It was the fall of 2005 when I was in the MAPP program at Penn, and I was reading more and more research that helped me to understand exactly what it takes to flourish and succeed in life. In one of the most profound, slam-dunk findings I’ve ever read, three researchers (Ed Diener, Laura King, and Sonja Lyubomirsky) had parsed and reviewed hundreds of studies on success in life to discover the exact opposite of what I and many others had mistakenly believed was true: we don’t become happy after we succeed at something, but rather we succeed precisely because we are happy first.
We don’t become happy after we succeed at something, but rather we succeed precisely because we are happy first.
Their comprehensive overview of longitudinal, qualitative, correlational, and causal studies on success in friendship, health, finance, work, and all other aspects of life helped me understand why achieving certain external goals when I was younger had never made me happy for long, and had instead left me emptier than before. The grades, the awards, the schools, the scores, and the right weight never brought me the lasting satisfaction I had thought they would, and now I could see why. If I’d had access to these findings during the worst of my bulimic behavior, maybe I would have taken a different approach to my diet and health, and wouldn’t have done so much damage to myself.
Since the moment I read that and other research, and learned about the power of emotional flourishing to change our lives for the better, I’ve made it a mission to be sure that anyone who sets and pursues goals in any area of life understands the importance of attending to their well-being as a first step toward any transformation or success. The truth is that any goal-setting of any kind has to pay attention to this fundamental fact: we greatly improve our odds of achieving goals, especially hard goals that require grit, if we start by first booting ourselves up to be our happiest, best selves.
We greatly improve our odds of achieving goals, especially hard goals that require grit, if we start by first booting ourselves up to be our happiest, best selves.
When I began the MAPP (Masters of Applied Positive Psychology) program, Marty Seligman’s theory of well-being said that happiness consisted of having pleasure, feeling engaged in life, and leading a meaningful life. Over the next few years, as more research rolled in and more people began to weigh in on the topic, he expanded his thinking about “the well-lived life.” The general understanding now is that a person who is living a flourishing life (which isn’t the absence of negativity, but rather the promotion of positivity) has several different but blended activities and strengths, which go by the acronym PERMA: Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievements.
To pump your happiness up to optimal levels, you want to pay attention to how the various components of PERMA are triggered, as well as to what you can do to create optimal conditions for goal pursuit, passion, and grit.
Researcher Barbara Fredrickson is one of the luminaries in the field of positive psychology. Her simple question “What good are positive emotions?” yielded a pivotal theory known as “broaden and build.” Her prize-winning research found that when people experience positive emotions—joy, contentment, awe, pride, love, etc.—a number of things occur that favor the continuation of the human species. They include the fact that when we broaden our awareness of our surroundings, we become more curious about other people, which in turn builds relationships. “Micromoments” of happiness—such as the joy of finding the right parking spot, feeling awe because of a thrilling experience, having our hearts fill with pride when a child does something for the first time, or feeling fulfilled because we worked our hardest to make something meaningful happen—add up to create a cushion of positivity. Fredrickson and other researchers have found that when we experience five positive emotions for every one negative emotion, we have a greater likelihood of flourishing and being proactive, purposeful, and passionate about life.
There are two ways to do this: you can either deliberately create positive emotions and micromoments through your own actions and thoughts, or you can stop and notice good things as they occur. Unhappy people have as many positive things happening around them as happy people, but the difference is that happy people deliberately salute those moments as they occur and don’t let them slip by. It’s been said that unhappy people don’t even notice when someone holds a door for them, so be sure you don’t miss a chance to celebrate the good things as they occur around you.
Happy people are engaged in life, and they don’t experience boredom or depression as often as unhappy people. Their engagement often comes from doing things that challenge and interest them, which leads to a state of flow and the feeling that time is standing still. Whenever we are doing something and we don’t notice what is happening around us, or time passes so swiftly that we can’t believe a whole day has gone by, we are doing something positive that enhances our well-being and improves who we are.
The place where we are supposed to experience flow most often is at work because of the sheer number of hours so many of us spend working away from our family and friends. So if you are not engaged in your work, this could drag you down. In fact, most workers are disengaged from their work, which is predictive of low productivity, depression, and high turnover, and consultants are often brought into organizations to address this problem. One promising way to combat disengagement at work is through “job crafting,” an exercise created by Justin Berg, Jane Dutton and Amy Wrzesniewski from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. When we can use our top strengths more directly at work—and in our personal lives—we will experience more engagement. We can also improve engagement by aligning our purpose with what we are doing.
One of the most powerful findings in the happiness studies is that someone cannot be designated a flourishing person without also having high-quality relationships. George Vaillant, an MD who oversaw the Harvard Grant Study for decades, found that the men who thrived emotionally into later life were the ones who cultivated and maintained positive relationships with family and friends. It led Vaillant to say conclusively, “Happiness is Love. Full stop.” Chris Peterson, one of the leading figures in positive psychology, frequently said that every finding on happiness could be boiled down to one phrase: “Other people matter.” Gritty people remain passionate and persevering often because they have built and maintained a team around them, and they don’t just receive support but give it as well. If you want to be happy and gritty, this component of PERMA cannot be overstated.
Happy people don’t just have lives of pleasure or engagement. They also feel that their life is meaningful and serves a higher purpose that makes the world better. Meaning can take many forms. It can come from being a loving parent, breaking barriers for others, having a skill that serves those who need it, or bringing hope to others. A meaningful life is infused with passion and purpose, so pursuing worthwhile goals with grit is an important part of what leads to flourishing in your life.
Some people are uncomfortable with the idea of achievement being part of a flourishing life, but that’s usually because of a misperception of achievement. Achievement in PERMA isn’t about winning or being number one; instead, it’s about accomplishing goals that are meaningful and purposeful. Research finds that people would rather be doing something than nothing, and self-determination theory says that to thrive, people need to feel masterful in their own environments. Not all achievements will bring happiness, however. Pursuing extrinsic goals that reflect superficial desires, like money and fame, or that are someone else’s dreams, doesn’t result in a satisfying feeling of accomplishment or happiness (see Selfie Grit). Research has also found that the happiest people wake up every day to pursue clear-cut, difficult goals that are outside their comfort zone—and not only do these goals produce the best outcomes, but they also result in the highest levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy.
Other ways happiness fuels grit…
There are many other ways that emotional flourishing can improve your ability to be gritty, and one of them is making you better able to deal with physical pain. To break down prisoners and make torture more effective, captors exploit the importance of close relationships by telling prisoners that no one cares about them or is coming to save them. The subsequent feeling of abandonment amplifies the pain of physical torture. Positive emotions help people withstand torture. For our purposes, the more well-being you can create, the more easily you’ll be able to cope with the physical and emotional challenges that occur when you need to exhibit grit.
EXERCISE: Time Travel
New research has found that anxiety and depression can fuel procrastination because it’s easier to give up when unhappiness rules our thinking. One of the best ways to deal with this is to “time travel” and imagine an important goal has been reached—instead of focusing only on the work in front of you. The research finds that the positive emotions generated by imagining a completed goal can lift a person’s mood and allow them to get started on, or stick with, hard work.
© 2017 Caroline Adams Miller, MAPP All rights reserved.