How to nurture a flourishing life

This post contains my personal notes from the book ” Flourishing”  by Maureen Gaffney. Here she talks about ten strategies for creating a flourishing life.

I. BUILD YOUR CAPACITY FOR HAPPINESS

1. Think, feel and behave like happy people

We have previously talked about what flourishing means, the importance of positive feelings and experiences and the flourishing ratio and exploring who you are. All these are essential for happiness. We define happiness in a simple way here: having frequent positive feelings as well as having infrequent and less intense negative feelings. Being happy has a lot of benefits as happy people are more successful in almost every domain of life.

Happy people:

  • have better health and live longer
  • have more friends and better relationships
  • do better in work and earn more money
  • are better bosses and lead more successful organisations

Happy people enjoy these because:

  • they seek other people
  • are helpful
  • set goals for themselves
  • look on the bright side of life

We can learn from happy people and become more happy by:

  1. Spending more time with our friends.
  2. Practising seeing the bright side of things.
  3. Stop comparing ourselves with other people.
  4. Develop better coping strategies by actively working to find the positive in a negative or uncertain situation

2. Discovering what really makes you happy

Happiness can be experienced at the conscious, unconscious and superconscious level. Laughing at a cartoon, enjoying challenges and feeling meaning and purpose in our life can make us happy. Let us see what research has found about what makes us happy.

Genes significantly influence our characteristic emotional responses to life. They predispose you to pay attention to certain things and not to others. If you change how you direct and change your attention you can increase your happiness levels.

Temperament also influences happiness. being extroverted and less neurotic can make you more happy. Being neurotic is a predisposition, it is not a life sentence.

Life circumstances-age, gender, education, appearance, ethnicity, socio-economic status, marital status, having children, health and religious beliefs, friendship, intelligence and education, work and leisure activities have only a small effect on happiness. These are things that we adapt to easily,  the so-called hedonic treadmill. These are important for our society and families as a whole but they will really not increase happiness to a great extent.

Happiness(100%)= Genetic(50%)+ Life circumstances(10%) + Intentional activity(40%)

We cannot do much about genetic inheritance. Changing life circumstances does not help much. But a full 40% of your potential for happiness is in your own hands:

  • what you choose to attend to in your life
  • the way that you choose to think
  • the activities that you choose to engage in day-to-day
  • the goals that you set for yourself and pursue

By doing intentional activities which may be big or small, we can affect 40% of our happiness.

II. SET YOURSELF GOALS

3. Take on three life projects

The ability to rise to a challenge helps us flourish. In a practical way, one can do this by taking on three life projects:

  • Related to your work
  • Related to your family or friends
  • Related to a personal interest

Meaningful projects need to have certain roots on which they can be built:

  • There should be  a need for doing it and the emotions aroused by that need should be positive and not negative( pleasure, excitement, love, caring and achievement)
  • As humans we all have goals. Most of the time life chooses these goals for us; taking care of basic physical needs, then psychological needs like self-esteem, status, relationships and more general goals that come at different points in the life cycle: becoming independent, finding love,  taking care of children, career advancement, taking care of elderly parents, finding purpose in retirement, etc. But these are routine. To flourish, you have to turn a few of these into personal projects that you want to do and are not forced to do. They should also be driven by a strong personal value.
  • We all have personal values. We have to arrange these values in some sort of hierarchy to make choices. We often let life take us wherever we want. But if become conscious of what our real values are and then do projects that are aligned with these values, then we will flourish.
  • When we do a project based on needs, goals and values we will experience positive emotions and this will give us pleasure if we strive to keep the effort and activity involved fresh, meaningful and positive.
  • All of this is of no use if we do not act. Without action, there is no project- there is just aspiration. Your goal has to changed into a series of practical sub-goals-plans and strategies to achieve the outcome we want.  Then we need to get started, keep going and when to stop. All the way, positive emotions help us: starting, keep going despite obstacles and finally achieve the goal.

