What am I good for?
I recently attended the International Meaning Conference (IMeC) in London (July 2019), which held many inspiring talks by inspiring people. It led me to reflect on the journey of positive psychology and how it has come a long way from being all about finding happiness to a place that also values having a meaningful life. This blog reflects on a statement, inspired by Viktor Frankl, which is: Ask not ‘what makes me feel good?’ instead ask ‘what am I good for?’
Origins of positive psychology
Most people with an interest in positive psychology will be aware that the seeds were planted by the thought that we should be studying the outliers of data that seemed to buck the trend of what most people experienced in life. These outliers were individuals who, despite difficulties and challenges, still flourished and thrived. Usually psychologists would ignore these oddities (they upset their charts!), but in the late 1990s Seligman, Peterson and Csikszentmihalyi decided to explore them further.
What makes me feel good?
Most of the researchers under the umbrella field of positive psychology wanted to understand what made people happy and satisfied in life. This was important to create better well-being in society. However over time this first wave of positive psychology was challenged by researchers and critics who thought this was far too superficial and limited. Many studies began to emerge that demonstrated that chasing happiness as a means to an end in itself led to more unhappiness. It seemed that happiness was always out of reach, like the end of a rainbow. Positive psychology had attracted many critics who saw it as a ‘positive thinking’ field that sold empty dreams.
A shift towards meaning
To counteract the emphasis on happiness, a number of researchers began to promote the concept of meaning. This is not new, and the most famous academic who advocated meaning over happiness was Viktor Frankl who developed a therapy called logotherapy. Here Frankl helped his clients to find meaning in every day living, in the small things as well as big things. He recognised that it is not a healthy life to be always happy, as being in a state of happiness and expecting that life will always be a great experience brings misery. Researchers such as Paul Wong argued for a second wave of positive psychology, one that also recognised the value and necessity of the dark side that complimented the light side.
Soon positive psychology was looking for its dark side, such as through our emotions and post traumatic growth. Many books have since been written that advocate the value of so-called ‘negative emotions’ as well as positive emotions. This shift opened up research into other topics that recognised that life will always have some suffering, but it’s not the fact that we suffer it’s how we respond that makes us resilient. In fact, many commentators began to ask whether it is right to find happiness when there is so much suffering around us. This question was posed to the audience of the IMeC conference by Alexander Batthyany, a leading expert of logotherapy today.
Batthyany pointed out research results where people who focus on positive thinking will very quickly not only loose the sense of optimism, but their well-being will dip lower than previous. Instead those that build compassion into their experiences retain a higher sense of well-being due to the balance of hope with reality.
The hallmark of neuroticism, according to Frankl, are i) enforced pleasure and avoidance of pain, ii) dependence on external validation, and iii) avoidance of responsibility for one’s own living. In other words, looking away from unhappiness and responsibility doesn’t create happiness but exacerbates the unhappiness.
What am I good for?
Life has meaning when we choose to accept what we cannot control, and do the best that we can with what we have. An inspiring story told by Batthyany was of a man who had had a bad childhood. Rather than be bitter about it he chose to use his experiences to break the cycle of misery and do what he could to prevent others from suffering the same way. Rather than giving out what he had received, he sent out to the world compassion. And for his efforts he received the happiness everyone wants. Not because he looked for happiness, but because he found meaning and that meaning brought with it a sense of achievement, which in turn made him happy.
So if you want happiness, don’t go looking for it because it won’t be there. Instead do something that gives back to the world, and in return it will offer the gift of a meaningful and satisfying life.
Lisa Jones has a professional background in strategic human resources, organisational change and development. She has just completed the MAPP at Bucks New University. As an organisational change and development practitioner, researcher and coach she uses her knowledge and learning in her client work to facilitate conversations and storytelling for creating meaningful change. She also intends to undertake a PhD … very soon.