Monday, 11 May 2009

Living the Good Life

I am reading the Martin Seligman (PhD) book, "Authentic Happiness" and as I am struggling to find time for blogging right now, I'll pick up on his point for this week's blog, on how we can all live the good life, where we know what that means to us.

Seligman observes that living the "good life" is not necessarily drinking Champagne and driving a Porsche .. (although I might like to discover that for myself!). However, living the good life, according to Seligman, involves finding out what your strengths are in the key areas of your life, those areas that matter most, such as raising children, holding on to love and enjoying work for example, and living a life that draws much more upon these strengths in those areas. He says "the good life is using your signature strengths every day to produce authentic happiness and abundant gratification. This is something you can learn to do in each of the main realms of your life.." (p.13)

Seligman points out that his strength is in teaching and so he gets immense satisfaction from teaching a complex subject to his students or even his eight year old on the rules of playing Bridge. He notices how he feels invigorated when doing this. He also notices how he feels when doing things that are not particular strengths of his, when organising people for example. This is something that he has been mentored in and now considers himself to be adequate at however afterwards he will usually feel drained, not invigorated. I must agree that when I write something well or design and deliver a training workshop that I feel energised, happy, and I literally glow when I see or hear of others enjoying it or benefitting from it. This act of creativity is one of my signature strengths and is important both in how I spend my leisure time as well as in my working life. However, if I were asked to design spreadsheets, work with numbers and not with people, simply disseminating information and reports for example, then I know that I would feel drained and disenchanted extremely quickly! I am much more of a people person and I like interacting with others much more than when dealing with numbers or simple facts and so it's interesting to notice how differently I feel when working in either domain. It's also useful knowledge if I wish to create more opportunities for me to live my own "good life".

Here is a practical exercise to uncover what some of your "signature strengths" are:

- think of a time at both work and at home where you felt particularly energised or just didn't want to stop what you were doing until you'd finished it to your satisfaction. If it makes it simpler write them down as two separate examples, one for work and one for home. Now write down under this how you felt at the time - fulfilled, energised, excited, happy, satisfied, etc. In doing this for both examples, what do you notice are similar to both examples? The feelings? The level of interaction, or lack thereof, with others? The impact this had on you or others? Achieving a goal or getting recognition? For Seligman, it is his love of lifelong learning and sharing this with others. For me too it is in sharing this learning, especially in passing on positive feelings and experiences to others (spreading a good virus if you like!).

Knowing how you feel can help you channel your efforts into more activities that are likely to give you more of these desirable feelings and this becomes a positively self-reinforcing activity. As a secondary exercise, you can also consider times when you felt exhausted, drained, unhappy, bitter or cynical and consider what it was that contributed to that. There will be common themes there too, useful in noticing what they are in order to direct you from aiming for jobs and environments that do not play to your strengths. This helps you to recognise and so avoid where you are creating negatively self-reinforcing activities. For those who find themselves repeating undesirable patterns, try to think about what is the "secondary gain" to you within these undesirable experiences. What is the positively reinforcing element within the negative cycle e.g. people pleasing at your own expense, an unwillingness to say no, a need to be needed, a reluctance to break out of old perceptions about what it is to be a man or woman, etc.?

As Seligman rightly puts it "Authentic happiness derives from raising the bar for yourself, not rating yourself against others". As any professional athlete or sportsman knows, measuring performance for raising the bar of one's own performance is only useful where one's own personal best is used as the measure or bar. If your son is an amateur-level football player, it is far more useful to measure his progress against his own personal best rather than David Beckham's!

If you wish to see how you rate against others in relation to happniness however you can take the Fordyce Emotion's Questionnaire, at Seligman's site:

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