Tag Archives: Positive Emotions

Seligman, a founding father of positive psychology

George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. For most people in the United States and elsewhere, these names probably ring a bell. Together with may others, these man count under the Founding Fathers of the United States.

Could anybody be considered as a the founding father of happiness studies, or ‘positive psychology’ as the academic discipline is usually called? On such a list, academics like Christopher Peterson, Ed Diener, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Daniel Kahnemann, and Ruut Veenhoven deserve to be mentioned. And although every movement grows as result of interaction and cross-fertilisation, Martin Seligman probably is the primus inter pares. As president of the American Psychological Association, Seligman decided to focus his term on positive psychology.

What are Seligman’s achievements?

Getting up from a 2 to a 5…

As Seligman very well explains in his TED talk, psychology from its emergence in the early 20th century has been preoccupied with curing ill people. Psychologists have aimed to get people who score a 2 or a 3 up to a 5 or a 6. As a result of the focus on misery, psychologist have developed a complex system of classification and treatment of disorders. A large amount of psychological disorders that make people miserable can now be treated: a great advance for science.

… or from a 5 to an 8?

At the same time, there has been less attention for getting people that already score a 5 or a 6  up to a 7, 8 or 9 – or to understand what a 9 in happiness actually means. Come in Selligman and other positive psychologists. Since the 1980s, many scholars have measured and modeled happiness, and researched the link with happiness. Happiness is correlated with a lot of positive things, from longer healthy life years to better marriages and social relationships, and better performance in the education systems.

What an 8 means: flourishing

One of the most important contributions from Seligman is modeling what happiness is about, and what makes people ‘flourish’ in their personal life. Flourish is also the title of his 2011 book in which explains his ideas. This model is summarised with the acronym ‘PERMA’, standing for:

  • Positive Relations
  • Engagement
  • positive Relations
  • Meaning; and
  • Accomplishment

… as five elements contributing to a pleasant, good, or meaningful life.

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

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

 

The next step: positive interventions

Then, the next step of the field of positive psychology is to find out what it is that gets people up to the higher numbers. This is where we get to ‘positive interventions’, or steps that can contribute to our happiness. Dr. Seligman and his team have developed and tested some twelve positive interventions.

In his talk, Seligman describes a few of them:

  • Three good things. Every evening, write down ‘three good things’ that happen during that day. This exercise trains gratitude
  • Have a beautiful day. The concept here is to ‘design’ a day to spend in a very pleasant way.
  • Gratitude visit. Think of someone important in your life who you couldn’t thank enough for their support to you. Write down why you appreciate what they’ve done for you. And then go and visit them to tell them.

Which of these would you like to try?

 

How happy are we actually in Europe?

Did you feel particularly good last Friday? Maybe you enjoyed #Eclipse2015 as so many others did. Or you felt great because the world was celebrating the International Day of Happiness!

The International Day of Happiness was instituted by the United Nations in 2012, as I wrote last year. I must say that beyond a flood of tweets, I haven’t seen too many official events this year. The exception however was a very interesting data set from Eurostat that answers how happy we actually are in the EU.

I’ll come with the answers soon. But let me first give an idea on how we actually measure happiness.

How do you measure happiness?

There are practically three ways to measure happiness:

  • “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life these days?” With this question, people are asked about their overall quality of life or life satisfaction. There can be a little bias there – I might answer something different today than I would tomorrow. But the experience of researchers is that these biases cancel each other when the sample is large enough.
  • “How much of the time over the past four weeks have you been happy?” This question instead measures positive affect, or people’s happiness level on an emotional rather than on a more rational level. It’s based on the idea that beyond the overall life satisfaction, the presence of positive emotions and the absence of negative emotions is a good indicator of how a person really lives. 
  • Finally, there is ‘eudaimonia’, ‘eudaimonic happiness‘, or ‘meaning of life‘, which has a less clear-cut question. Eudaimonia broadly refers to the value and purpose of life, important life goals, and for some, spirituality. This requires a bit more reflection before it is answered.

