What are the building blocks of happiness? The drivers that maximise wellbeing and gear people and human systems toward flourishing?
There is no single solution; rather it is about engaging in activities that incrementally increase happiness and wellbeing. This is true, whether at an individual, organisational, community or country level.
Positive psychology has made headway to identify core ingredients of happiness. Positive emotions, engagement, relationships and a sense of meaning and accomplishment are all factors that can lead to a happy and fulfilling life. How people assemble those building blocks in their own life, company, community or culture is personal and unique. What is enjoyable, motivating and meaningful to one person differs from another.
I use the smorgasbord analogy: as leaders, future leaders, educators, policy makers or parents we can provide choices based on the current evidence and psychology, and help nudge people toward them.
It is the small things people do every day that make a difference to increase happiness levels and each positive action or choice has an impact that can spread happiness within their social networks.
Academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, drew on economics and the psychology of decision-making, to come up with Nudge Theory. In their 2012 book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, they outlined several ways institutions and governments can influence people’s choices in small, significant and positive ways.
For example, a school cafeteria might try to gently nudge children toward good diets by arranging the healthiest foods at front.
Whatever your view on the political and economic questions arising from this approach, we can certainly try to make life easier for people by providing them with choices that can make their lives better. A few simple options is best as too many choices can actually make us more dissatisfied.
One important caveat: when designing policies and initiatives that promote wellbeing behaviour we need to give people scope and support to choose what motivates and engages them as individuals. This means taking care not to be prescriptive.
For example, my team and I recently designed a mindfulness session for executives at a major Telco as part of their leadership and wellbeing initiative. Rather than advising them to practice a specific mindfulness practice that has proven beneficial and may have appealed to some not others, we showed them several ways they could practice mindfulness as part of their work and life. By making things simple, doable and easy to adopt, and allowing participants to judge what suits them, they walked away feeling inspired, curious and willing to try some new practices and see how they worked for them.
This taps in to humans’ need to make autonomous choices and select goals that are aligned with their interests, values and needs, a fundamental of Self-determination Theory. Such behaviour may be more intrinsically than extrinsically motivated and so more sustainable.
Sometimes well-designed and well-intended interventions don’t produce expected outcomes. The degree of fit between the person and the intervention, or the environment and intervention, can be a critical success factor.
This is another reason to empower each individual, organisation or community with the tools to build happiness and wellbeing the way they see fit, within their own contexts and lives.
So what are some of the practices people can apply to build happiness into their daily lives, friendships, families, workplaces and communities? Those that can make significant differences over time?
We know positive emotions enable us to think and act more effectively. Barbara Fredrickson found they broaden and build our repertoire and resources, increasing resilience and creating an “upward spiral effect” toward greater happiness and wellbeing. Positive emotions can also make us more likely to adopt wellness behaviours. When we enjoy doing something we are more likely to think about and feel motivated to do it again. So encouraging people to find ways to experience and leverage more positive emotions is a core strategy.
This does not mean we should ignore negative emotions and the challenging reality many people face in workplaces and societies. Human flourishing encompasses more than a happy state and pursuing happiness can be a narrow goal. Our emotions and lives are complex and positive and negative emotions help us grow and become wiser.
Teaching emotional intelligence can give people the foundations to understand and make the best use of emotions in themselves and others so they can create more positive outcomes and environments.
People are also more likely to feel satisfied when they play to their strengths and feel engaged in what they do. When they cultivate supportive relationships, appreciate and savour experiences, people and things that are meaningful to them. When they live by their values, know themselves and work toward self-concordant and mutually beneficial goals. When their core needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness are met so they feel motivated to realise their potential and become the best they can be.
Each time I hear a story from one of my students who has applied positive psychology to make a difference in their life and the life of others, whether to handle emotions better, calm their child’s nightmares, revitalise a failing marriage or shift their organisation’s culture toward greater flourishing, I feel positive that each individual can make a difference to collective happiness.
If more future leaders of industries, institutions and governments knew the building blocks of happiness as well as how to apply them in ways that do more than lip service, we can certainly make the world a happier place.