The secret to happiness, according to positive psychology expert Shawn Achor, lies not in attaining all your goals so that at some future date, you can be truly satisfied. It is a mistake to think that once you have the right partner, the right job, enough money, enough status… then you will truly be happy. It’s a fool’s game because once we attain a goal, our brain simply moves the bar higher.
What Achor discovered in his years at Harvard doing research into happiness is that we should reverse our thinking completely. We need to cultivate happiness now, and this will lead to greater success, however you measure it. A positive outlook makes us better at learning, communicating, working… well, at pretty much anything we try. Achor’s popular TED talk on “The happy secret to better work” suggests that what happens on the inside accounts for 90 percent of our satisfaction with life, while external events affect us by only 10 percent. In a similar vein, research has shown that once our basic needs are met, increased wealth does not increase our happiness much at all.
The positive psychology movement has the potential to drastically change the practice of psychotherapy. Focusing on what’s wrong may not be the best way to move forward. Although a typical therapy session is often focused on diagnosing the exact nature of the trouble a client experiences and how it came about, this may in fact not be very helpful. Hard-won insight does help us understand how we got to where we are. But knowing where we’ve been does not tell us where we should go. If what we focus on grows, focus on our troubles may be ill-advised.
So what is the way forward? Achor suggests many now-familiar practices: gratitude, meditation, kindness. For example, every morning we should write down three things we are grateful for. This trains the brain to look for the positive in our world despite its inherent negativity bias. We should relive in our mind the good things that have happened to us. In addition, meditation helps us maintain focus in a world where we can be overwhelmed with so many shiny objects begging for our increasingly-divided attention. And kindness and compassion bring true satisfaction.
There is one caveat to all of this positivity, however. I wonder, can we be truly happy in a world that has equal amounts of light and shadow? Does satisfaction in this moment make us complacent about the state of the world? Does it leave internal refugees that are abandoned because they don’t align with our sunny outlook?
Our inner worlds are complex, and I want to suggest a practice that honours this, leading to depth and meaning, not simple happiness, because happiness, in my experience, is a wonderful and unsustainable state. Don’t get me wrong; I think taking a grateful, open stance on the flow of experience that greets is a wonderful starting place. But certainly, not everything we meet is going to make us happier.
Rather than a strict focus on what’s right (or wrong), my sense is that maybe it’s better to focus on what is. Sometimes life is full of richness, other times full of sorrow. And it’s never either/or; there is always something bright that can be found in a dark landscape, always some dark corners in the light. Cultivating the inner equanimity and space to radically accept it all with grace feels more grounded and inclusive, and ultimately can lead us to a life that is not always happy but consistently feels rich with depth and meaning.