Happiness, life satisfaction, fulfillment and meaning in life


Can science tell us anything about the meaning of life, or how to find happiness? There's been a surge of interest recently among some research psychologists in "positive psychology" - not just finding out what's wrong with people but what's right with them. They've been investigating questions like:

  • What are the characteristics of life satisfaction, and what leads to it?
  • Is happiness just a string of pleasurable events, or is there something deeper?
  • What kinds of happiness are there, and how do we get them?
  • Does tapping into personal strengths and virtues lead to greater engagement in one's activities?
  • How can we find more meaning in life, in the work we do, or in the things we do for enjoyment?
We'll also talk about relationships, community, attitudes and values, and a whole range of other things. Join the conversation and let us know what you think too.





Positive Psychology online course

by Dr. Steve Wright

I’m sometimes asked about Positive Psychology courses – either online courses, or classes in a traditional classroom setting (like at the University of Pennsylvania). Recently someone asked me about whether there were any Positive Psychology classes at Penn (home of the Positive Psychology Center and the “Master of Applied Positive Psychology” graduate degree program) that were open to the general public. I wasn’t aware of any, other than the classes for those accepted into the MAPP degree program, so I called the Positive Psychology Center at Penn to ask.

I was told that there weren’t any available at that time, but was happy to go on a mailing list (something I should start for this blog) to hear about future programs. Well, I just learned that there will be another online course in Positive Psychology this summer, led again by professor Tal Ben-Shahar, whose class on Positive Psychology at Harvard went from 8 students the first year to being the most popular course on campus two years later.

This upcoming class is open-enrollment, and has no pre-requisites. It’s completely online, so anyone in the world with an Internet connection can participate. In fact, people from over 50 countries around the world have already done so. I was part of a similar online / conference call course several years ago, and it was interesting to have participants from all over the U.S. as well as from other countries, even in my own discussion section. I wrote about that course and other programs in a previous post on “Positive Psychology courses.”

Tal Ben-Shahar’s online Positive Psychology course information:

Name: “Foundations of Positive Psychology”

Dates: June 7 – August 27, 2010 (12 weeks)

Tuition cost: $895

School: College of Liberal and Professional Studies, University of Pennsylvania

Registration: Now open

The email I received says:

Examine the history and scientific underpinnings of this intriguing field and learn how its principles have been used to enhance work and home life. This course will blend the rigor of academia and the accessibility of self-help to guide people to lead more satisfying, more meaningful, happier lives.

And goes on…

This course allows you to:

  • Progress at your own pace or follow a weekly schedule.
  • Communicate with the instructor, course facilitators, and classmates via blogs and discussion forums.
  • Join live, interactive events.
  • Create your own social networks.

Exciting features include:

  • High quality streaming video lectures.
  • Twitter-like live discussions with fellow students.
  • Flexibility in the depth and breadth of content explored.
  • Expert researchers and practitioners for instructors and course facilitation

And here are a couple of testimonials from students who’ve taken this online course in the past:

“The course has exceeded my expectations by a long shot! Tal’s lectures are well organized and I especially appreciated the routine grounding of the material in research. I have learned very much about myself and the concepts of Positive Psychology. I genuinely feel the course has changed my life. It has inspired me to enroll in the MPOD program at Case Western this fall!”

-Kevin, Assistant Dean for Planning and Institutional Effectiveness
Doha, Qatar

“It’s one thing to hear of the claims made by Positive Psychology. It’s quite another to have a world renowned expert walk you through the rich research that backs up those claims. Tal connected rigorous science with useful, daily applications of Positive Psychology.”

-Director of Professional Development at an Experiential Educational Institution
Estes Park, Colorado, USA

(Read more testimonials.)

For more information, and for course and registration details, go to U Penn’s Liberal and Professional Studies web site.

Dr. Ben-Shahar has authored several very popular books and taught one of the most popular courses in Harvard University’s history, all on the topic of positive psychology. He consults and lectures around the world to executives in multinational corporations, the general public, and at-risk populations on topics of happiness, self-esteem, resilience, goal setting, mindfulness, and leadership.

Dr. Ben-Shahar is a favorite speaker, and writes in a clear style that is easy to read and apply. He is the author of Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment.

 
Written by Dr. Steve Wright on January 14th, 2010

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Three components of meaningful work

by Dr. Steve Wright

Is your work meaningful?

Enjoying meaningful workMeaning (as in “meaning in life” or “meaningful work”) is obviously important. It’s important to a person for its own sake. It also affects other people—for example, it could be a motivational factor, affecting purpose, goals, and behavior. Most adults spend most of their waking hours working, so it’s important for people to find meaningful work, and to find more meaning in the work they’re currently doing.

A few psychologists are taking on the difficult task of using scientific methods to clarify the fuzzy topic of “meaning.” Michael F. Steger has done some research work in this area, and concludes that meaningful work has three, central components:

First, the work we do must make sense; we must know what’s being asked of us and be able to identify the personal or organizational resources we need to do our job.

Second, the work we do must have a point; we must be able to see how the little tasks we engage in build, brick-by-brick if you will, into an important part of the purpose of our company.

Finally, the work that we do must benefit some greater good; we must be able to see how our toil helps others, whether that’s saving the planet, saving a life, or making our co-workers’ jobs easier so that they can go home and really be available for their families and friends.

So, for our work to be meaningful we have to:

1. Understand what to do and how to do it

2. Know how the things we do fit into the larger picture

3. See how that creates a benefit for someone

A case can be made:

[a] that if people learn about the processes within their company or institution, they’re more likely to see how to do their jobs well, how it fits with what other workers are doing, and how the end product creates value, and

[b] that this can lead to a sense of meaning, which in turn makes people better at what they do.