Eurostat’s results show that the three measures are correlated at country level and at individual level, with some exceptions. A high level of positive affect is correlated with high life satisfaction and meaning of life. Still, one out of fourteen is ‘happy all of the time’ but with a low level of life satisfaction!

The good news: how happy are we?

There is a lot of good news in the figures:

  • 16 out of 28 countries have an average above 7.0, and the EU average is 7.1 out of 10
  • The highest level of happiness is found in Denmark, Finland and Sweden, with 8.0. The Netherlands and Austria score an 8.
  • On average, young people (16-24) score highest, at 7.6. The outliers are the Austrians: 8.4!
  • In Finland (8.3) and in my own home country, the Netherlands (8.0), the highest bracket is the age group 25-34. Does that mean that statistically, I will never be as happy as I am now? (The answer is: no. The study explains there can also be a ‘cohort effect’ – a group of people could retain the same happiness level, independent of their age group.
  • And the happiest are… Danish seniors! The absolute highest number is found in Danes in the age of 65-74: 8.6, and 0.7 higher than the 50-64 group in Denmark (7.9). There must be something amazing about retirement in Denmark!
  • There is only a marginal difference between men (7.1) and women (7.0). Also, there are slightly more women in the highest category. And controlling for differences in income, marital status, and labour market position, women are happier.
  • 42.1% of Danes scores above 8, and only 5.6% of Dutch score below 6. This might actually be the most important outcome: when it’s about happiness, it is not only the average but also the distribution that should count. In these two countries, happiness seems to be distributed fairly equally.

The bad news: how unhappy are we?

But there also is a bit of bad news in the figures:

  • Generally, happiness levels tend to decline with age: from 7.6 (16-24) to 6.9 (50-64), before making a little rise to 7.0 (65-74) and a further decline to 6.8 (75+)
  • Bulgarians and Serbians appear to be quite miserable: they score averages of 4.8 and 4.9. In Bulgaria, every age group is below 6.
  • Unemployment buys unhappiness. The difference between full-time employment and unemployment is 1.6 points (7.4 vs 5.8).
  • There is also a strong relation between poverty and unhappiness. Only 7.5% of materially deprived people has a high level of life satisfaction. And deprivation of important needs (ability to pay rent, to keep the home warm, a holiday or a car) has a larger negative effect on happiness than poverty in monetary terms.

The full analysis from Eurostat is available here.

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The Happy Danes: why are Danes so damn happy?

Something is special in the state of Denmark. Believe it or not, but despite associations with the grey weather, not-so-outgoing personalities, and general boredom, Denmark tops the ranking in many international happiness surveys. Denmark is the happiest country according the World Happiness Reports of 2012 and 2013, the European Social Survey of 2008, and the Eurobarometer of 2012.

What is so special about Denmark? Why are Danes so damn happy?

The Happiness Research Institute, or Institut for Lykkeforskning as it sounds in Danish, was founded a couple of years ago just to answer that question. And the answer is simply that Denmark is good in almost everything that is related to happiness. In the words of John Helliwell (Author of the World Happiness Report, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Happiness, if there had been one):

Broadly speaking, Denmark ranks highly in all factors that support happiness

The factors behind Danes’ high happiness

What is behind this happiness? According to the Happiness Research Institute’s study on The Happy Danes, there are eight factors that contribute to Danes’ high happiness levels:

  1. Trust. People tend to trust each other – this even comes in crazy forms: I’ve been told that in Denmark it’s completely normal to leave your baby stroller (baby included) outside the supermarket during groceries or at a bar when you get a coffee.
  2. Security. The welfare state helps. Even if you’re poor, or unemployed for a time, the state takes care of you. Comparatively, Danish poor have a high level of well-being.
  3. Wealth. High prosperity helps!
  4. Freedom. And personal freedom, too.
  5. Work. And on top of that, a healthy relationship to work! High levels of autonomy and job quality – that makes happiness at work?
  6. Democracy. Election turnout of over 80% – and voting is not mandatory!
  7. Civil society. Beyond a high degree of voluntary jobs, Danes also socialise more than average.
  8. Balance. A balance between work and leisure.

