What is happiness?

There are many definitions of happiness. For some it is a great bottle of wine at the end of the day. For others it is the satisfaction of helping out at a soup kitchen. It is different things to different people at different times.

The question really should be, what does “happiness” mean to you?

If you can’t answer this question then how will you know if you are happy? Or whether you could be happier?

The trick is to find an answer that is meaningful to you and then to work out how to get there. And then to actually get there. It might take work, and it might mean changes from how you live right now. It will be worth it.

Coaching

Coaching is not a magic wand that will make you get out of bed in the morning knowing that your life is suddenly perfect.

Coaching is a process of exploration and discovery, of goal-setting and achieving. At the end of each coaching session you will have greater clarity abbout what you want from life and what you are going to do to make it happen.

Like a sports coach, I won’t take on clients who aren’t committed, and I won’t do the work for you. I will give you focus and clarity, enhance your motivation, and help you attain the knowledge and skills you need to get where you want to be.

How optimistic are you?

Optimism has been broadly defined as the expectation that things will go well in the future. It can be broken down in terms of how an individual explains the causes of good and bad events. Optimists explain bad events as having external, unstable and specific causes (This exam was really hard) and good events as having internal, stable and global causes (I’m really good at this subject).

Pessimists are the opposite – they explain bad events as having internal, stable and global causes (I’m no good at exams) and good events as having external, temporary and specific causes (The exam was easy this time). Optimism has been shown to have a positive effect on health, sporting success, work success, avoiding depression and other mood disorders. You can test your optimism and pessimism yourself at http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/.

We can also distinguish between Little Optimism and Big Optimism. Little Optimism is about the small things in life, like whether I will be able to find a parking spot. Big Optimism is about broader, more general things, like whether the world will solve the greenhouse gas problem. Little Optimism may directly influence your behaviour and lifestyle choices, whereas Big optimism may influence your general mood, and perhaps your immune system.

It is possible to have different levels of the two types of optimism, and different expectations about different types of goals. You may be optimistic about the future, and so don’t see the need to recycle, but pessimistic about whether you will get a parking spot or get the promotion at work.

Are optimistic people happier? If you are working towards your goals in the expectation that you will achieve them then I would argue that you are. If you consider all effort to be hopeless then you won’t aspire to reach goals and you won’t even try try to achieve them. I was at uni in the early 1980s when we all thought there would be a nuclear war at any moment, and I’m sure that expectation did nothing to help us do well at uni.

We can learn to be more optimistic. Martin Seligman advocates disputing your pesimistic beliefs and expectations, and if you do this enough it replaces the habits you learned when you were younger. He also recommends teaching optimism to your children by letting them master tasks on their own and showing them that their actions have consequences – not just negative consequences, but positive ones as well.

Seligman gives a lovely example of the gales of laughter his daughter produces when they play the game of banging on the table – she bangs once on the table, everyone else at the table bangs on the table. She then bangs three times on the table, and then so does everyone else. She is learning that she can have an effect on the people she loves, and that that she matters to them.

Surely optimism, and general happiness, is made of stuff like this.

Sources:

Christopher Peterson, A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Martin E.P. Seligman, Learned Optimism. Sydney: Random House, 1992.

Martin E.P. Seligman, Authentic Happiness. Sydney: Random House, 2002.