A Research Paper By Ann-Marie Purvis, Executive Coach, SWITZERLAND
The Concept of Achieving Happiness
Don’t chase happiness. Become antifragile. Tal Ben-Shahar.
This paper provides an overview of the concept of achieving happiness and an approach for the coach and coachee to be able to understand and approach this very complex topic. It reviews how the concept of happiness has been researched and the findings from thought leaders in the field.
“There are only 2 kinds of people who don’t experience painful emotions. The first kind is psychopaths and the second is dead. There is a false expectation or understanding that a happy life means being happy all the time. Learning to accept, and even embrace painful emotions is an important part of a happy life and the study of painful emotions is an important part of the field of Happiness Studies” Tal Ben-Shahar[i]. Tal Ben-Shahar is a teacher in the field of happiness studies. He has written many books on this topic and this can be a thought-provoking influence on how we work with our coachees through their challenges.
Where to From Here?
In many fairy tales, there is a lovely ending where all the characters are able to live happily ever after. However, it is important to consider what the value is of happiness. Tal Ben-Shahar suggests that it has the ability to help us become antifragile.
Most things break or bend when put under stress and pressure and in the construction world we can even consider robust and strong building materials like reinforced concrete used in skyscrapers! If something is resilient, such as high-density foam, then it returns to its original shape once the pressure is removed. Let’s consider something that is antifragile, once the stress is removed then the object becomes actually stronger! In the plant world think of trees under attack from beetles, their exposed bark forms a skin of amber and self heals and becomes more impervious to attack.
What Are the Implications for Happiness?
Tal Ben-Shahar, a positive psychologist explains, that our psychology can correspond to either of these three conditions. If we are subjected to hardships and painful emotions, then we can do our best to be brave but if we are put under too intense a pressure then we are unable to continue to cope, we crack. Alternatively, we can be resilient and bounce back. Or we can be antifragile and tap into the experience to actually become a stronger person.
Because happily ever after is not true for most of us we are unable to have a direct correlation between action to happiness. Instead, we try to find ways to tap into our ability to become more antifragile. Even when the world seems a difficult and hard place to survive in.
This important concept of Antifragility was introduced by Nassim Taleb [ii]. Antifragility is essentially Resilience 2.0. Resilience 1.0 is where we put pressure on a system and, after the pressure is removed, it returns to its original state. Antifragility takes this idea to another stage further. If you apply pressure to a system, it adapts and becomes even stronger. We see antifragile frameworks, systems, and ecosystems all around us and even WITHIN US.
For another example, we can look to our own muscular ecosystem. We go to the gym and we stress our muscles with weights. We put pressure on our muscles. What happens as a result is that we actually grow stronger. We are an antifragile system. On the psychological level, this is called the PTG – Post Traumatic Growth. So where post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is about breaking down, PTG is about growing stronger as a result of pressure or stress. This is antifragility.
The perspective of the Science of happiness is to help us understand what pressures we can apply to increase the chances of growing from hardship. However, there is a paradox in pursuing happiness. From one perspective we know happiness is a wonderful and helpful thing. However from another perspective we also know from research by Iris Moss that when individuals say to themselves, “Happiness is important for me, I want to pursue it,” a strange thing happens, those people actually end up that their happiness is reduced and in fact, it becomes reduced when they pursue it. In fact, they’re more likely to undergo depression. So there is a noticeable paradox. It is known that happiness is great but it seems that when we start valuing it as great then it becomes problematic.
So what shall we do in this situation? The suggestion is that the way to address this paradox is that we change our thinking and actually pursue happiness indirectly.
Barriers? Important to Happiness?
If I wake up in the morning and say to myself, I want to be happy, I’m going to be happy no matter what, I am directly pursuing happiness,” Ben-Shahar writes in his book Happier, No Matter What. “This deliberate pursuit to be happy reminds me how important happiness is to me — of how much I value it — and therefore hurts more than it helps.
One perspective is to consider that such a mindset views hardship as being damaging to happiness. If something develops pain, stress, discomfort, public embarrassment, or any number of other negative emotions, then it’s generally something we strive to avoid. As a result, we strive for those that make us feel good and give us those wonderful bursts of serotonin and a happy state.
It is unfortunately not something that is possible. Difficult emotions aren’t like awful-tasting foods. You can’t go on a health kick and remove them from your diet. They will happen, and when they do, the person who puts a high value on happiness will feel like they are let down and perhaps even a failure. The person is confused and reasons that if they were really happy then they would not be subject to these difficult mental states. They would just be happy.