All in isolation, none of these factors are very special. There are countries that offer social security, that have a strong democratic culture, or where people have a good work-leisure balance. The special thing about Denmark, though, is that all these factor appear together. What is the secret?

measure-happiness-1

Image via How Stuff Works

Social security, but no happiness policy

I asked Meik Wiking, the Director of the Institute and the lead editor of The Happy Danes, whether there is an overall policy framework dedicated to the pursuit of happiness in Denmark, or whether it is just the consequence of high quality policies in the individual areas mentioned. Wiking answers:

Currently, there is no overall happiness framework (…) However, I do think that the Danish welfare state has been good at having citizen-centered policies and focusing on reducing UN-happiness: ensuring basic income, access to health care, education etc.

As the report explains, social security has contributed to the fact that the gap in happiness between rich and poor in Denmark is a lot smaller then, for instance, in the US.

Trust

Trust is the first factor that the Institute identified as contributing to happiness. That begs the question why trust is so high. Wiking points at the low level of corruption and the small size of Danish society:

One element is of course the low level of corruption. We experience that we can have trust in our system and in our society. We are treated equally and fairly according to the law. Also, I believe that the equality and the smallness of our society reduces the incentive for cheating. We all have more or less the same – and in a small society (where everybody knows each other) the penalty for cheating is higher. I know this is all very banal, but it is the best explanation I can see.

The positive emotions paradox

Danes don’t have a reputation for being the most cheerful people. And indeed, they score lower on ‘positive affect’ (or short term, intense, positive emotions) then for instance some Mediterranean or Latin American countries. But the scores are higher for overall quality of life, where happiness measurements are based on longer term and more evaluative judgements about life as a whole. Isn’t this paradoxical?

I do believe we should strive for having high levels on both the evaluative and the affective dimension in every country. Life is made up of moments and the two dimensions are linked. However, I am not sure we should call it a paradox that one country scores low in one and high in another. I think it is just evidence that we need a more nuanced language – and understanding – to be able to talk about, study and improve quality of life.

Thus, Danes are a happy people, even though positive emotions are lower than in some other countries. In the end, it simply means that there is a lot more to know about happiness. Even in Denmark, the Happiness Research Institute won’t be out of work.

Kartofler

One example of Danish trust: unmanned stands with potatoes, where you can take them freely and supposed to leave the money behind. Image courtesy of Happiness Research Institute

Celebrate Blue Monday

garfield_83_centerFeeling down today? Suffering from the grey weather and the cold?

You are not alone: today is Blue Monday. According to calculations, it is the most depressing day of the year. Christmas and New Year’s are a far away. Your presents already have found an anonymous place in between all your other material possessions, but you’re still on a low budget to compensate for your Christmas spending spree. And rather then thinking of good moments together, it’s the slight expansion of your waste-line that reminds you most of the holidays. The only thing you are looking forward to is Valentine’s Day, an awful commercial holiday, especially if you aren’t seeing anybody at the moment. And to make things worse, the first cracks are beginning to show in your New Year’s Resolution – maybe next year is the best time to work on the better you…

You recognise all this? Then you are likely to be a victim of the Blue Monday. Today, like every grey Monday in mid-to-late January, allegedly is ‘the most depressing day of the year’.

Except that it is not. Blue Monday is a phenomenon grounded in some reality – a grey January Monday isn’t likely to bring us the most fulfillment – but it’s not based on any serious science. According to the bogus formula, the bluest Monday was determined as such:

\frac{[W + D-d] T^Q}{M N_a}

where W=weather, D=debt, d=monthly salary, T=time since Christmas, Q=time since failing our new year’s resolutions, M=low motivational levels, and Na=the feeling of a need to take action. How a factor like ‘weather’ is determined is completely left aside. And the same accounts for the other elements of the formula. None of them are grounded in science. And actually, it’s Wednesday, not Monday which is the saddest day of the week.