We have to choose a life project based on certain criteria:

1. A project that is freely chosen: You have do something that you want to do rather than have to do. You can change what you have to do into what you want to do. To do this you have to focus on the “want” part rather than the “have” part, realize deeply that this is the right thing to do and then embrace and commit to doing it.
2. A project that is personally valued and meaningful: This is likely if the project you choose  is a good personal “fit” with:
-what really motivates you( like connects you to people, helps you act independently, enables you to do what you are good at doing)
-your core values ( early experiences in family, early experiences of personal success and early experiences of loss or deprivation can help clarify what our real values are)
-your personal strengths and interests( what you do well and what you like doing)
3. A project that is doable: Here we have to have a potent mix of realism and optimism married to a strong personal commitment to make it happen.
4. A project with specific goals: You have to have a plan and specific goals and sub-goals and a time limit and adjust them as you go along. The only way to eat an elephant is bite by bite.
5. A project carried out with required time and effort: You need to freely commit yourself to doing the project otherwise you will end up in half-hearted action or inertia. When you commit yourself you go automatically into goal mode.
6. A project that you have adequate resources to pursue: You need to have enough material resources and time. You also need emotional support in the form of support and encouragement. But the most important are the psychological resources: your personal commitment and your ingenuity in making things happen.
7. A project with a reasonable chance( though no guarantee) that you can achieve your goals in a specified period of time:  This reasonable chance is not always objective fact and more often to be found in commitment  and enthusiasm in your own mind.

When we choose projects based on the above principles, we increase the flourishing ratio and experience more positive things. But there may be times when we find discouraged or bored. To help us going we can use the following strategies:

  • Keep “owning” the goal
  • Concentrate on making it enjoyable
  • Keep a balance
  • Remember the big picture
  • Create variety in what you are doing
  • Vary the “weight” of your chosen projects
  • Maintain balance between projects so that you can develop your physical, mental and emotional sides

The you will see that you will really flourish.

III. CONTROL YOUR ATTENTION

4. Life is what we pay attention to

There are lot of things happening around us. We pay attention only to some of them. What we pay attention to we experience. As the days pass, our experiences become our life.

So the way we pay attention is important: If we focus our attention and act intentionally, it becomes a good day. We can pay attention to only one thing at a time. If  we pay attention to many things, then we get distracted and develop what is called the attention deficit trait.

We have to be alert to what is happening around us. Then  we should be able to select the important things and forget about the rest. Then we need to act upon what we have focused. Then we have good attention and this helps us have a good day.

But we also have to remember that attention is easily depleted. The effort of concentration, acts of self-control and having to exert control over our feelings all leave us depleted. To prevent this, we often go on to automatic mode. Sometimes this may help us flourish, if they are the right things. Otherwise, we may languish.

To pay attention well we have to-

  1. Be aware of how we pay attention to everything everyday.
  2. If you think positively, you will be more attentive
  3. Use habits to develop good automatic reactions.
  4. Declutter your life. Only handle things once(OHIO).
  5. Build up routines that will renew yourself in physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects everyday.

5. Rewire your brain to make the best use of your attention

When we have an experience and respond in a certain way, specific neurons fire and become connected. When this keeps happening in a a particular way, that particular response becomes the default response. Our brain also changes its physical structure as this keeps happening. But we can change. The brain is plastic. If we respond in different ways, the old connections will grow weaker and the new connections will grow. The best way of doing this is to become mindful. There are two ways in which we can become mindful:

1. The practice of meditation: Mindfulness meditation means to be aware of the present moment non-judgmentally and allow the unfolding of experience moment by moment. It is the training of attention – of sensations, thoughts, of developing pure awareness. As a result you develop concentration, monitoring capabilities and realising the power of the automatic brain. We feel physically better, mentally better, less stressful, release good hormones and even age less. When you meditate you are aware of the sensations from your body, thoughts and ideas from your mind, an awareness of observing yourself and realizing in some deep way who you are. These do not come immediately but comes with practice. With meditation you integrate both sides of the brain, become more attuned to yourself and to other people, helps you deal with negative emotions and moods and decreases hyperactivity, impulsiveness and inattention. So, meditate twenty minutes a day at least three times a week.

2. Developing a flexible state of mind: With this, you do not see things as absolute. Rather-

  • you focus on what is happening in the moment
  • you focus on new aspects of what is happening
  • you focus on the context of the situation or interaction
  • you focus on other perspectives

To do this you adjust your focus and use conditional words( might be, can be, etc). This helps you become aware of how your mind is working and see the world from different perspectives.

