this area. In the reptilian evolution this factor must have driven brain evolution.

2) sub-cortical areas ( Paleomammilian brain) : the relative size of brain in these simple mammals should be tied to their foraging area or how vastly they explore for food/ mating opportunities. I predict that brain evolution during this phase was tied to the Approach mode and linked with exploration propensity and must be linked with typical foraging area, with animals foraging far and wide having bigger brains proportional to those who don’t.

3) cortical areas ( mammalian brain ) : the relative size of brain in these higher mammals corresponds with the social group size (the famous Dunbar number) . This phase of brain evolution was primarily driven by Attach motivational system where concerns for others and groups drove evolution of brain with those having dense social groups needing more brainpower.

4) Neocortical areas/ lateralizations (the human/primate brain): the relative size of brains might be related to artistic/ imaginative ability. This phase of brain evolution is still taking place and is being primarily driven by Absorb system; how much one assimilates and accommodates and how much one intellectually rejects would determine whether the brain evolves further and proportional to how creative (broad-minded) the species is. The more narrow minded/ unimaginative the lesser thee neo-cortical size; perhaps this is the advantage we had over Neanderthals and other hominids. The autism-schizophrenia continuum may be one effect of the cognitive evolution still happening.

Which brings me maenderingly to my final comparison:

1) Affect, or Avoid system deregulation leads to Major Depression. The neurotransmitter of relevance here is Serotonin. Compare also to cloningers Harm Avoidance.

2) Behaviour or Approach system deregulation leads to Addiction.  The neurotransmitter of concern here is Dopamine. Compare also to cloningers Novelty Seeking

3) Drive/Dynamics or Attach system deregulation leads to Bipolar or manic depression.  The neurotransmitter of concern may turn out to be norepinephrine. Compare to cloningers Reward Dependence.

4) Cognition or Absorb system deregulation leads to Schizophrenia . The neurotransmitter of concern may turn out to be acetylcholine.

That covers the major group of disorders. I’m still reading ‘Buddha’s brain’ and not all insights shared above are related to what Rick/ Buddhism says; but I find them broadly aligned with my ABCD model and the eight stage evo-devo model based around Theodore Millons four basic polarities.

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Happine$$: Money does buy you life satisfaction, but for feeling good rely on psychosocial capital

The Satisfaction with Life Index. Blue through...
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A new and important research paper by Ed Diener et al has been recently published in JPSP and you should read the paper in full by requesting reprint using this page (this is how I got access to the paper) . It is very lucidly written and bears upon an important question: can money buy us happiness and if so to what extent and of what kind?

The research paper itself is a result of a till-to-the-date largest Gallup survey of people in diverse countries and covering a large set of people that is a fairly representative sample.

At the outset, Deiner et al differentiate between different types of well-being. Astute and regular readers of this blog will remember the distinction between positive and negative emotions that was earlier highlighted with respect to health and well-being.

There we distinguished between positive emotions and negative emotions as belonging to different types of affective phenomenon (see also this post that distinguishes between the two) , but it is also important to distinguish affective from cognitive phenomenon.  while talking about happiness either we may be talking about the  positive affect we experienced recently; or the fact that we did not feel any negative affect recently; or we may be using cognitive evaluations of our overall satisfaction with life. Thus overall life satisfaction is a cognitive component of happiness and well being ; while presence of negative and positive emotions is an affective and hedonic component of our happiness measure.  In the past these measures were used interchangeably and without distinguishing from each pother and may have led to inconsistent or inconclusive results.

In this survey, the Diener et al group was interested in finding the effect of absolute individual income (taken on a log scale to take care of the fact that 10,000 rs for a person with 10,000 rs income mean much more than 10,000 rs to someone with income of 1,00,000 rs) , the relative (to others within the nation) individual  income, the average income of the nation under study (reflecting the societal infrastructure etc) on happiness and well being as measured by three dimensions (positive emotions, negative emotions and life satisfaction).  So they measured these variables and calculated their effects on the three measures of happiness and well being.

