Mindfulness is one of the powerful tools in the positive psychology toolkit, because evidence demonstrates a link between mindfulness practice and levels of deeper wellbeing.
Psychology traditionally studied people’s problems. Psychologists were interested in reducing human misery. This is certainly not a bad thing and has resulted in a number of mental illnesses now being treatable. Through evidence-based talking therapies and sometimes drugs, psychology has helped people to reduce their suffering.
The problem is that in their rush to help suffering people, psychologists forgot about how to help human beings have flourishing lives. So psychologists can try to help move people from unhappy to neutral, but they haven’t considered how to go from neutral to flourishing. If you drive a car, you know that you can’t get very far in neutral! Positive psychologists focus on helping people thrive.
The 3 ways to happinessHappiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.
Positive psychology describes three different ways to happiness. You can try use all three interchangeably and consider what approaches are likely to work best for you in the long-term.
PleasureMaximizing the amount of pleasure you experience leads to some feelings of happiness. Eating your favorite chocolate, going out to watch a film, or going shopping are all examples of seeking pleasure. Being grateful for the experiences you’re having or have had can help to enhance the happy experience and make it more long lasting.
Pleasant experiences make you feel happy temporarily, but if you keep repeating them they become unpleasant. For example, eating one bar of chocolate is delicious, but not 100 bars of chocolate!
Engagement or flowWith flow, you give 100 per cent of your attention to and are at one with whatever you’re doing, whether pleasurable or not. Flow usually requires some effort on your part. The activity involved is just challenging enough to hold your relaxed attention.
You can develop a state of flow in anything you do, if you give it your full attention. This is where mindfulness comes in: developing a relaxed, calm, focused awareness from moment to moment. Even washing the dishes or walking the dog is an opportunity to live in this state of flow, a condition of happiness. Give full attention to whatever you’re doing, whenever you remember.
MeaningLiving a meaningful life involves knowing your values and using them in the service of something larger than yourself. We live in an individualistic society, and the word “service” isn’t often thought to be attractive. However, helping others is often found to be the core ingredient for a happy, fulfilling life.
Don’t worry: you don’t necessarily have to change your job or lifestyle to lead a meaningful life. If you’re a lawyer who wants to make as much money as possible, that severely limits your overall sense of happiness. The same work can offer more meaning, with the right motivation. Justice, equality, the inner desire to help others – all give you a much greater sense of meaning and purpose in such a career.
Other ways of creating greater meaning include volunteer work or joining a religious or spiritual group. Simply performing acts of kindness wherever you can gives life greater meaning. You don’t have to make a massive world-changing difference: cracking jokes with friends, making tea for everyone at the office or organizing a group holiday all count, if they are important values to you.
Take a few moments to reflect on what your core values are. Values are the direction you wish your life to go.For example, some of core values of mindfulness practitioners are courageous compassion, creativity, fun and truth. Then consider an area in your life where you wish to achieve a goal, like, for example, going on a date. Then take some time to consider which value you’d like to apply to your goal. So let’s say it’s creativity and fun.
So you could ask someone if they’d like to go on a date to somewhere fun. In that way, you’ll be motivated to achieve your goal and more likely to have a nice time, because it truly likes up with fun, something you value. Chose a domain of your life and have a go. This is a mindful and reflective way to take action to move towards a more fulfilling life.
Use your personal strengths mindfullyPositive psychologists carefully analyzed a range of strengths and virtues, and found 24 of them to be universally significant across cultures. By discovering and using your strengths in your work and home life you achieve a greater sense of wellbeing because you’re doing something you’re good at and that you love doing.
The table below shows the 24 key signature strengths under six key categories. Scan through the list and reflect on what you think are your five main strengths or virtues.
|Love of learning
Link your strengths with your mindfulness practice by becoming more aware of when you do and don’t use your strengths. Also, notice what effect mindfulness meditation has on your signature strengths – for example, you may find that you become better at leadership as your confidence grows, or that your general level of curiosity increases.For example, say one of your undiscovered strengths is a love of learning, but your job is boring and seems to involve repeating the same thing every day. How can you use your love of learning? Well, you do an evening course, start a master’s degree or make time to read more. Or you can integrate your strength into your work in a mindful way.
Become aware of each of the tasks you do and think about what makes that task boring. Look at co-workers and discover what attitudes others have that make them feel differently about the job. Discover something new about the work every day, or research ways of moving on to a more suitable career. By doing so, you use your strength and feel a bit better every day.
To increase your day-to-day feelings of happiness, try this:
- Discover your signature strengths. You can discover your own strengths for free at Authentic Happiness.
- Use your signature strengths in your daily life wherever you can and with a mindful awareness.
- Enjoy focusing more on the process and less on the outcome.
