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.