They were also interested in finding out whether money leads to happiness directly by fulfillment of basic physical needs or whether it does so via  a psychological process wherein getting more material goods (that are valued by society) leads to feelings of goal achievement and thus overall satisfaction with life. Thus they measured tow variables : an index measuring possession of material valued resources like computers, and another measuring satisfaction with standard of living.

The authors were also interested in psychosocial variables like social support (say friends and family that can be relied in case of emergency), sense of autonomy, mastery and control over situations where one can show competence and whether these had any effect on life satisfactions or positive and negative emotions.  Work in the past has suggested and theoretical models like Deci and Ryan’ s Self determination theory posit that meeting psychological needs like that for autonomy, competence and relationships should lead to well being and happiness. Thus they measured these psycho social variables too.

How these variables were operationalized and measured I’ll leave as task for the keen reader to read from the original paper. Here I present the major findings:

  • A  cursory look at table 2 indicates that individual log income and national income were the best predictors of life satisfaction.  It is important to note that not only individual income , but also the fact that a person was staying in a wealthy or poor nation affected the overall life satisfaction. Thus, material resources avaiable in a thriving economy affect life satisfaction positively.
  • A cursory look at table 2 and 3 indicates that the effect of income on life satisfaction is mediated by material possessions and satisfaction with standard of living and is not correlated that well with meeting of basic needs. Thus, the life satisfaction one feels is mostly due to the fact that one compares oneself in terms of the societal valued money that one earns/has and by the psychological process of having achieved a desirable outcome, one feels pleased/satisfied with oneself. As the authors put , this is like Berridges ‘wanting’ system and having what you want leads to satisfaction.
  • Another cursory look at table 2 and 3 clearly indicate that positive emotions and to a certain extent negative emotions (inversely) are predicted by psychosocial variables.  That is the more social support and mastery , autonomy etc one has in one life , the greater the chances that the person feels happy on a day-to-day basis and does not feel negative emotions too frequently. This psychosocial capital enables one to like what one has got and is akin to Berridges ‘Liking’ system.
  • They found that relative income did not predict either life statistician or positive and negative feelings and thus the effect of social comparison might not be relevant in these particular situations when comparing with national averages .

This is the take-home message from the paper:

Contrary to both those who say money is not associated with happiness and those who say that it is extremely important, we found that money is much more related to some forms of wellbeing than it is to others. Income is most strongly associated with the life evaluation form of well-being, which is a reflective judgment on people’s lives compared with what they want them to be. Although statistically significant, the association of income with positive and negative feelings was modest. Furthermore, we found that societal income has a substantial influence on life evaluations beyond the effects of personal income, indicating that it is very desirable for life satisfaction to live in an economically developed nation. However, we also discovered that social psychological prosperity is very important to positive feelings. Some nations that do well in economic terms do only modestly well in social psychological prosperity, and some nations that rank in the middle in economic development are stars when it comes to social psychological prosperity.
If replicated, our findings have profound implications for both psychological theories of well-being and for societal policies. At the theoretical level, our results indicate that different types of well-being can be influenced by very different predictors. It is important to note that social psychological well-being is shown to be an important correlate of feelings across the globe. At the policy level, our findings indicate that more than money is needed for quality of life, and the social psychological forms of prosperity correlate only moderately with economic development. This means that societies must pay careful attention to social and psychological variables, not simply to enlarging their economies. Our findings indicate that it is important for societies not only to measure economic variables but to measure social psychological well-being variables as well.

To me, the fact that increasing income can make you more satisfied with life and the fact that greater autonomy, mastery and relationships can make you feel more good, is a win-win situation where the happiness set-point or baseline is no longer a given, but by increasing psychosocial as well as traditional capital one can hope to increase one’s cognitive and affective happiness and well being. Pursuit of money need not be at loggerheads to pursuit of autonomy or mastery or better relationships; and if they are one will have to make appropriate trade-offs depending on whether one values more life satisfactions ( living in past and future) or positive feelings (living in presents). No choice is simple, but still there is choice and hope!

Diener, E., Ng, W., Harter, J., & Arora, R. (2010). Wealth and happiness across the world: Material prosperity predicts life evaluation, whereas psychosocial prosperity predicts positive feeling. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99 (1), 52-61 DOI: 10.1037/a0018066

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