Cultivating greater joy and fulfilment in each day
One of the greatest myths that persists in western society today is that our happiness resides somewhere on the other side of success. Many of us tend to buy into this myth from a young age without stopping to question whether the elusive promise of long-term happiness ever materialises. I know that I didn’t question it myself until a brush with burnout and a serendipitous encounter with the thought-provoking (and hilarious) TED Talk on The Happy Secret to Better Work by Shawn Achor seven years ago. If we think back to all the major milestones in our life, we can fairly easily pierce this stubborn illusion. While we may have told ourselves at one point or another in our lives that we would become happy when we achieved great exam results, or got into a great university, or secured our first job, or bought our first house, or got a new car, or a better salary, or a bigger bonus, any happiness we did experience at those milestones was likely short-lived and fairly swiftly replaced with: ‘what next?’.
In Shawn Achor’s fantastic TED Talk, he challenges conventional wisdom to showcase how when we prioritise our present moment contentedness and fulfilment (as opposed to instant gratification) over the elusive promise of future happiness, virtually every single performance metric that you can measure at work (and in life for that matter) goes up – significantly. Yet, most of us fall into the trap of choosing to persevere through adversity with grit and tenacity aplenty, but perhaps with insufficient joy and fulfilment, in the hope that it will one day be worth it. Yet, the science shows that this approach is fundamentally flawed. When we keep pushing happiness over the cognitive horizon, we very rarely ever get there.
I think we’re often made to feel that work and play are mutually exclusive and that to be successful we need suffer a little (or a lot). We convince ourselves that if we can just grit our teeth until the next milestone, then we can relax and reap the benefits. That is certainly the treadmill that I was on, until my brush with burnout in 2014. When it comes to Covid, I wonder how many are gritting their teeth, waiting for the end of the metaphorical tunnel. Only, in the case of Covid and national lockdowns, the end of the tunnel is a constantly moving goal post. I suspect that even when we do eventually emerge the other side, it’s likely (according to science) that we’ll be bogged down by the weight of other expectations before too long.
So what should we do instead? There has never been a greater call to action when it comes to putting our wellbeing first. If we do not put in place the requisite self-care practices to help us live in a more positive state, we will continue to struggle or merely make do with survival. We will miss out on the beauty that exists all around us. When we’re in a less than optimum state, our focus naturally narrows to focus on self-preservation. It’s as if the world becomes a darker shade of grey, one stripped of all its magnificent colours.
A recently published paper, by some of the most prominent names in positive psychology, provides some powerful insights into how we might be able to cultivate greater joy and fulfilment in our everyday that can sustain and strengthen us, even during challenging times. The paper focused on various positive psychology interventions which were studied during over the course of that past 12 months, including coping, self-compassion, courage, gratitude, character strengths, positive emotions and high-quality connections.
Historically much of the focus on coping looked to reduce or limit the experience of negative emotions and people’s experience of anxiety or depression. There was little focus on how someone could experience more positive emotions during times of increased stress. Yet research demonstrates that it is possible and beneficial. Previous research has demonstrated how noticing positive events, savouring gratitude, mindful awareness and acts of kindness are correlated with significantly higher levels of coping during adversity. A study encouraging people to engage in positive psychology interventions such as noticing positive experiences, conducted in the early months of Covid-19 found similar results. However, it should be noted that while the results of this specific study are promising, it involved only a small sample and was not a randomised control trial.
It can seem counterintuitive to believe that we can or should experience positive emotions during adversity, not least because positive emotions such as joy, hope, pride, amusement and awe can prove elusive - probably no more so than during Covid-19. Even when we are not in the midst of a global pandemic positive emotions are often mild and almost always fleeting. In the current paper, Dr Barbara Fredrickson discusses the importance of recognising that “positive emotions can co-exist with negative emotions and that engaging in strategies to boost joy and love during this global crisis does not require us to turn a blind eye to fear and grief”.
A study conducted in the early months of lockdown with more than 1,000 people confirmed the value of ordinary daily experiences of positive emotions to nourish our mental health and increase our levels of resilience. The same research also found that when people experience positive emotions collectively with others in daily life (known as positivity resonance), such experiences independently contribute to the maintenance of mental health during challenging times. Essentially, when two or more individuals co-experience pleasant states like these, together with elements of caring and synchrony, a unique state of collective affect emerges, one called ‘positivity resonance’. I know that I have appreciated sharing moments of joy, hope and awe with those I love and care for. Perhaps this acts as a helpful reminder that we have permission to feel such emotions, but perhaps more importantly, that we have permission to share such emotions and the experiences that generate them with others, so that more people may benefit from them.
