Over the last few years I’ve noticed a shift in language when people talk about their own lives and the lives of others.
We talk much more these days about the importance of thriving and flourishing, rather than just coping. I suspect there are a number of reasons for this change and the field of positive psychology has played a significant part in that. I am particularly interested in what that shift means for individuals at a practical level and how that impacts those of us who work with people around personal effectiveness.
One thing that strikes me is that alongside this shift in vocabulary there has also been a shift in expectation. For example, I hear a lot about our changing expectations of the workplace: we are no longer content with the promise of a regular salary and job security; we expect opportunities for development, growth, and work-life balance. Meanwhile in our wider world, from politics to media, there are far more discussions of the importance of engagement, meaning, purpose and wellbeing.
It concerns me that for many people, whilst language and expectations may have changed, reality hasn’t. Research suggests that many of us aren’t thriving, rather we’re simply getting by. Life is busy and taking time out to evaluate is challenging. Knowing what to change and how is even harder. Add to that the pressure that social media provides by presenting us with a twisted version of reality where, due to ‘positive posting bias’ it seems everyone else is thriving more than us, and we have a potentially very stressful situation for someone who is aware they are simply coping and is struggling to make change.
This is a complex area that cannot be fully explored in a blog like this, but I think there are a few simple points that are useful for us to remember when we are evaluating our own lives or supporting others.
1. Reducing the negative and increasing the positive are two different things – they are not on a continuum.
Flourishing is not just about fixing those things that aren’t working. In fact, the likelihood is that fixing problems will only get us to feeling and being OK. If we want to thrive then we need to increase the positives in our lives, we need to build on those things that are working. That might be spending more time with the people we enjoy being with, doing more of the things we love or taking more time to notice the positives in our lives. Whatever it is, we need to focus a significant amount of our energy on the positives – and that is a separate activity to reducing the negatives.
2. Small things can make a big difference.
Big life changes can be revolutionary and might be necessary. But, for many of us, the revolution will be in a number of small changes. If you look at the research around wellbeing a lot of it points to developing the right habits, that is things you can build into your life in a sustainable way – regular exercise, social and family time, showing gratitude and appreciation. For most of us this about small changes to the way we do things. For things to have a lasting impact they typically need to be ongoing.
3. We need to focus on those things that we can influence.
It’s easy to think that life would be better if only we could change the world! But so much feels out of our control. To maintain and build our wellbeing, and to make a real difference, we need to focus on things we can directly influence: the relationships we have with the people around us; how we approach tasks and challenges; what we say and how we respond to people and situations. By focusing on those things we can influence we will start to see change, which is far more productive and satisfying than spending all of our time worrying about things we can’t change.
But beyond those basic principles, what specific actions can people take to help them to flourish? These are some of my favourites:
We may not always be able to influence what happens, but we can influence the way we think about it. That’s not about turning all negatives into a positive, but it is about putting everything in its place. A simple exercise we often use in coaching and workshops is to encourage people to look at problems and issues from different perspectives. For example, if you are ruminating on an issue, try to consider how you think you will feel about it in six months’ time? Then consider a wider perspective - in the bigger scheme of things, how important is the issue? Finally, try to see the issue from other people’s perspectives - How do you think the issue looks to the other people involved? Thinking around an issue or problem like this can help you to gain some perspective.
Make time to socialise
Strong positive relationships with other people are really important for our wellbeing. When we’re busy it’s very easy to let socialising and family time slip. But it’s a necessity not a luxury. Research is clear to say positive emotions are important for flourishing: Having fun with the people we care about is a very simple way to enjoy ourselves and build our sense of purpose. Not only that, but having strong relationships means we have people to turn to when we do have problems – sharing with others can give us perspective and solutions we wouldn’t think about by ourselves.
Mindfulness has seen a huge surge in popularity over the last few years, and that’s not surprising when you look at the research showing its benefits. Amongst other things, regular mindfulness practice significantly impacts on our mood, our ability to concentrate and our ability to deal with stress. To really feel the benefits you need to practice mindfulness regularly – but that doesn’t have to take large amounts of time – 10-15 minutes a day can start to make a real difference.
Showing appreciation and gratitude is perhaps one of the simplest ways to bolster our wellbeing. This can be as simple as making more effort to say thank you and show appreciation in the moment. Alternatively, you might want to develop a more regular habit through using the Three Good Things exercise. This exercise is very simple – just make a regular time in your day (many people find it a nice way to end their day) and write down three things that you are grateful for that day, why they went well and how that made you feel. Research shows that regularly noting what you are grateful for has a positive impact on your emotions and wellbeing and helps build your appreciation of the people around you.
Using your strengths
Typically, when we are using our strengths we feel more confident, happier and it has a positive impact on our performance. Taking time to reflect on when you are at your best and the qualities you use in those situations can help you to start to identify what your strengths are and then you can look for opportunities to use them more. There are a number of tools out there to help you to work out what your strengths are, our free self-reflection exercise might be the place to start. Identifying your strengths is only the start point, you need to look for opportunities to build on them and use them more if you are going to make the most of them.