Savor the momentSavoring the moment means becoming aware of the pleasure in the present time by deliberately focusing attention on it. The process of savoring includes mindfulness but includes some practices that are different too. Here are some ways of developing this skill:
- Being aware of what you’re doing in the moment is the only way of ultimately savoring the moment. If your mind and heart are in two different places, you miss the joy of the moment – the breeze that passes through the trees or the flower on the side of the pavement. Most of the exercises in this book help you to grow your inner muscle of mindfulness. In savoring, the idea is to be mindful of the pleasant aspects of the experience in particular.
- Sharing with others. Expressing your pleasure to those around you turns out to be a powerful way of savoring the moment. If you notice a sunset or beautiful sky, share your pleasure with others. Letting someone know about the pleasure it gave you helps to raise the positive feeling for both of you. However, don’t forget to look carefully at the beautiful thing first – sometimes it’s easy to get carried away talking and miss the beauty of the moment itself.
- Seeking new experiences. Vary your pleasurable experiences rather than repeating the same ones over and over again – it’s a happier experience. And if you like ice cream, eat it once in a while and with full mindful awareness rather than feeling guilty about it. That’s practicing savoring!
Help others mindfullyOf the three ways of achieving satisfaction in life (pleasure, engagement, and meaning), engagement and meaning are by far the most effective, and of the two, meaning has been found to have the most positive effect.
To achieve deeper meaning, you work towards something that’s greater than yourself. This involves doing something for others – or, in other words, helping others. A meaningful life is about meeting a need in the world through your unique strengths and virtues. By serving a greater need, you create a win–win situation: the people you help feel better, and you feel better for helping them.
Compassion motivates us to relieve others of suffering. Research shows that compassion has deep evolutionary benefits. Your heart rate slows down, and you release the social bonding hormone called oxytocin and experience feelings of pleasure. Research on even short courses in cultivating compassion has found that people report long-term feelings of happiness.
Going back to the Dalai Lama, he states:
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
The Dalai Lama almost radiates warmth and compassion in the way he speaks to and interacts with others. Recently, he spoke with a bishop on stage in Italy. As the Dalai Lama spoke to the bishop, he held his hand as if the two were good friends. The Dalai Lama stated that he’d love to attend one of the bishop’s religious ceremonies. And he shared the importance for us all to respect each other’s religion to create greater harmony in the world. These are all acts of compassion.
Here are the Dalai Lama’s suggestions to develop greater compassion and therefore happiness in your life:
- Understand what true compassion is. Compassion isn’t desire or attachment. When you’re genuinely compassionate for your partner, you wish for him to be happy. The ultimate form of compassion for your partner means that even if he behaves negatively or leaves you, you’re happy for him if he’s happy. That’s not easy! Just start by imagining yourself in his shoes when he goes through a tough time, and wish for his difficulties to end soon.
- Realize that, like you, everyone wants to be happy and not suffer. Once you begin to see how we’re all the same underneath our thin layer of skin, you feel greater compassion for others. Compassion grows when you see how everyone’s essentially the same, with the same desires and the same essential needs.
- Let go of anger and hatred. You can do this by investigating your feelings of anger and hatred for others. Do they serve you? Do they make you feel happier? Even when you think that your anger gives you the energy to act on injustices, look more closely: anger shuts down your rational brain and can make your actions destructive and unkind. Investigate and observe mindfully for yourself. Notice the difference between acting as if you’re angry and actually being angry. The former is less destructive.
- See compassion as strong, not weak. Compassion and patience are mistakenly thought of as weak. Actually they offer great strength. People who react quickly with anger are not in control of themselves. Whereas someone who listens, is patient and compassionate is tremendously resilience and strong. Think of people like Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr. They are considered incredibly compassionate, wise and courageous, not weak at all.
- Be grateful for your enemies. If you want to learn tolerance and patience – qualities of compassion – you can’t learn from your friends. You need a challenge. So when someone annoying comes into your life, be thankful for the opportunity to cultivate compassion! Understand that this person has a deep desire for happiness, just like you do. He may be looking for happiness in the wrong way. Wish that he finds a better path to happiness and therefore doesn’t suffer so much. If he suffers more, he may just cause more pain for others.
- Treat whoever you meet as an old friend, or as a brother or sister. That makes you feel happier straight away!
- See beyond people’s outer appearances. They may look different, dress differently, or act differently. But remember that underneath we’re all the same. We’re all part of the same human community.
Doing things just for your own happiness doesn’t really work. Imagine cooking a meal for the whole family and then just eating it yourself and watching the rest of the family go hungry. Where’s the fun in that? The food may taste good, but without sharing you miss something really important. Happiness is the same.If you practice mindfulness just for your own happiness and for no one else, the mindfulness has a limited effect. Expand your vision and allow your mindfulness to expand to benefit all, and you’ll find it far more fulfilling. Each time before you practice, recall the positive effect mindfulness has on both yourself and those around you, ultimately making the world a better place.