Blue Monday has been devised by marketeers to sell holidays. But in a way, there is also a positive message. Marking a negative day can be helpful in our process to deal with negative emotions. Light needs darkness. Positive emotions, to some extent, exist only next to negative ones. Blue Monday offers us an opportunity to be melancholic, to dwell in misery for a day.

Or even better, being aware of the day can motivate and inspire us not to be miserable. It can motivate us to seek the company of others, to host dinners, to invite friends for a drink, as I did yesterday at my own ‘anti-Blue Monday’ party. Fight negative stimuli with positive experiences.

Celebrate Blue Monday – that is my advice!

monday1

The power of negative emotions – and two other lessons of the Foro Bienestar

I just came back from two weeks in Mexico. During these weeks, I fled the Brussels grey, rain and cold to replace it by the occasional Mexico City grey, the jungle rain, and Pacific coast warmth. Moreover, I spent a couple of days at the Foro Bienestar (International Forum of Well-Being and Development) in Guadalajara, where I was invited to speak. In the next two weeks, I’ll offer some thoughts about my own presentation on happiness and public policy and about the question ‘why are Mexicans so happy’ that was the leitmotiv of the conference. However, today I wanted to share some insights about the main points that I took home from the conference. Are you ready? Here we go!

Don’t forget the power of negative emotions

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Speaking of negative emotions: this slide by Stefano Bartolini (University of Siena) shows the problem of social comparisons and happiness very well.

Most of the speakers were academics and the good thing about academics, contrary to some happiness consultants, is that they don’t allow themselves to be carried away by their enthusiasm so much that they forget that being happy all the time is not possible and not desirable. Negative emotions are a necessary counterweight to positive ones. In a simple metaphor: feelings are a mountainous landscape. Without the valleys of anger, frustrations and anxiety, the happy peaks of joy, tranquility and exaltation would not be happy peaks but part of a plain.

Robert Biswas-Diener, often labelled as a positive psychologist, brought this forward most prominently. Answering his own question ‘how happy should an individual be?’, he suggested that the ideal rate of positive and negative emotions might be positive 80% of the time and 20% negative of the time. Being happy all the time does not do justice to real and important feelings as guilt, grief and anger. For instance, as he also discusses in his book ‘The Upside of your Dark Side‘, guilt can motivate us to work harder and accomplish more than we ever could do if we’d be simply content with everything.

Measuring happiness is very, very simple and very, very, complex

A large part of the conference was dedicated to one simple question: how do you measure happiness? It is clear that there are many ways to do so: the World Happiness Database at the Erasmus University Rotterdam knows 963 different methodologies, said Jan Ott.

But professor John Helliwell, one of the authors of the UN World Happiness Report, explained these can be summarised in a couple of simple ways. One way is to ask people how happy they are in a specific moment. This can be happiness in the ‘now’, to grasp a person’s feelings most accurately, or a moment like ‘yesterday’ or even longer ago, to prevent that events limited in time have a major influence. Such a question can be answered very quickly, without a lot of thinking. A second way is to ask a more reflective question, asking how satisfied you are with your life as a whole. Questions asking about positive or negative emotions typically give more random and diverse answers.

The debate is open on happiness as a policy objective

Picture from the opening session. Source: La Jornada de Jalisco.

Picture from the opening session. Source: La Jornada de Jalisco.

In my opinion, it should be obvious that governments would aim to increase quality of life and well-being – happiness if you want – especially where incomes increase and poverty reduces. Still, using insights about happiness and well-being in public policy is quite scarce: another research to welcome that Jalisco, the region where Guadalajara is located, is facing the challenge. Meik Wiking, from the Danish Happiness Research Institute, identified that taking happiness as a political goal is a trend. But there is also a counter-trend: skepticism about government efforts to formulate happiness policy objectives.

Professor Bruno Frey strongly advanced the argument that with happiness as a policy objective, there would be major incentives to governments to manipulate data, for instance by excluding people with lower happiness and by  falsification of indicators. In a high-level debate – the Tyson vs Ali of  happiness researchers – he was taken on by professor Helliwell, who thought these risks could be reduced as methodologies will be tweaked over time and that manipulation could be constrained in a democratic society.