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Forget Happiness! Why Flourishing Is the New (More Sustainable) Happy

07/01/2014 13:26 GMT | Updated 09/03/2014 09:59 GMT

Happiness. It's something everyone strives for. It (along with good health) is the ultimate goal, the holy grail of a good life. As Epicurus said "We must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed toward attaining it."

Yet, as we focus on what we lack and want (rather than what we already have) we say, "I'll be happy when..." which pushes that holy grail further away. Furthermore this happiness stuff - it's just a mere feeling, and a rapidly fleeting one too. We feel it for a moment. And then it's gone. Yes, happiness or positive emotion can be difficult to sustain.

Scientists have long known that, due to what's known as the 'hedonic treadmill', even those fortunate enough to achieve a lottery win inducing mind-blowing levels of happiness do not sustain that positive feeling for long... so what's the answer?

The Pursuit of Flourishing

According to leading positive psychologists, the answer is to pursue a flourishing life rather than merely a happy one. Flourishing is about more than simply feeling good, it's about pursuing and experiencing a better life; achieving optimal and sustainable well-being. It's about responding more positively to what happens to us on a daily basis.

Flourishing and well-being, in contrast to happiness and life satisfaction, can be readily measured through the foundations on which it is built. According to Martin Seligman, one of the forefathers of the flourishing concept, (who believes the word happiness is "so overused it has become almost meaningless") there are certain elements which comprise human flourishing.

Seligman and his team created a mnemonic to summarise these elements of flourishing.

Their catchword is PERMA. It stands for the five measurable elements of well-being, which are:

  • POSITIVE EMOTION.
  • ENGAGEMENT.
  • RELATIONSHIPS.
  • MEANING.
  • ACCOMPLISHMENT.

Happiness and life satisfaction are merely aspects of the first element of well-being - positive emotion. It is not enough to focus solely on that then. In order to flourish we must have all of the above.

If we can all fill our days and weeks with doses of these, we are scientifically proven to flourish and, in doing so, be more creative, resilient, happy and focused! A multiple win then.

The 7 Steps To Flourishing

However, as splendid as they are, I believe there are two elements missing from these five pillars: Minimising Negative Emotion (it's not all about maximising positivity) and Health (if you are tired and unhealthy/unfit, it can be difficult to implement the other 'pillars' or 'steps). I believe there are 7 Steps To Flourishing.

1. Maximising Positive Emotion

2. Minimising Negative Emotion

3. Health

4. Purpose

5. Relationships

6. Action

7. Growth (Achievement)

Bouncing Back From Tragedy

Of course flourishing doesn't mean that nothing bad will ever happen to you, but it does mean that you'll be better equipped and able to cope with and overcome adversity when it does happen.

I know this to be true. Despite battling MS my mum, Denise, never complained and constantly smiled, refusing to be a victim of her situation. She seems to have passed that positive attitude on to me. I've long been informed by friends and colleagues that I'm one of the most positive people they know and have built up a huge well of positivity and an ingrained habit of looking on the bright side. While that may be incredibly annoying to some, it has helped me to cope with the loss of both of my parents.

Positivity has bolstered my resilience in coping with that loss and put the breaks on negative feelings, as has gratitude. I still have grief-stricken moments of heart-breaking sadness but I haven't dwelled on what has happened. Positive emotion, gratitude, mindfulness and the overwhelming level of support I've had from my friends has bolstered my resilience and prevented me from entering into that all-too common spiral of doom that can lead to depression and make it tough to bounce back.

Here's the proof: My mission, to make the world a little less frowny and a lot more appreciative, became all the more relevant to me as, in June this year, in the midst of editing the chapter of my book on resilience, the unthinkable happened.

My dear dad was diagnosed with asbestos-related cancer and passed away just three short weeks later.

It was a terrible shock! Just as I was overwhelmed with grief, I was overwhelmed by the support I got from my friends and loved ones. The words I had written in The Flourish Handbook about resilience and supportive relationships became poignantly relevant and my sense of purpose, to do all I could to empower others to make the most of their one and only life, became all the more meaningful. The experience literally proved what I'd been writing about to be true: that supportive relationships are vital to levels of resilience and well-being and that positivity and gratitude are critical parts of our resilience toolkit, helping us to bounce back from traumatic experiences.

Leading positivity scientist, Barbara Fredrickson agrees. She too suffered a blow in the midst of writing Positivity when her husband was thrust into a life-threatening situation. He survived but Barbara was "moved to tears of gratitude by the fast-acting compassion of our whole neighbourhood network. Their gifts of kindness provided exactly what I needed, both instrumentally and emotionally. With their help, I was freed up and fueled up to step up the care."

For both Barbara and myself, our connections to others and their level of goodwill prevented us from deferring to the dangerous downward spiral that pulls so many people into its depressing depths.

Ultimately, by pursuing a journey towards flourishing and well-being rather than towards mere happiness, we can make the most of our lives, reach our potential, cope with whatever life throws our way and help others to do the same. Flourishing is well-rounded and empowering. So let's make 2014 the year in which we flourish.

To take part in The 7-Step Flourish Challenge and grab your free 10 Ways To Flourishing Checklist click here.