Another area of research which has been growing in prominence in the last few decades, is the importance of exercising greater self-compassionate towards ourselves in moments of struggle. Choosing kindness over criticism is linked to better mental health and performance outcomes. A randomised controlled trial among individuals during COVID-19 lockdown found that two weeks of online self-compassion training (consisting of journaling, meditation and other daily exercises) significantly increased levels of self-compassion and reduced the amount of stress being experienced compared to a waitlist control group.
Self-compassion consists of three core elements (mindful self-awareness, common humanity and kindness), each of which has the potential to bolster our wellbeing and reduce stress. Common humanity teaches us that we are not alone in our experience of pain or suffering. Mindful self-awareness teaches us to approach our experience without judgement and with greater curiosity. Finally self-kindness involves talking to ourselves in a kind and compassionate way, similar to how we might support a friend in need. From my own experience, I know I can readily want to push difficult feelings away or judge myself harshly for not being able to shake things off as readily as I might otherwise like. In those moments of struggle, I find it incredibly helpful to lean into such emotions with curiosity. When I remind myself to suspend judgement and allow myself to recognise my own suffering, it provides me with the space to support myself more effectively, by recognising that I am not alone in such suffering and that kindness rather than self-criticism will empower me to bounce back more readily.
Another area of psychology which can offer us some important guidance at this time, is that of self-determination theory. There are three universal basic psychological needs that human beings need to flourish, namely a sense of mastery, a sense of autonomy and a sense of love and belonging (referred to as relatedness in the scientific literature). When these needs aren’t met, our wellbeing suffers. A number of papers have been published during the course of the pandemic looking at how levels of self-determination influence resilience, wellbeing and life-satisfaction. One study found that an intervention aimed at bolstering people’s levels of self-determination significantly reduced levels of stress, whilst significantly increasing people’s levels of wellbeing. All of these papers have shown positive correlations between self-determination and wellbeing.
As we continue through what for many feels like significant adversity, we can still positively influence our wellbeing by cultivating greater self-determination. For example, ensuring that we track and celebrate the progress we make (no matter how small) each day will make us feel more hopeful and masterful. Ensuring that we play to our strengths and work towards improving on them each week helps us gain a sense of agency and mastery. Taking the time and being courageous enough to connect with friends and colleagues on a human level, where we’re a little more open about our struggles, as well as our dreams and aspirations, can help fulfil our need for love and belonging.
Finally, one other potentially helpful exercise to reflect on includes thinking about your life in broader terms. For example, thinking back over the past 12 months and reflecting on what life affirming lessons you may have learnt about yourself and other people. Looking forward, if you knew with certainty that things would continue for many more years as they are now, how might your approach to life and self-care differ? What might you start to prioritise that you would otherwise have placed on hold indefinitely? When we prioritise our wellbeing in the moment, great things start to happen.
One life affirming lesson that I hope Covid-19 has taught all of us is to ensure we prioritise the things that nourish us each and every day. If not now, then when?
Lea Waters, Sara B. Algoe, Jane Dutton, Robert Emmons, Barbara L. Fredrickson, Emily Heaphy, Judith T. Moskowitz, Kristin Neff, Ryan Niemiec, Cynthia Pury & Michael Steger(2021); Positive psychology in a pandemic: buffering, bolstering, and building mental health; The Journal of Positive Psychology; DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2021.1871945
Katarzyna Cantarero, Wijnand A. P. van Tilburg, and Ewelina Smoktunowicz (2020); Affirming Basic Psychological Needs Promotes Mental Well-Being During the COVID-19 Outbreak; Social Psychological and Personality Science 1-8; DOI: 10.1177/1948550620942708
Šakan D, Žuljevic D and Rokvi ´ c N´ (2020) The Role of Basic Psychological Needs in Well-Being During the COVID-19 Outbreak: A Self-Determination Theory Perspective. Front. Public Health 8:583181. DOI: 10.3389/fpubh.2020.583181