Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Being Happy is Hard Work

Some time ago the Government proposed supplementing GDP with a measure of GWB (General Well-being) to measure the nation’s happiness. The Archbishop of Canterbury also suggested that people seek real happiness, above and beyond economic and material wealth. And most organisations would freely admit to pushing happiness and well-being higher up their people agenda, perhaps as an antidote to the depressing financial times.

But one important and often over-looked finding in the psychological research is that being happy takes effort. This may sound odd, but there’s a lot of truth in this.

In 2005, psychologists analysed the mainstream well-being research and identified that about 50% of happiness is inherited – i.e. genetic – while about 10% is down to our economic and cultural circumstances. The remaining 40% is believed to be down to effort. This means investing time in deliberate and intentional activities that will make us happier.

In other words, it is necessary to put effort into maintaining happiness, through activities such as being deliberately optimistic when problems crop up, or being consciously appreciative of our circumstances.
What is really interesting, though, is that psychologists Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2006) monitored people over a period of several months to identify what impact these activities actually have on our happiness. They found that a change in circumstances, such as gaining more money or moving to a new area, made people happy for a limited time only. Clearly the novelty of the change wears off.

On the flip side, they found that those who invested time and effort in a range of ‘happiness’ based activities led to longer-term increases in psychological well-being. In their conclusion, the researchers stated that ‘both effort and hard work offer the most promising route to happiness’.

So, when the Government and the Church tell us to be happy, they – and organisations – need to know that this doesn’t just happen. It takes hard work that has to be sustained, supported and measured. In other words, if you really knuckle down and apply yourself, you’ll be a lot happier as a result…

Life Lessons to My Older Self

Reading an article entitled “Life Lessons for My Younger Self” got me thinking about how you can apply time travelling wisdom to your own life in a useful and practical way.  So here is my radical alternative:  “Life Lessons to My Older Self”!

My thinking goes along these lines.  You can shape and influence your Older Self, helping him/her to be happier, more true to himself/herself and more successful. Understanding now what matters deeply to you, allows you to either express yourself fully now or shape your steps to do so in the future.  If you look at what you regret spending time on in the past, it can help you look at how you are using your time today. It helps you understand what more you want for yourself and others going forward.

Nelson Mandela had a very clear picture of what he felt was most relevant to him, saying he wanted his epitaph to read just “Here lies a man who has done his duty upon earth” and no more. Duty for him came before all else.  For others the heart searching questions about how you have lived your life will be different but no less important.

 Those questions may change over time too. In my twenties I acted like the all-important question was “Have you been successful?”  Unsurprisingly, the Rosie Miller that I was then was very earnest and hard working. Today I wonder whether the all-important question might be “Did you enjoy your life?” or “Did you make the best of your talents?”.  With this mindset I am looking at ways of having more fun and laughter in my life and ways to fully express my set of talents. I still want to be successful at work but I am challenging my Older Self to live a different balance in life – one which meets a clearer definition of success on my terms.  

So how can you rebalance your life and focus to enable your Older Self? One way is to run a self-audit every five years or so.  Many of us have 8-9 key life areas to consider (in no particular order): parent, family member, romantic partner, work or career, friends, health/fitness, interests, community involvement and possibly spiritual/faith.  You can adapt these to your own list of roles and priorities. Look at how you are performing across the different areas in your life versus what you would like to be true. It helps you take a helicopter view so that you can identify imbalances and think about what drives them. What would you like to do to help your Older Self have a better audit score? What will it feel like to achieve that?

I found doing a self-audit especially useful a few years ago when I was heavily engaged in a demanding job. The results showed that I was still responding to the same drivers as in my twenties. My work-orientation meant I was only expressing myself and contributing well across half the areas in my life. The much needed change has taken a few years but has paid off enormously in terms of happiness and satisfaction.

What then is my key life lesson to my Older Self? Keep asking yourself these questions:

Are you living a life that helps you fully be what you truly are?  

If not, when will you permit yourself to do so? 

Self-knowledge is the starting point

Work-life balance is a uniquely human concern. It’s not something that animals, living in tune with themselves and their environment, face.  Obvious statements of course – but it’s worth considering that the reason work-life balance can be of concern is that as humans we have the ability to override our natural instincts and feelings, rather than just respond to them as their arise.  It’s our choice, and choice is, after all, what makes us human.

So we can continue working when tired, we can force ourselves to do what we’ve decided it is necessary to do.  We can work hard, sacrificing family and personal time, for the promise of later reward, rather than needing instant gratification of our desires and wishes. All this has been to the good – if humanity had not pushed itself to the limits, our world today would be without the greatest works of art and scientific discovery.

But there is a hidden danger – people can become so good at overriding their instinct, feelings and messages their body is trying to give them that they don’t even hear the message anymore. Many people who are suffering stress for example, don’t even realise they are. Yet you can’t suppress feelings forever. Trying to do so will eventually result in burn-out.

My point in writing this is that the first thing anyone needs to do is to learn to listen to themselves and observe. Taking action is secondary to understanding your situation. It can be obvious things - how much time are you spending forcing yourself on when you’d really rather be somewhere else for example. How much caffeine, sugar and other stimulants do you need to get through a day? Do you suffer irritation or mood swings without always being able to put the finger on why? It can be in simple behaviours too – I once realised I was stressed when I found my hands were saw from continually gripping the steering wheel too tightly!

Listening to yourself does have to be learnt. My recommendation for anyone who thinks they may have work-life balance or stress issues is to keep a diary for a month and simply note your feelings and observations about what you do, and always ask the question “why do I feel what I feel”.  Work-life balance ultimately is about being satisfied and fulfilled in your life – and that begins with self-knowledge.