A Coaching Power Tool Created by Erica D’Angelo
(Wellbeing Coach, ITALY)
Happiness is activity and Happiness depends upon ourselves. Aristotle
Imagining what will bring you joy requires a mental journey through time, which is a uniquely human skill achieved through more than two million years of evolution. You do this every day in the process of making decisions. Unfortunately, however, our imagination is often wrong. When we are lucky enough to get what we want, we discover that it does not come with eternal happiness. And when the things we fear happen, we realize that we have not been crushed after all. Overestimating the intensity and duration of our emotional reactions to future events is important because predicting the duration of our future emotions is what often shapes the decisions we make. Including those concerning our happiness. This is because our mind synthesizes happiness. While our immune systems work tirelessly to keep our bodies healthy, our psychological immune systems use a whole arsenal of cognitive mechanisms to cope with life’s habitual onslaught in anything but pleasant circumstances. So, when life disappoints us, we “ignore, increase, transform and reorder” (Gilbert et al., 1998, p. 619) information through a variety of creative tactics (e.g., ego defense, rationalization, self-improvement, dissonance reduction, self-assertion) until we find credible justifications: “It wasn’t right for me. Good that we broke up a week before the wedding.”According to Gilbert’s studies, happiness is a rapidly moving target. As much as we are passionate about finding it, we mistakenly estimate what will make us happy, how long our joy will last, and how intense it will be.
We have been trained and educated to learn about what will make us happy in life, and it turns out to be a false truth, an illusion and there is an explanation to how we came about having mistaken what makes us happy. In terms of the latest science, there are 2 perspectives on happiness: hedonistic and eudemonistic. Learning about what lies behind the counterintuitive response we are provided helps shift the perspective to become empowered in making our lives happier.
Hedonic Happiness – The disempowering perspective
To the question: what makes you happy? Among the first answers that come to mind are money and economic well-being. In recent years there has been a lot of research on the correlation between economic status and people’s life satisfaction. To name but a few, Professor Ed Diener, who also wrote a very interesting book called Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth along with many other fellow economists such as Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers have carried out countless researches to conclude that it seems that the economically wealthiest people have a reduced ability to taste positive events. Duplicating one’s salary leads to only a 5% increase in happiness and satisfaction. The most significant impact occurs on people who cannot meet their basic needs. Surprisingly, economist Angus Deaton has identified a threshold below which money translates into a lot of happiness, but above which it has no impact. The research was done concerning the United States (unfortunately we have no data on Italy where I can assume that this threshold is drastically reduced due to the lower cost of living compared to the U.S.) and the threshold seems to be $75,000 of annual income.
Another false myth is that having a perfect body will make us happy. Beware, because this statement is scientifically strong: being in a restrictive weight loss program, no matter what your result, seems to make people more depressed. But the most upsetting thing is that especially if you succeed, you become more depressed. There is no doubt that diet can be stressful for your body while you struggle to combat cravings and old habits. Anyone who has followed a strict diet knows how difficult it is. While most diet advertisements portray people becoming happier because of their weight loss, some research indicates that it may be the opposite for many people on diets. One study found that overweight people who successfully slimmed down were twice as likely to feel lonely, sad, and lethargic than those who were the same weight. All the self-control and willpower involved in dieting can be emotionally draining and while they may be healthier. This of course doesn’t mean that being lean will make us unhappy, but maniacally wanting to become thin because society tells us to be a false myth can hide pitfalls. Another false myth is that I’ll be happier if I possess cool things. Although this second aspect may be more evident, science has confirmed it very recently: materialistic people are the least happy. Having money to buy cool things (as we are used to seeing on the pages of the greatest influencers of our times) makes us depressed. The most recent research, conducted in 2019 states that the old saying says: “what we possess does not make us happy”, the new statement instead states that “what you possess, ends up possessing you”. When researchers examined the psychological well-being of non-materialists compared to materialists, they found that not only did non-materialists report a better sense of well-being, but they also contributed more to the well-being of the environment. According to the study, one of the reasons why materialistic people are less happy is that they are not as proactive about their finances as less materialistic people. Those who have greater control over their spending report better personal well-being, life satisfaction, financial satisfaction, as well as less psychological distress and greater happiness.
Eudemonic Happiness – The empowering perspective
The concept of happiness connected to wellbeing is investigated every day by people with the question “how are you?” Although this question may seem trivial, the happiness matter is still the subject of study and controversy. This is because it is today a complex multidimensional construct influenced by many various aspects. Since the beginning of the history of intellectuals, there has been debate about what made people happy. What makes life a good life? Over the years they have developed from Greek philosophers to our day different theorizations about what can make people feel good and consequently happy. We have realized that positive emotions are not the simple opposite of negative emotions (Cacioppo & Berntson 1999). From 1960 until the early 2000s, positive psychology developed that, by sinking its roots to Aristotelian thought, states that simple positive emotions, economic wealth were not enough to guarantee happiness (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi 2000). Eudemonism (Waterman 1993) suggests that wellbeing consists in the realization of one’s own being, of one’s own demon. Eudemonism distinguishes subjective needs (desires) that lead to momentary pleasure from the needs rooted in human nature whose satisfaction leads to human growth and eudemonic happiness. The process that leads to eudemonic happiness is the discovery of oneself, of one’s own talents, of one’s own goal of life to which one must follow a pleasant and intense work of development and realization of one’s own being. Eudemonic philosophy was developed in different ways by Ryff & Singer (1998, 2000) and Ryan & Deci (2000). According to the first, happiness consists in the search for perfection that represents the realization of its best potential (flourishing). The so-called best version of ourselves. The latter focus on the concept of happiness as a process leading to Self Determination Theory SDT. In this case, the focus is on autonomy, competence, and actualization. In SDT it is postulated that the satisfaction of physiological, psychological, and social needs promotes subjective wellbeing as well as eudemonic happiness.
