Category Archives: Read Of The Month

Read of the month: “the art of being unhappy” requires the pursuit of meaning

Another month, another happiness book. My third read of the month was The Art of Being Unhappy (De kunst van het ongelukkig zijn), by Dirk De Wachter. After books focusing on what well-being is and on happy memories, it was time to look at happiness from another angle: is it sensible to pursue happiness, or should we strive for something else? And when we inevitably do face moments of unhappiness, how can we deal with them?

De Wachter is a psychiatrist. His perspective on happiness is different than most of the people I usually read, many of them positive psychologists. As a psychiatrist, De Wachter sees human sadness and depression in his practice every day. His diagnosis is that the idea picture of individual happiness leads many people to selfishness; or where they fail, to loneliness.

Finding inspiration in philosophy and poetry, De Wachter criticisises how people need bigger and bigger successes to experience happiness. We shouldn’t be contend to cycle up the Mont Ventoux; no, we ride up from the most complex side, twice. Running a marathon is not enough, we need to run three. To be special as individuals, we need to have ever more special experiences. And of course, they only matter when they are showcased on social media.

As a consequence, we are never special enough. Inevitably, unhappiness strikes. Is there any escape of the unhappiness we suffer due to our unsuccessful pursuit of happiness?

Don’t pursue happiness. Strive for meaning.

De Wachter claims that it is a mistake to have the pursuit of happiness as a major goal in life. When we strive for happiness for its own sake, it will never be enough.

Instead, we should become aware of the unhappiness in ourself and around us, and take that as a basis for social engagement: being aware of our own moments of unhappiness and the unhappiness around us can be a force for good, to motivate us to care about others or about social problems. According to De Wachter, real happiness is not found in individual experiences, but in doing meaningful things for others. That is what we live our life for. The ‘Art of Being Unhappy’ is the art of finding meaning in acting for others.

Hedonic and eudaimonic happiness

De Wachter is of course right that a life of happiness requires more than pleasure – the hedonic type of happiness. We feel more fulfillment when dedicating time to something bigger than ourselves. Often, this is understood as ‘eudaimonic’ happiness, which is based on a less fleeting and more permanent form of happiness. Feeling there is a purpose to our life is an important factor to our wellbeing. Indeed, theories of happiness and well-being – such as the PERMA model of prof. Seligman I discussed before and that we use as the foundation of our happiness vlog – see meaning as a key component of a happy life.

From all components of well-being, I feel, meaning is the most complicated one. Spending time in activities you enjoy or with people you like is easier than to find your source of meaning. But maybe the struggle to give a meaning to our lives is simply a part of life.

For many people, our purpose is in the others around to: taking care of children or family, dedicating ourself to protecting the environment or animals. Having a bigger reason to live, thus, is just as important as being able to enjoy the small pleasures of life. Thus, forget the ride up the mountain and profiling yourself online; dedicate yourself to a bigger cause instead.

Happiness read of the month: the art of making memories, by Meik Wiking

What do you remember about the day you got married, or the day you got your first kiss? Once you really start thinking about, you probably can replay a lot of details.

How about your first day of high school or university? Maybe a little harder, but you sure can bring back some sensations. And then: how about a random Tuesday in March five years ago, or even last year? Unless any of them was a special day, you may not even remember anything. Many days in our life turn into blanks without vivid memories.

But when we are prompted to tell stories about our happy memories, beautiful stories come out. These are the moments that define our life. Eight years ago – when I already started to be intrigued by the puzzle of happiness, but before my TEDx talk or the launch of the blog – I surveyed some friends and strangers (anonymously) about their happy memories*. After a quick search, I found the answer sheet back in my files. Here are some of the stories:

  • Re-discovering a long forgotten postcard from a close friend
  • The feeling of an adrenaline high after riding a horse at a very fast pace for a long time!
  • Being on XTC on an amazing technoparty
  • Laughing together with my love at a good joke – no matter if we are laughing at ourselves
  • Going to a secluded clean beach (preferably either from my favourite ones near home) on my own or with a few close friends. The sea makes me happy:)

* The stories are beautiful, so I am repeating the exercise now. If you want to share your happy memories, please fill out the form at the end

The art of making memories

I felt inspired to looking back at these stories by ‘The Art of Making Memories’, by Meik Wiking (the director of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen). His book touches upon a lot of fascinating research: tricks to remember long strains of data; the manipulation of memories; and nostalgia. But most importantly, he tells us how we can create happy memories and hold on to them. This is what he found:

  • The power of firsts: many memories are about things done for the first time. So how can you make days in your life memorable? By doing something new. Visit a park in a side of town where you usually don’t come, or – once they’re open again – a museum you haven’t been to. And even when you stay at home, there are plenty of opportunities to cook a new dish. Behold the first apple pie my wife and I baked together:
  • Storytelling: why do people buy souvenirs from their trips? Because they tell stories that will remind them of the experience. I have a small showcase with some memory-triggering objects: there is a decorated skull from Mexico that brings me back to the happiness conference where I met Meik. There are my espresso cups from Lviv and Porto, each carrying streams of memories. Another great example is the long forgotten postcard from a close friend the first respondent to my survey told me about.