IV. ALWAYS KNOW YOUR POSITIVE PURPOSE

6. The eight step dance to feeling positive or negative: Events do not cause positive or negative feelings. We create our feelings ourselves. Our life is the creation of your mind. The route to feeling positive or negative has eight defined steps:

  • The event
  • The onset of an emotion: Acknowldege the event, but do not react to it.
  • Automatic interpretation:
  1. Is the event good or bad?
  2. How much attention should I give this?
  3. How certain am I about what is going to happen?About how negative or positive the outcome will be?
  4. How much control over this do I have?
  5. Who is responsible for this? Me or someone else? or is it the situation I am in? Is this fair or unfair? Did I deserve this or not?
  6. How much energy must I expend to respond to this?
  • Physiological response
  • Signalling: Breathe deeply and slowly. Do not react immediately.
  • The specific feeling
  • A distinct set of thoughts: Two strategies of dealing with negative thoughts are;
  1. Meditation
  2. Cognitive behavioural therapy: What evidence do you have for thinking in this way? Is there some other way you could interpret it or think about it? Many times we act based on assumptions. These assumptions are part of your internal working model:
  • Am I somebody who is lovable and worthy of respect?
  • Can other people be trusted?
  • Can the future be shaped in a positive way?

The above triad can be positive or negative and limiting assumptions usually arise from a negative triad. Ask yourself what the positive opposite of your negative triad is. Then ask yourself if you truly believed the new assumption, how you would go about achieving what you desire and how you would act in the world?

  • Action: All the above steps leads to action. But we have a choice. We can act or not act. We can act positively or negatively. To act wisely and positively requires more effort and skill than to act negatively.

7. Identify what you want to achieve and make it happen

We all want to achieve things. When we want to achieve something, the first thing to do is to have positive purpose goal, rather than an avoidance goal in most situations( apart from crisis and high-risk situations). The purpose we are pursuing must be our own rather than that of others. We have frame it positively and frame it in terms of actions rather than thoughts or feelings. We should also have discipline and habit to help us and not overload ourselves too much( a small step at a time).

We have create positive purposes in both our daily activities and also with becoming better people.

In daily activities, we should convey closeness and make others feel equal and respected. We should try to bond, achieve something worthwhile, learn and protect what we value.

Becoming a better person involves developing six character strengths:

  1. Wisdom: creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning and perspective
  2. Courage: bravery, persistence, integrity and vitality
  3. Humanity: love, kindness and emotional intelligence
  4. Justice: being socially responsible, fairness and leadership
  5. Temperance: forgiveness, modesty, prudence and self-control
  6. Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope and optimism, humour and spirituality

These pass the death-bed test: You wish you had spent more time on these….on your death-bed.

V. TAKE CHARGE OF YOUR MOOD

8. Be aware that mood matters

Mood is the general emotional state of our conscious. It can be positive or negative. It affects the way we think, what we remember, our ability to pursue goals and our relationships with other people. It is highly contagious. It affects our ability to be leaders and affects the culture of organisations. Being aware of our mood and its effects is very important for flourishing. Once we become aware of our mood, we can change it.

9. Managing your mood

  • Become actively aware of the mood you are in and do things when in a good mood and rest when in a bad mood.
  • Do things when you have enough physical, psychological, mental and social resources to deal with it.
  • Develop a habit of being grateful.
  • Distract yourself with something pleasant when in a bad mood.
  • Try being kind to others.
  • Make a plan.
  • Learn to savour your positive moods.

VI.MASTER THE ART OF VITAL ENGAGEMENT

10. Lose yourself in everything you do

  • Do not make distinction between work and play.
  • Develop your passion
  • Learn to pay full attention to whatever you are doing in the moment.
  • Learn to find challenges and set goals in your daily activities.
  • Learn to be disciplined.
  • Develop private rituals to calm your mind.
  • Learn to enjoy immediate experience

VII.  KNOW THE MEANING OF THINGS

11. Make sense of your life

Make sense of your life in terms of:

  • Purpose: Having a purpose is about believing that we are heading towards something that we desire.
  • Values: Values give you a sense of goodness and positivity about your life and help you decide whether what you are doing is right or wrong.
  • Efficacy: Efficacy is the belief that you can control and influence things in order to make a difference.
  • Self-worth: If we feel we are good and worthwhile, we feel our lives are meaningful.

VIII.  BUILD YOUR RESILIENCE

12.  Building good stress and decreasing bad stress

The best way to understand this is to imagine yourself as a bridge with two supporting pillars, and traffic passing through it.