The power is unleashed by balance: The Fulfilled Life
Although there is still a complete agreement between the 2 schools of thought, various recent studies have assessed how happiness is a multidimensional phenomenon that includes aspects of both hedonism and eudemonism. A 1996 study by Compton et all investigated the link between happiness and 18 hedonic and eudemonic indicators. Among the latter, a moderate correlation was found. The imbalance on the hedonic aspects compared to the eudemonic ones creates imbalances that lead to a divergence of correlation between hedonism and eudemonism regarding happiness.
Unfortunately, what we naturally “see” is not the truth. We have always thought, and we have always been taught, that knowing things and knowledge brings us closer to reality and success in achieving a result. This statement, however, is not entirely correct. Knowing the tools is not enough to be happy. It is not based on knowing or having studied science and techniques, but we must necessarily do and practice with a whole series of activities and be able to measure the results, to verify their effectiveness.
With this image we can better understand the concept:
If we take a ruler and measure both lines, we realize that they have the same length. We know this and we firmly believe that this is the case. Yet our mind continues to perceive them one longer than the other. What we see through our eyes, combined with the knowledge, is not enough to achieve happiness. What is perceived may be different depending on the heritage of cultures and experiences that each brings with it, as Professor Adam Alter has shown. Here is a nice anecdote about his study:
“From the tests carried out in the field, the illusion seems to perfectly deceive most Europeans, Americans, and white South Africans. But things change when the participants in the experiment are recruited from among the African tribes. The Bushmen, who live in the southernmost parts of Africa, seem insensitive to the illusion and see the lines of the same length. The Soku of northern Angola and the Bete of Ivory Coast perceive instead the line with arrows outwards longer than the other”.
Our mind is wired for negativity: practicing happiness is essential. The tendency of our mind is not only to record negative stimuli more quickly but also to dwell on these events. This prejudice of negativity implies that proportionally we feel more emotions of sadness for a reproach than emotions of joy for praise. This psychological phenomenon explains why first bad impressions can be so difficult to overcome and why past traumas can have such persistent effects. In almost all interactions, we are more likely to notice negative things and then remember them more vividly. Neuroscientific evidence has shown that there is more neural processing in the brain in response to negative stimuli than positive ones. Because of this mechanism of the mind, there is a strong impact on our relationships, the ability to make decisions, the impression and prejudices we have about others. This is strongly rooted in our minds because it is the result of evolution. At the beginning of human history, paying attention to bad, dangerous, and negative threats in the world was literally a matter of life and death. Those who were more in tune with the danger and paid more attention to the bad things around them were more likely to survive. This meant that they were also more likely to pass on the genes that made them more attentive to danger. The evolutionary perspective suggests that this tendency to dwell on the negative more than the positive is simply a way in which the brain tries to protect us.
It is important to acknowledge the above to understand that happiness needs constant practice to maintain the necessary balance with eudemonia to achieve happiness and a fulfilled life. The hedonic perspective seems to be easily held while today most people need to invest in developing eudemonic strategies to better develop their sense of purpose and consequent personal growth.
How can coaches support their clients to understand both perspectives and shift to a place that is most empowering for them:
SUPPORT CLIENTS TO INVEST IN “EXPERIENCES”.
Support the client in creating new memories. Even the thought itself and the anticipation of the purchase of an experience increases the level of happiness (for example, the countdown to a departure/vacation). Purchasing experiences also makes other people happy, helps in the relationships, helps make people resonate, and less susceptible to social comparisons.
SUPPORT THE CLIENT TO ENJOY THEIR ACTIONS.
Support them to apply the STOP acronym (Stop whatever you’re doing, take a deep breath, Observe what’s happening inside, Proceed towards value not away from fears) and to intentionally observe what they are doing and deliberately enjoy it. Support them to talk to other people about their actions and share how they felt. Memories related to enjoyed positive moments increase happiness.
TRAIN TO NEGATIVE VISUALIZATION.
Ask your client what life would be like if that thing hadn’t happened. This allows them to get out of the hedonic adaptation and makes them appreciate what they have (for example, does your partner make them nervous? What your life would be like without him/her… Having a difficult time at work? What would it be like if you didn’t have that job).
SUPPORT CLIENTS TO LIVE AS IT WERE THE LAST DAY.
Ask your client: if this would disappear tomorrow? How would you feel if your job ended in 2 days? How would you feel if you missed 2 days to reach a goal or anything that today seems to last a long time and tomorrow may be gone.
ASSIST YOUR CLIENT TO IDENTIFY A WAY TO PRACTICE GRATITUDE.
It is the most powerful strategy of all. It also has an impact on many other unconscious things. There are ways, such as journaling that can be easy to put in place.
- What is it that makes you happy?
- Which area of the graph are you standing in right now?
- What do you feel is missing in your life that would enable you to move towards a more fulfilling life?
- Which of the coaching application strategies could you be implementing straight away?
- How can you support your clients by using this power tool and increase the level of happiness in their lives?
- What powerful questions could you ask your clients to go from a hedonic perspective towards a eudemonic perspective?
Ref: Cacioppo JT, Cacioppo S, Gollan JK. The negativity bias: Conceptualization, quantification, and individual differences. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 2014;37(3):309-310. doi:10.1017/s0140525x13002537