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Four Statements to Happier

written by Dave Shearon January 17, 2009

Dave Shearon, MAPP, applies positive psychology to both law and education. Dave writes articles about applications of Positive Psychology to law and education at his site. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

Dave's articles are here.



First, an acknowledgment — Aren Cohen’s beautiful and personal story posted on the 12th of this month, “How Sweet It Is…” inspired me to settle on this topic.  “Other people matter,” as Christopher Peterson says.

I have been thinking about what it takes for folks to change, especially the kind of change positive psychology focuses on — from ok to good or good to better: from +1 or +2 in well-being to +4, +5, or +6.

When I speak or lead a workshop, I usually make three disclaimers about what I will NOT be doing during the presentation or workshop:

  1. I will not be doing positive thinking.  I’m not Norman Vincent Peale or Tony Robbins.  I won’t be saying that if you think it, you can be it, or anything along those lines.
  2. DumbledoreI will not be doing magic.  I am not Albus Dumbledore and we’re not in Hogwarts.  I cannot wave a magic wand or say an incantation and have folks leave to live lives at sustained higher levels of happiness, optimism, resilience, etc.
  3. I will not be doing religion.  I am not Billy Graham, the Dalai Lama, or any other religious leader.  What I say may sometimes have the ring of something you may have heard from a spiritual leader, but that’s because the science has borne out some (but not all) of the things many religions teach, in addition to handing us a few surprises.

Four Statements to Happier

So, having admitted that all I can do is present some information and maybe get participants to engage in some experiences that will help them begin to discover the power in some of the approaches of positive psychology, what are the necessary conditions for them to move forward?  I have settled on the following four statements.  The first is optional but highly recommended.  Statements 2-4 are mandatory.

“Hi.”

“My name is _______.”

“I want to be happier.”

“I am willing to work at it.”

“Hi.”

Let’s look at these in order, starting with “Hi.”  As I said, this one is optional, but highly recommended.  “Hi,” means there’s at least one other person working with you, and preferably a group.

Jumping happiness PPNDAs Aren said, one of the great things about MAPP is that, for many of us, we were not only learning abstract principles, we were also integrating them in our lives, and doing so with a group of like-minded folks.  When I sat down with my wife, the beautiful and patient Teresa, to have our final talk about whether I would do MAPP, she said, “I just want you to be happy,” and she was probably not the only significant other with that thought.  MAPP helped me become happier, more optimistic, more hopeful, more strengths-oriented, and (yes, Wayne!) more mindful.  My classmates were a big part of that change.  There are several readily available ways to engage with others.  A coach can be that other person.  “Happiness Clubs” that are starting in many cities can provide a group.  Regardless, “other people matter.”  You can pursue happiness, optimism, strengths, resilience, etc. as a solitary endeavor; it’s just not as much fun and may not be as successful.

“My name is ______.”

Smiling kids happiness PPNDThis means that we each start from where we are.  I was a pessimist (negative explanatory style, and, likely, negative expectational levels also) when I started working with positive psychology.  I also had certain strengths, both of character and of action.  I was trained to think like a lawyer and, though I had not spent my whole career exercising that training, I was and am closely associated with the field.  That’s where I was and who I was, and that’s where I had to start.  The same is true for each person choosing to become happier, etc.  “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” and that step begins from where you are.  That’s where tools like the VIA and Authentic Happiness Inventory and the others on www.authentichappiness.org come in — they can help you better understand where you are and the strengths you have to work with as your start your journey.

“I want to be happier.”

You gotta own it.  Aren stated her purpose of getting married, at least to herself.  Wow!  What a gutsy move.  Robert Quinn talks about purpose in Building the bridge as you walk on it: A guide for leading change, including a story about a romantic breakup in his daughter’s life.  Tal Ben-Shahar in Happier also talks about purpose, and even suggests Chapter 11 in Jim Collins’ Built to Last as a guide, though that book is about values and purpose in business organization.  Great suggestion — it is a great chapter, and one that stands on its own.

Poppy happiness PPNDIt was scary for me to admit I wanted to be more positive, more optimistic, more engaged, and, generally, happier in my life.  It is scary sometimes today to say that I am working on attorney well-being, and especially to act in my job based on what I now know.  But without a purpose to get better, to have more of what we really want and what is really important, and to make a difference in our lives and for others, we do not change.  By saying, “I want to be happier,” we let go of the facade many of us have held up to the world that our lives are perfect, we’re strong, etc.  We also open ourselves up to self-doubt (“Who am I to be happier?”) and to failure.  That’s the price of growth.  If you cannot say, “I want to be happier” or more optimistic, more resilient, etc., then you are not likely to get more!

“I am willing to work at it.”

Maynard G. KrebsThis one’s the kicker.  This is the statement that takes wishing and converts it to purpose.  I sometimes use Maynard G. Krebs as the metaphor for this when I speak.  Remember Maynard?  OK, some of you are too young, but maybe you’ve seen re-runs.  Maynard was the beatnik character on the TV series “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” that ran from 1959 to 1963.  Among his other idiosyncrasies, Maynard would screech “Work!” in a falsetto voice every time he heard the word.  He was allergic to work!  Well, those who want more happiness, optimism, hope, joy, relationship, engagement, and so forth without work want, as Thomas Jefferson said in a different context, “what never was and never will be.”  Results take work, work such as that suggested this month in choosing what to change, changing oneself first, and focusing on strengths.

As I described in my PPND article last month, attorneys who have attended my seminars and taken some action are significantly more likely than those who did not take action to report increased well-being and more commitment, energy, and engagement with their practices.  Stephanie West Allen has a post on The Complete Lawyer about mindfulness for lawyers in which she notes that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer meditates twice a day for 15-20 minutes each time.  That’s work!  Okay, maybe it ain’t digging ditches, but it takes commitment and action — work!

So, do you want to be happier, more optimistic, more engaged at work, have more and better relationships, etc.?  Then say it with me:

“Hi.”

“My name is _______.”

“I want to be happier.”

“I am willing to work at it.”

Now we can go forward together!


 

References

Ben-Shahar, T. (2007). Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. McGraw-Hill Professional.

Quinn, R. (2004). Building the bridge as you walk on it: A guide for leading change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Images

Dumbledore from wikipedia. Maynard G. Krebs from here. Other images by David Niblack.