Patrick McKnight and Todd Kashdan, in their theory of “purpose in life,” talk about “meaning” in the larger sense, pointing out that:

“Living in accord with one’s purpose…offers that person a self-sustaining source of meaning through goal pursuit and goal attainment” (p. 242).

A sense of purpose leads you to make goals and then reach them. And you recognize that it has meaning and value. Also,

“Meaning probably drives the development of purpose. Once a purpose becomes developed, purpose drives meaning.” (p. 243).

It works both ways – meaning and purpose feed each other. But probably mostly in the order McKnight and Kashdan identify.

Can this be applied more narrowly to the world of work? Once you know what to do, how it fits into the larger picture, and how that creates benefit, can the meaning you derive help give you a sense of purpose? With that sense of purpose can you then set and attain goals that give you a greater sense of meaning in your work?

“Purpose” has been a key research interest of mine, so I’ll certainly talk about it more in a future post, especially in light of its relationship to “meaning.”

Honorable, meaningful workI can’t help wondering if there are other things that could contribute to meaning in work. Often when you’re good at something, you like doing it more. I would think this could lead to a feeling that “this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” contributing to sense of meaning. Positive emotions are a better foundation than negative ones for broadening and building, and lead to more effectiveness in work.

Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, presents a similar idea—of these two intertwined factors contributing to meaning in work:

I’ve always wanted to be successful. My definition of being successful is contributing something to the world…and being happy while doing it…. You have to enjoy what you are doing. You won’t be very good if you don’t. And secondly, you have to feel that you are contributing something worthwhile….  If either of these ingredients are absent, there’s probably some lack of meaning in your work.

Then there’s the other intertwined, bi-directional dynamic:

  • Happier, more effective workers developing more of a sense of meaningfulness in their work, and
  • People who feel their work is meaningful becoming happier and more effective.

Michael F. Steger concludes:

A growing body of evidence shows that meaningful workers are happy workers, more committed workers, and, in some tantalizing ways, better workers.

References:

Steger, Michael F. (2009). “Meaningful Work.” The Meaning in Life: Seeking a Life that Matters (Psychology Today blog) June 9, 2009.

McKnight, Patrick E. & Kashdan, Todd B. (2009). “Purpose in Life as a System That Creates and Sustains Health and Well-Being: An Integrative, Testable Theory.” Review of General Psychology. American Psychological Association. September 2009, Vol. 13, No. 3, 242–251.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2008). “Creativity, fulfillment and flow.” TED Talks (Conference on Technology, Education, and Design). October 24, 2008.

 
Written by Dr. Steve Wright on December 2nd, 2009

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Gratitude may be “the ultimate positive emotion”

by Dr. Steve Wright

This post is going to be a little more personal. Recently the number of comments on this site has been increasing, and I’ve been responding as appropriate. It’s gratifying to know that there have been more and more people discovering the site, and finding it useful and interesting. But I haven’t actually written a post since a car accident put me on the couch for almost a month. It was a bit of a shock, and it gave me more time to really think. I didn’t come to any firm conclusions, but I felt the need for more exploring. (See my article “Three strategies for being happier at work or school.”) I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Paradoxically, sometimes an unfortunate event can spark the kind of reflection that leads to gratitude, because you realize all the other things that are good about your life. I’ve written more about gratitude on this blog than any other subject so far, but that’s not because of personal taste. Researchers are learning that gratitude is of top importance in their study of the psychology of happiness.

So at the recent First World Congress on Positive Psychology, one of the participants wrote on twitter (him, me):

“Keep hearing the same thing throughout sessions and empirical studies: gratitude may be the ultimate positive emotion.”

(Also see my articles on gratitude: “Eight ways gratitude boosts happiness,” “Gratitude leads to psychological and physical well-being,” and “Gratitude Visit.”)

The subject of gratitude came up for me again recently when I was giving some advice to a PhD student going off to a conference. I know her quite well, so some of my advice was tailored specifically to her, and is not what I’d say to everyone. The more relevant part was:

Although it doesn’t happen often, there is always a possibility, as you obviously know, for someone to ask a question after your presentation which is aggressively challenging to the point of being obnoxious. I know you well enough to know that you would handle such a question very well. But also, if it ever does happen, don’t let it bother you. Many of the others will see such people as unnecessarily adversarial and will tend to want to defend you emotionally in proportion to the aggressiveness, even if they don’t speak up. The person might be upset about something else or may have even had a difficult childhood. It’s possible to be compassionate under such circumstances, and even grateful for one’s own situation. (And I’ll have to remember my own advice next time I talk to a rude customer service agent!)

This got me thinking. You never know what short or long term causes might contribute to someone being obnoxious. They could be in a bad mood for a variety of reasons, but normally it would be because something happened to them that was worse than their expectations, so it’s possible to have sympathy or compassion if you consider what their situation might be. There may be a cause as remote as a defensive style they developed in childhood in response to a perceived threat, perhaps an ongoing one. Even genetic predispositions might be a factor.

Sometimes it can help to know about one of these factors. Steven Covey tells a story about being annoyed that some kids were being unruly on a train and the father wasn’t saying anything. He finally said something to the father, and the father apologized and said they are probably not quite themselves because their mother just died. Covey felt embarrassed and his annoyance immediately evaporated.

Discovering something like this, or even something much more minor, can help one to actually be grateful after such encounters, grateful for one’s own background, experience, or circumstances. Now if we could only have the presence of mind to consider this kind of thing before making assumptions and getting upset!

 
Written by Dr. Steve Wright on June 26th, 2009

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