Ben-Shahar Talks About This Mindset:
“Learning to accept and even embrace painful emotions is an important part of a happy life,” Ben-Shahar advises. “Because if we aren’t willing to face those emotions or develop the mental tools to process them, then we can’t pursue the goals and experiences that make for a productive, fulfilling life. Think about sunlight. So if I look at the sun directly, it’s going to hurt my eyes. However, if I break down sunlight into its elements, into its constituents, I can look at the colors of the rainbow. So I’m indirectly looking at the sunlight, enjoying it, savoring it. In the same way, pursuing happiness directly can cause more harm than good. But breaking it down into its elements can lead us to enjoy the indirect pursuit of happiness and by extension to raise our overall levels of happiness. What are the metaphorical colors of the rainbow when it comes to happiness? Here we have what I’ve come to call the SPIRE model. And it can trigger the antifragile system.” Ben-Shahar.
The Indirect Pursuit of Happiness
Luckily we don’t have to look directly at the sun to see its glory and understand it better. We can use indirect techniques like breaking apart the single spectrum into its component parts using prisms, we can see reflections in water, and we can see the shadows it creates of other objects. We can do the same thing with happiness. By looking at happiness through research and the views of others we can discover how best we can understand it for ourselves and how to tap into its benefits.
Ben-Shahar has suggested five conditions that allow us to take the path of happiness indirectly and, this can help us also be in touch with painful emotions and start to grow from them. They are the conditions called: spiritual, physical, intellectual, relational, and emotional well-being (or SPIRE for short). People who develop all five are, generally, happier than those who don’t or who focus on only one or two.
Happiness resides on a continuum. It’s a life-long journey. Tal Ben-Shahar
Happiness through SPIRE
Spiritual well-being is about identifying and finding meaning and purpose in your life and being able to become fully present in the moment.
Ben-Shahar states that “SPIRE is an acronym that stands for Spiritual, Physical, Intellectual, Relational, and finally, Emotional well-being.”
Spirituality is about finding a sense of meaning and purpose in life, at work, and at home. If you start your day with a purpose, Ben suggests you’re more likely to overcome any issues or challenges.
He suggested that many find this through religion, but Ben-Shahar he also suggested that people can find spirituality in their work, hobbies, charitable contributions, and so on.
“The sense of the sacred is drawn from the fact that the activity isn’t merely an obligation. It’s a calling.”
Ben-Shahar used the work of psychologist Adam Grant[iii]. Grant liaised with university call center workers and separated them into two groups. The first group, cold-called alumni, asked for donations and received the typical hang-ups, etc. The second group was thanked for their work, talked about the usefulness of their education, and talked about the wonderful experiences ingoing to the university.
Grant found that the second group was more effective and in fact raised more money than the first group. In recognizing meaning in their job, they had a purpose and then were able to achieve more results.
Now, take a moment or two to step back and recognize the true value and intention of what you do, whether it is helping your kids with their homework, washing the dishes by yourself, going over the bills with your partner, caring for an aging parent, negotiating a deal with a client, or pushing through a difficult assignment at work. It doesn’t take much, just a few minutes of awareness—and that can make all the difference, Ben-Shahar states.
The importance of this last quote and focus on the details of our lives is an important dimension of SPIRE. We don’t have to make dramatic changes to our lives to be happier. Small activities where we get in touch with our purpose can make all the difference in our happiness. Taking small breaks, and starting the day in touch with our purpose can all help and can snowball to have a greater overall effect when applied consistently.
Relational elements are also very important. Having strong relationships where we spend quality time with people who matter to us and we matter to them, is one of the strongest predictors of happiness. This has the greatest opportunity of growing through hardships and developing our qualities of antifragility.
With emotional well-being, we are allowing space for those painful emotions and also creating experiences to help us be in touch with the pleasurable ones too. Particularly, the emotion of gratitude.
In using the SPIRE model as a concept and framework we can offer to work with our coachees to support them in their discovery of what makes them happy and potentially how explore how their experiences can help them to develop their abilities to become antifragile. The GROW power tool is useful in supporting these coaching conversations. The Grow model can be useful for the client to be able to reflect on what they need, how they want to move forward, and when they want to achieve this. As always, it is important to be able to listen to our clients, suspend judgment, and allow them the space and time to explore their choices without any pressure and to ensure they know they have the coach with them on their journey.
[i] Happier, No Matter What: Cultivating Hope, Resilience, and Purpose in Hard Times, Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D. 2021
[ii] Antifragile: Things that gain from Disorder, Nassim N. Taleb 2012
[iii]Putting a Face to a Name: The Art of Motivating Employees, Adam Grant
[iv]Happiness and why “happily ever after” is a myth - Big Think.