Wednesday 20 August 2014

How to Enhance and Sustain Individual Wellbeing?

Individuals have different baselines for happiness. Say my baseline is at 0. A happy event might lift me up to +30 and a sad event might lower me to -30 but it won't take long for me to revert back to 0. The thing is that not everybody starts at 0. For some people, happiness comes easily because they have high set points. For others, staying happy is hard work.

This set point is determined by the genetic lottery. About 50% of our happiness is accounted for by genetic variance. An additional 10% is accounted for by external factors such as health and income. The good news is that the remaining 40% lies within our control. Even those with low genetic set points can structure their thinking patterns and lifestyles so as to become sustainably happier.

In their primer on positive psychology, Bertram and Boniwell list a number of somewhat concrete changes people can make to boost their levels of wellbeing.
  • Develop and maintain close personal relationships
  • Look after your physical health and get enough sleep
  • Keep a sense of perspective - does it really matter?
  • Engage yourself regularly, preferably daily, in activities that create "flow"
  • Reflect upon, savour, and be grateful for the good things in your life
  • Do not expect money to bring you happiness
  • Engage in activities that are meaningful to you
  • Develop a sense of control
  • Learn to be optimistic
  • Give yourself regular treats
  • Simplify
  • Be content with who you are and be yourself
  • Only take time to choose carefully when the decision is important
  • Be good to others
This list is a good place to start but there's an obvious criticism: What if I don't know how to do these things? The most important point on the list is the first one about keeping close relationships. But what if you don't have a support network of close friends? How do you build one? 

How does a depressed person look after his or her physical health and get enough sleep when common symptoms of depression are (1) difficulty sleeping, (2) loss of appetite, and (3) lethargy?

How do you experience flow regularly when you don't know which activities do it for you, or if those activities aren't things you could do regularly?

How do you be content with yourself when you just aren't content with yourself?

And so on.

Although the field of positive psychology is a good roadmap at pointing us toward habits that are correlated with wellbeing, it is easy to forget that forming these habits is a lot easier said than done. Knowing that "keeping a sense of perspective" is important is a good first step. But unless I follow up by practicing methods of cultivating this habit in myself, it isn't a step to greater happiness.

In the past I read about positive psychology and noticed that this reading was having no apparent effect on my wellbeing. This is because I wasn't applying anything. A real effort to producing a healthier mindset will likely include exercises borrowed from psychotherapy. I recommend using MoodGYM, a training program which teaches skills from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to combat depression. You don't need to be depressed in order for the exercises to be useful.

Bertram and Boniwell write that, "Wellbeing is determined more by our state of mind than by our external conditions, circumstances, or events once our basic survival needs are met. It can be achieved through the systematic training of our mind, through reshaping attitudes and outlook." Don't make my mistake and take lists like the above too seriously. Notice that "learning about aspects correlated with subjective wellbeing" didn't make the list.

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