Positive Psychology: Creating a cultural shift in happiness

Taking charge of our life stories brings more joy than amassing the tick-box list of items commonly associated with happiness, says Chris Johnstone

In a recent survey, over 2,000 people were asked to choose which they’d prefer for the society they lived in – the greatest overall happiness and wellbeing, or the greatest overall wealth. Of those surveyed, 87% voted for happiness and wellbeing, while only 8% opted for wealth. If we share the view of most of those surveyed, the challenge we face is how to play our part in raising the levels of gross national (and international) happiness. One approach to doing this is through engaging in a cultural shift in the way we seek out happiness.

A useful clue about how personal cultures can change is given in Martin Seligman’s classic text on positive psychology, Authentic Happiness. In it he describes setting his students two pieces of homework. The first was to engage in a pleasurable activity and then write about this afterwards. The second was to do an act of service that helped others, and then write about that too. For many of his students, the results were life-changing.

While the pleasurable activities felt nice at the time, the effects on mood were short-lived. In contrast, some students were still feeling good days or weeks after their act of kindness. There are two types of happiness here: short-term pleasures and the longer lasting afterglow from having done something we feel good about. Generating this second type of happiness involves calling on our strengths to rise to a challenge that matters to us.

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A business student taking Seligman’s class said he’d come to university to learn how to make money in order to be happy – but this homework taught him he enjoyed helping others more than spending money. His understanding of what he needed for a satisfying life had changed – and with it, his personal culture too.

“We find happiness by engaging with life, facing what is and applying our strengths in giving our best response”

The cultural shift I’m describing involves moving from a ‘picture model’ to a ‘story model’ in the way we seek out positive mood states. In the first model, we aim to fill our lives with a tick-box list of items commonly associated with a picture of happiness. Advertisers love this approach, their task being to add their products to the list. A downside is ‘affluenza’, where we feel deficient if we don’t look the right way or have the right things. This picture approach generates an enormous pressure to consume and compete, contributing to record levels of depression and lower levels of happiness, even though material wealth levels are much higher now than 50 years ago.

A crucial difference between the picture and story models is in the response to bad news. With the picture perspective, problems are seen as a threat to good mood, making it tempting to airbrush them out of view. The story approach to happiness is more like a great adventure that has both highs and lows. Great stories often begin with adversity; what makes the plot gripping is the way the main characters respond. They rise to the challenge, banding together and finding their strengths as they do their bit to move the plot forward.

In the story model, we find happiness by engaging with life, facing what is and applying our strengths in giving our best response. I use the term ‘active hope’ for this, as happiness is more likely when we’re active in the story of creating the future we hope for. We take steps for happiness just by becoming more interested in how its story goes, and then seeking to play our part in that. When we do this, we not only become happier, we change our culture too.

Photo credit: © Nicola Slawson

  • Chris Johnstone

    For more on the cultural shift in happiness I describe here, you can watch a recorded free webinar on Sustainable Happiness I did with my colleague Miriam Akhtar at http://instantteleseminar.com/?eventID=51536424

    Miriam and I run an eight-week online Happiness Training Programme that starts on Sept 24th. Details at http://www.resiliencehappinesschange.com/happiness-training.html

    I’d also recommend the website of Action for Happiness at http://www.actionforhappiness.org/

    Chris Johnstone, author/trainer/coach for resilience, sustainable happiness and active hope.

  • Mark McDonnell

    Brilliant article. I totally agree with the Life Story approach to happiness.
    I actually created a website called
    Which contains free personal decision making tools to help people Edit their life story by making choices calculated to increase their happiness.

  • Anthony de Villiers

    Through acts of service we self-mobilize psychic currents traditionally associated with religion.
    The ancient tenets, once tailored for audiences steeped in superstition and belief in an anthropomorphic deity, are now finding fresh expression outside the field of dogma and creed as a sustainable and fulfilling way of life.

  • Chris Johnstone

    Also coming up soon – a weekend on Sustainable Happiness with Chris Johnstone at Newbold House in Scotland. August 22nd – 24th 2014, details at http://www.newboldhouse.org/sustainable-happiness-chris-johnstone

  • Sam Mayaveram

    What a great article, Chris. Thanks for sharing.

    I think one of the crucial elements in any development process is consistency and recognition. When it comes to self-development, a lot of people are of the opinion “this is the way I do things/think about things etc”. This in itself is natural until they have the support and feel empowered to look beyond it. I believe this is where coaching can be crucial – it provides a new perspective, clarity on a goal but crucially, as progress is made, it is recognised and this in itself gives a pointer as to what change/development/growth feels like. Otherwise, it can be haphazard – what do I aim at? If I make a step forward now, how do I replicate it? Coaching gives the space to be able to see this and make sure progress continues both when there are challenges and set backs but also by providing focus and consistency.

  • Mary Tolhurst

    I do this by taking the time to talk, and to give people a genuine compliment about themselves. I have no money to make or do things so I give my self, my time and my attention. It’s a small thing but I like doing it.

  • Barbara Ward

    I really like the concept of ‘picture and ‘story’ models of thinking about what makes a fulfilling life, the pace of modern life ,often with so much time relating to technology as opposed to people and nature ,,can lead to a loss of connection to your own ‘true’ story. Exploring positive psychology and mindfulness recently has been a wonderful gift. for me . Thank you for this rich and thought provoking article.

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  • Carmen

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  • Mary Anne Hjelmfelt

    Wonderful article, thank you for your insights!

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