  • a. Self Pillar: How you think and feel about yourself, as well as your skills, personal qualities and emotional competencies.
  • b. Resources Pillar: The information, money, equipment, practical help and emotional support you have available to you
  • c. Traffic: The demands on you

If all the three are in balance, you have good stress. Coping is to keep them in balance all the time.
If you have too much or too little traffic than the bridge can handle or a weakness in the resources or the self pillar, we have bad stress or underusage leading to languishing.

Things that you can do to develop good stress are:

  1. Having a general sense of purpose- that you are involved in what you believe matters and where your part in it matters.
  2. Having a sense of control over those things in your life that are important for your well-being.
  3. A belief that change is an opportunity, rather than a threat.
  4. Engaging with other people.
  5. Learn to be more open-minded
  6. Keep learning how to be resilient

13. Handling unruly emotions

Coping with emotions involves two components: processing and expression

Emotional processing means figuring out what you are feeling and why. Expression means expressing those feelings. Too much emotional processing leads to worry and rumination. To prevent this from happening, you have to distract yourself from these things with something else- watching TV, reading a book, etc. Then approach life with a reflective mode of thinking that is more open and curious about experience. This helps us to solve problems in a positive manner.

We should also deal with emotions by naming them rather than getting identified with them. Say-“I have this feeling of anger”, rather than “I am angry.”

We should also aim to move towards a positive purpose:

1. Regulate your reactions: The Composure Index
2. Get a better understanding of what is going on inside you: The Insight Index
3. To devise solutions that are fit for purpose: The Solution Index
4. To improve your relationships with the people around you: The Relationship Index

Pay attention to positive emotions at all times, even during times of stress. Select coping strategies that will help increasing positive feelings, like:

  • Try to see things in a positive light: I look for something good in what is happening, and try to learn from the experience.
  • Direct action to tackle the problem

Remind yourself of who you are and what is really important to you.

Be receptive to joy: Despite all the stresses of life, life goes on. The sun rises and set. The waves still break on the shore. Children still laugh. When you take the trouble to notice these things, you feel less alone and instead feel supported and held up by the universe.

14. Flourishing when a crisis strikes

When a crisis strikes four things can happen:

  • We succumb: become depressed, chronically anxious or develop a post traumatic stress disorder
  • We recover but are impaired
  • We recover and become normal
  • We are profoundly transformed- not inspite of but because of what has happened.

To transform ourselves, we need to accept what has happened, find meaning in it and use that event in a positive way to fuel future growth. We have to accept that we have lost something and make new meaning of that and create a positive ending to the story.

15. Taking the path to growth and wisdom

Discovering the meaning of life in some abstract way is not what counts. Rather, making meaning comes from how we respond to the particular demands of the moment during a crisis. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is life expecting of me now, at this particular moment, and in this particular situation?( Changes you to an active agent in life, not its victim)
  2. What is important now? ( Focuses on the changed situation and priorities)
  3. Given what has happened, who do I want to shape myself to be now?( Recognising you have some influence on the shape of change)
  4. Is there anything about this situation that allows me to do something positive that otherwise I would not or could not have done?

We do not actively seek for suffering. But suffering happens. When it happens, if we can find value it make our life profound. Finding value is the core of post-traumatic growth. It means that we accept what has happened to you, even though it was awful and unwanted. You cannot choose and therefore you accept it. Then you find meaning in it by asking  not what we expect from life but what life expected from us. The four questions above can help us do that.

We have to be deliberate, systematic, searching and analytical when we find value in suffering and this often leads you to discover how your body and mind works and how you relate to other people. You focus on the big picture and actively accept. When we grow in this way through crises, we change in many ways-

1. A deeper appreciation of life and a changed sense of priorities
2. Stronger, more intimate relationships with others
3. A greater sense of your own personal strengths.
4. Recognising new possibilities and paths in your life.
5. The development of wisdom.

We come to experience, rather than just knowing:

Life keeps happening.The ebb is followed by the tide.We recover.The markets recover.Good things happen.New oppportunities appear.We keep going.We are still standing. We get an inkling that there is a benign reality underlying the chaos and randomness of life.We get the sense of being held in the universe, and by each other.

