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The Science of Human Potential
In positive psychology, we talk a lot about helping people “flourish.” But what does this mean in practical, everyday terms? Let’s explore the science of happiness, and a simple three point framework for achieving it.
The Problem With Chasing Happiness
In order to understand how we actually achieve and sustain a state of satisfaction in life, let’s start by exploring a common misunderstanding about where “happiness” comes from.
Many of us fall prey to what’s known as “impact bias.”
In everyday terms, this is our tendency to overestimate the initial impact and/or duration of an emotional event. We often link “happiness” to future events, like buying a new car or house, getting married, or passing an exam. We believe that when we finally achieve that thing we’re after, that we’ll “uplevel” to a new state of joy, contentment, or satisfaction.
Here's what the science has to say about that: it just ain’t so!
Major life events and achievements may provide some increased level of happiness, but the duration and intensity are far less than expected - typically around 3 months.
The reason for this is that we quickly adapt to new situations. In the scientific literature, this is called “hedonic adaptation.”
It is also worth noting that the majority of things that people believe will make them happy are either:
- Societal check boxes (like marriage), or
- Aspects of personal or societally recognized achievement (such as getting a promotion, or earning an advanced degree).
Know what happens when we strive after achievements and work to check off those boxes? In the pursuit of external goals, we often end up neglecting how we actually feel as we’re living our life right now.
Instead of savoring the nectar of our present moment experience (the place where contentment actually resides), we get caught in our pursuit of the conditions that we think represent “the good life.”
In other words, we get stuck on a hamster wheel… chasing happiness but never quite arriving. As soon as the “high” of one achievement wears off, we replace it with yet another goal.
What Works Instead
“I used to think that the topic of positive psychology was happiness, that the gold standard for measuring happiness was life satisfaction, and that the goal of positive psychology was to increase life satisfaction. I now think that the topic of positive psychology is well-being, that the gold standard for measuring well-being is flourishing, and that the goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing.” - Martin Seligman
Flourishing is a state of existence in which we are thriving - on our own unique terms. This is a state of being that goes beyond the momentary. It doesn’t require us to chase happiness, or achievement a goal in order to feel it.
Sustained flourishing is a way of living that feels good, and results in balance and deep daily contentment.
Renowned positive psychology researcher Kate Hefferon offers a very simple and elegant framework to evaluate and cultivate a life based on flourishing - one that is both sustained and sustainable.
What Heffernon proposes is that we recalibrate our sense of what happiness entails, and strike an equal balance between these 3 elements:
- Hedonic (pleasure)
In western (specifically American) society, most of us spend the majority of our lives chasing achievement. When we put all of our eggs in just this one basket, we fall out of balance.
What do you think would happen if you spent all of your time ONLY chasing contentment or ONLY chasing pleasure? And yet, so many of us are taught to chase the holy grail of “achievement.”
It’s worth noting that contentment often gets left out of the conversation because achievement and pleasure are attention grabbing. And as much as we may like the sound of pleasure, it can get a bad rap thanks to our society’s deeply puritanical roots. Many of us unconsciously both covet AND fear pleasure, which means even when we “have” it… we don’t!
Applying The Theory
Achievement, contentment, and pleasure look and feel different for everyone.
When we coach using this framework, the first thing to know is that we’ll be contending with diverse, familial and cultural value systems around each of these categories. Our clients may need to undo a maladaptive relationship with the way they see achievement, contentment, or pleasure.
In our culture, we often prioritize appling our efforts to achievement, at the expense of the other two areas.
When it comes to the category of achievement, we certainly want to be setting goals and employing grit in order to achieve them. With that said, it’s impossible to apply even 80% of our capacity to more than one of these categories at a time. The purpose of this model is to find a more sustainable flow between all three.
As a coach, you can use this model to help a client take the temperature of their daily life.
- In a given week, what’s the give and take between these three states?
- Is there one that feels overemphasized?
- Is another feeling particularly neglected?
The purpose of introducing this model is not to strive toward an idealized state of balance between these areas. Rather, the intention is to weave some aspect of all 3 into everyday life. The purpose of bringing mindful attention to all three is to invoke a state of thriving that can serve or facilitate different goal states - like marriage or passing an exam - while also accounting for the full expression of a life well lived.
Want to Be a Coach?
One of our values at Lumia is that we dare to be different. Our coaches ignore the expectations society tries to impose on them, and seek to live from their own truth instead. If you are ready to step into your power as a coach, come check out Lumia Life Coach Training. Grounded in science, our ICF accredited program features authentic instructors, a robust curriculum, and business instruction to prepare you for liftoff.