“Don’t worry, be happy!” or so the song goes. A few more songs come to mind like “Oh happy days”, “Sha-la-la (Make me happy)” (Al Green), “Happy birthday” but my favourite has to be “Happiness” (Ken Dodd). “Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess” other lines include “I’ve got no silver and I’ve got no gold, But I’ve got happiness in my soul” and “An old man told me one time, happiness is a frame of mind” (Sorry Piers*, but that must be you. *Dr Piers Worth is the course founder of the Masters in Applied Positive Psychology at Buckinghamshire New University).
What makes up our happiness?
So it was from completing the MAPP that I thought we needed to work at being happy, after all Sonja Lyubomirsky in How of Happiness reminds us that Predisposition (genetics/birth environment) amounts to 50% of our happiness, 10% is circumstances and 40% choice. So if I were to keep deciding to be happy, I should be able to manage to be happy all the time; but I think this misses a greater truth, that sometimes there are events that make us unhappy, death, loss of a job, sickness and disabilities. We take a dip into unhappiness or even worse depression. When we are in the midst of this depression, just making up our mind to be happy is not the answer, in fact for some it is an impossible decision. Having nursed many in these circumstances, telling the person to “Don’t worry, be happy” in fact compounds there issues, adding another layer to get through.
So I ask you to face the truth a moment, our emotions fluctuate and change. For me, I have lived through and gone through many stresses in life, I have had times of utter despair where life has not been worth living and I value these times, because it helps me to understand times of complete happiness, putting marriage, birth of my sons, graduations and more into context.
What is so important about positive psychology?
I have been thinking some more, what is it about positive psychology that is so important and how does this relate to the happiness doctrine. As we know positive psychology comes from Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of what makes “life worth living”. Then Gaffney, Fredrickson and Seligman separately moved on to the idea of “flourishing”, but even this is not straight forward with Fredrickson calling it “complete mental health” and Keyes reminds us this is one of a number of continuums, the other being mental illness and our environment. All of these factors add up to our ability to fully function.
However, Diener and Sheldon who are part of the positive psychology group argue that the direction should be more about wholeness. Accepting both the good and the bad times. When I look through this filter at the mythical beast of continued happiness in times of personal sadness, I am the one who suffers more by not being able to be authentic and denying the full gambit of emotions and not learning. If for example. I chose to live in complete happiness when my first wife died, I would not be being real and deny who I really am; it further, would have meant that I did not acknowledge just how important she was to me.
Living a life worth living
So now my approach to the life worth living is a combination of acknowledging stresses, but also acknowledging lessons learnt and emotions discovered. To quote Lemony Snickett, I recently had “a series of unfortunate events”, which were personally challenging and I could feel them pulling me down. One after the other disappointments which were threats to self, leaving me feeling flat emotionally. But then a couple of people offered support, a hug from one, a smile from another, a quizzical question, a suitable insult (from someone who I know did not mean this as a demotivator but rather an invitation), some sleep, some space to rationalise and re-focus. Knowing throughout “it’s alright to feel and it’s alright to express my feelings in an authentic way.” Working through allows me to feel whole and wholeness is important to me, for this prepares me for the next battle and level of resilience increases.
David Rawcliffe MAPP