This makes us deeply compassionate and gives us a heightened sense of stewardship, a realisation that we are all responsible  for preserving and protecting what is good in this world- in ourselves, in other people, in relationships, in the organisations we care about, and in the society we live in.

IX. STOP SABOTAGING YOURSELF

16. Stop doing self-defeating things

This means to do the following counterproductive things:

  • Persisting in an obviously failing enterprise or pursuing unachievable goals. Be aware of it, calculate pros, cons and the probability of success, setting limits and sharing goals with somebody else can help you not to fall into this.
  • Trying too hard so that you ‘choke’ under pressure.
  • Wanting too much to be liked and you end doing things which are perceived as flattery or manipulation.
  • Smoking, alcohol and drug use
  • Neglecting your health
  • Trying too hard to maintain a favourable public image.
  • Self-handicapping: Not doing something or doing something that will increase the likelihood of failure.

We also engage in dysfunctional thinking styles:

  1. ‘All or nothing’ thinking: see everything in absolute terms
  2. Overgeneralization: generalising a specific bad event
  3. Mental filter: filter out positive aspects
  4. Disqualifying the positive: view everything as negative
  5. Jumping to conclusions: based on hunches or no evidence
  6. Magnification and minimization: exaggerating the negative and minimising the positive
  7. Emotional reasoning: interpret feelings as facts
  8. ‘Should’ statements
  9. Labelling and mislabelling: equating behaviour with your whole self
  10. Personalization: nurture the fantasy that to be happy or safe you can or must control everything
  11. Rumination
  12. Worry

To get rid of  these you can use the following strategies:

  • Become aware of self-defeating ‘if-then’ rules you are using. Ask yourself these two questions: What do I always do, or never do in a particular situation? What role do I always play or never play in a particular relationship?
  • Learn to substitute alternative and positive ‘if-then’ rules
  • Manage your negative moods.
  • Don’t overuse your strengths- they can lead to dysfunctional and self-destructive behaviours.
  • Make resolutions by making it specific, adding a positive element in your intention and frame your intention as a learning goal. Specific goals are easier to plan for, monitor and adapt and positive and learning goals are good as well.
  • Make an implementation plan by pre-deciding when, where and how you are going to pursue your goal, including when, where and how you will get started and when, where and how you will deal will anticipated distractions and temptations.

X. EMBRACE THE FUTURE

17. Identify biases, illusions, errors and shortcuts

Despite our sophisticated brain, we cannot predict what will happen and we cannot predict how we will feel about things we believe might happen. This is because:

  • We pay disproportionate attention to information that confirms what we want to believe, and we neglect contradictory evidence: The confirmation bias.
  • We put disproportionate emphasis on whatever draws our attention, thereby exaggerating its impact( positive or negative). This distorts our judgement of how we will react to things: The focusing illusion or impact bias.
  • We misremember the past.
  • We stay anchored to what we are thinking or feeling: The anchoring illusion
  • When we are in a ‘hot’ state- hungry, excited, angry, sexually aroused, distressed- we have great difficulty imagining how we will feel in a ‘cold’ state. We underestimate the ‘hot’ power of social influences and the power to conform: The hot-cold empathy gap.
  • We have the conviction that we can directly and easily access what is, or what was going on in our minds through a little bout of reflection. However with the help of our interpreter within we invent an explanation and become strangers to ourselves: The illusion of introspection.
  • Experts often get it wrong. They are also too anchored in the present, overestimate the likelihood of unusual events and their impact, and projecting current trends to the future.

18. Being optimistic

We all think we are above average. We think we control the outcome. We think that things are generally getting better- we are optimistic. But these three are illusions, not facts.

Even if optimism is an illusion, it is useful. Optimists are healthier, cope better with illness and live longer. Optimism fuels economic success and is a self-fulfilling prophecy. too much optimism can be harmful but realistic, moderate and sustainable optimism is good.

So,

  • Maintain a positive outlook in the absence of very definite evidence to the contrary.
  • Look for what is going right- even when things are going wrong.
  • Practise looking forward to good things.
  • Give yourself and others the benefit of the doubt.
  • Embrace your fate and choose your future.
  • Remind yourself of your experiences of managing change. Remember that you have extraordinary capacity to adapt to change.
  • Think carefully about what you may regret in your life: remember the things we most regret tend not to be ‘acts of commission’ but ‘acts of omission’- the things we could have done but did’nt.
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