Why is it that some people always seem to be so positive about things while others struggle? Is the world really divided into pessimists and optimists?
While there are many things we don’t yet fully understand about the brain, we know that you can change the way you think and how you react to the things that life throws at you. In short, mental well-being (call it happiness, if you will) isn’t an accident. It takes practice.
People have been talking about happiness for millennia (in fact, Aristotle wrote about it in around 380 BC), but the modern theory of modern psychology comes from the 1940s.
Martin Seligman was a pioneer of positive psychology, and he was the first to observe mental well-being is made up of 5 key elements1.
1. Positive Emotion
Negative emotions protect us from perceived threats, and they’re a part of our survival instinct. They have physical effects on us2 — by narrowing our focus, raising our heartbeat, and giving us a boost of adrenaline. That’s great if we’re running away from a bear, less ideal if you’re worried about an email from your boss. And if you’re trapped in a spiral of negativity long term, it can be damaging.
But the good news is that positive emotions like love, hope, pride, and joy have the opposite effect. They calm us down and undo the negativity. Inducing positive emotion brings down our heart rate to “baseline,” and psychologically can provide a way out of mental and physiological stress by broadening our focus.
ACTION: Having a bad day? Check out how to undo negative thinking and clear your head.
Bit of a no-brainer this one. Doing stuff you love, regularly, is good for you.
Engagement comes from getting into the zone on a task. We all know the feeling. You get totally absorbed in doing something, and suddenly you look up, and it’s 3 hours later. Many people call this “flow” state, and it can happen whenever you’re doing physical, creative, or intellectual activities. It’s highly enjoyable, and people who experience flow regularly report having a higher sense of well-being.
ACTION: So, choose a task you enjoy doing, find a place to practice, and give the activity your sole focus.
Chris Peterson describes positive psychology in three words: Other People Matter3. His work discovered correlations between optimism4, good health, and a long life. He concluded nurturing relationships from friends to work colleagues, family, or neighbors is crucial to a healthy life.
ACTION: Check out our guide to building strong relationships by changing how you react to people’s news.
Having a sense of purpose – knowing that you’re a part of something bigger can be incredibly important. But having meaning in your life does take work. Often excitement fades, or your priorities change. That’s OK, but it’s essential to be in touch with what you value and ensure that how you spend your time (and your money) matches that.
ACTION: Take a moment to write down all the things that matter to you. Then think about how you can spend more time doing them. To get you started, check out our values challenge.
Nothing feels better than setting a goal and smashing it. The sense of achievement spurs you on to do even greater things. Broadly speaking, the level of accomplishment you feel is the amount of skill it requires to do the task multiplied by the effort.
ACTION: If you’re spending more time at home than usual, now’s the chance to set yourself some regular goals. This could be anything from clocking your best 5k run, writing, or learning a new instrument. Looking for inspiration? Head over to https://www.viacharacter.org. Discover your character strengths and how you can align them with the things you do every day.
In summary, happiness isn’t down to luck. It’s down to working on the five key elements that support well-being. And the more you practice, the easier it becomes. Check out more ways to build your resilience here.
2Lawson, Dr. Karen. University of Minnesota. How Do Thoughts and Emotions Affect Health?
3Houston, Elaine. Other People Matter: Christopher Peterson’s Work in Positive Psychology. November 2019.
4Moore, Catherine. Learned Optimism: Is Martin Seligman’s Glass Half Full? February 2020.