  • Emotional reactions: events with strong emotions are memorable. Meik gives the example of a vacation day he planned to spend reading a book, when his friends proposed to go jet-skiing. In those situations, ask yourself: what will I remember in ten years? Not the book. I applied the same logic a few weeks ago when we missed the last skilift and couldn’t ski back to our parking. Instead of ordering a cab (boring, no emotional memory), we walked back through the snowy forest. It was a small struggle, but ultimately fun and memorable.

  • Meaningful moments: meaning is another factor that makes an event memorable. Those can be the big days – weddings or giving birth. Or they can be meaningful because of the time spent with an important person, like the person quoted above who was happy laughing with (and of) her boyfriend.

  • Invest attention: obviously, no attention = no memory. But it is important: in our daily routine, we often behave according to our usual patterns and fail to notice our surroundings. A ‘digital detox’ helps: phones are the most devilish distracting devices ever invented. Shape habits to prevent this; for instance, when I am outside in the dark I always consciously look out for the moon. Investing attention is also what the people that shared their memories did: they were aware of their feeling of adrenaline during a horse ride, the effect of XTC at a technoparty, or the simple beauty of the sea.
This is not the beach of the memory the person shared, but it’s one of my happy memories. Last week, after working from home, I released my tension through a bike ride and a short walk on my favourite beach.

Happy memories are beautiful to share and to read. If you want to share yours, please fill out the form:

Happiness read of the month: Flourish, by prof Seligman

I usually have New Year resolutions. Sometimes only one for the year, sometimes a bit too many. This year I have about five, and if there’s one that I really aspire to make, it is this one: I would like to read a book about happiness every month.

I built up a nice little collection of happiness books, so why not motivate myself to read a bit more this year. And – of course – find an excuse to buy a few extra books…

In January I read Flourish by prof Martin Seligman. I have spoken about prof Seligman, the role he played in positive psychology and the PERMA model of happiness and well-being already before. I however never read his book.

 

Happiness is out. Wellbeing and flourishing are in.

Flourish came out in 2011, and Seligman wrote it partially to correct his understanding of happiness in an earlier book, Authentic Happiness (2002). Over time, Seligman’s – and positive psychology’s –  understanding of what happiness and wellbeing are evolved. Gradually, the distinction between happiness and wellbeing  became more clear. Happiness relates to a brief, quickly passing moment, and is quite of a buzzword. It is a term easily understood by people, but when you look under the surface, it can have many meanings. Indeed, happiness is often used as a proxy for well-being or quality of life (in his book, Seligman also uses flourishing). Well-being is a more complex and generic phenomenon, describing everything what is important to a living good life.

In 2002 Seligman thought happiness manifested itself in three aspects: positive emotions, engagement, and meaning. In 2011, he argued that well-being or flourishing – a more stable and more permanent notion – should be the focus of positive psychology. He also added two ‘missing’ dimensions of flourishing: positive relationships, and accomplishment. The PERMA model was born.

The PERMA model. Source: Authentic Happiness pages, Penn University

The PERMA model. Source: Authentic Happiness pages, Penn University

 

The mission of positive psychology

The fundament now laid, most of the book is about fulfilling the mission of positive psychology: increasing flourishing. The chapters focus on what type of positive psychology interventions work. This can be compared to what standard psychology started to do when it was invented: find out, through academic research, what type of interventions can treat personality disorders and depression.

An example of a positive psychology ‘intervention’ is what Seligman calls the ‘gratitude visit’: think about someone in your life that did something for you for which you couldn’t thank them enough. Found the person? Now write down, in some detail, what the person did for you and what it meant to you. Then announce you want to visit the person, but don’t tell them why. When you visit the person, read out your gratitude letter aloud. I am sure that if you try it out, it will be a very powerful moment.

Seligman and colleagues then expanded these interventions in different areas. They built a positive psychotherapy programme to treat people with depression. They developed a positive education programme to reshape curricula in some pioneering schools. And they worked with the US Army to train soldiers on resilience.

The book then even stretches on to other areas, such as the economy and happiness – it was precisely the debate on alternative ways to measure progress than GDP that brought me into happiness blogging seven years ago.

 

What are your signature strengths?

One of the most interesting areas, though, is the work of Seligman and co on strengths. They defined what key call ‘signature strengths’. While acknowledging we all need to work on our weaknesses, they argued it’s just as important to build on our strengths when we define our ambitions and plans for personal development. The book contains a questionnaire, which can also be found on the website of the VIA Character Institute, that helps you to identify your personal strengths out of a set of 24. I did the test myself, and for me these strengths are honesty, gratitude, and curiosity. It’s a nice narrative to think that these traits define me.

  • Honesty is about authenticity, and being true to yourself. For instance, this helps to share your opinion when someone asks for it, or to name – and then improve – a bad habit.
  • Gratitude means being grateful for the good in your life, and being able to express that gratitude. This can help in maintaining relationships with others (people like to hear ‘thanks’), but also to accept life events outside your control as they are.
  • The strength Curiosity concerns an interest in new topics and experiences. I believe it’s a factor in personal growth, as it motivates to increase or go out of our comfort zone.

Curious what your strengths are? Read more and do the test here.

VIA Signature Strengths. Source: VIA Institute on Character

VIA Signature Strengths. Source: VIA Institute on Character