Is Happiness Sustainable? Let’s Find Out

In my last blog, we looked at the research-based link between happiness and the ability to focus the mind. Simply put, people who are able to focus their minds a greater percentage of the time (most people’s minds wander about 50%) appear to be happier and more productive at home and at work.

Now, I’d like to shift gears and explore the concept of happiness in the context of our ability to recognize, nourish, and sustain it.

To find out more about this topic, I spoke with Dr. Catherine O’Brien, whose ground breaking work in the field of sustainable happiness, landed her an invitation by the King of Bhutan to present at the United Nations in April 2012.

Over a cup of tea in a welcoming East-coast cafe in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Dr. O’Brien shared her thoughts on sustainable happiness starting with her definition: “Sustainable Happiness is happiness that contributes to individual, community and/or global well-being and does not exploit other people, the environment, or future generations.” Yes siree, the definition immediately appealed to my humanitarian and eco-sensibilities. I was eager to learn more about how being able to sustain happiness impacts all aspects of your life – especially since I had just finished reading an article on Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) metrics and came across some research by psychologist Ed Diener that showed that the frequency of your positive experiences is a much better predictor of your happiness than the intensity of your positive experiences.

For example, if you are a project manager who has a dozen pleasant things happen to them during the course of your day, you are more likely to be happy than a project manager who has a single fabulous thing happen to them. This is a bit of a mind bender because many people think of intense, amazing events (like winning the lottery or a big contract) as the key to happiness. For some, it is a perplexing proposition for studies to reveal that it is actually a steady diet of little things (such as a kind word from a colleague or someone telling you they liked how you handled an issue) that paves the path to happiness.

On a personal note, I’d like to take it a step further and hypothesize that perhaps you have to go beyond having the pleasant experiences happen to you. You need to be able to recognize and appreciate the small pleasant events to reap the benefits. (If I come across any data that supports this theory along the happy trail, I’ll gladly add it to this blog post).

Are you interested in discovering the attitudes and behaviors that happy people have in common? If yes, you might enjoy exploring the work of Rick Foster & Greg Hicks, who have identified nine principles associated with happy people. These are: Intention, Accountability, Identification, Centrality, Recasting, Options, Appreciation, Giving, and Truth. This Foster& Hicks model was developed after interviewing happy people across the globe, with the happiest people consistently sharing these nine attributes.

Here are the nine principles (and my take on them):

Intention: According to Foster & Hicks, an intention in is a fundamental, 100% conscious choice to be happy that drives the other nine principles. It is important to understand that an intention is not a goal (in that it is not measurable). It is one of two things: it is your attitude or your behaviour.

  • My take: If you have ever had a coaching session, it is very likely that your coach will invite you to “set an intention” or desired outcome for the session. I wonder how many people would be happier, more productive, and more fulfilled if they took a few minutes each morning to “set the intention” for the work day (btw, an intention is not a “to-do list”; an intention speaks to how you show up for the day as a human being).

Accountability: The Foster & Hicks model discerns the difference between accountability and responsibility. Accountability flourishes in the arena of “ownership”; the desire to step up to the plate and do everything that we can to support, nourish, and sustain the intention. It is akin to liberation. ( what is the diff between responsibility and accountability)

  • My take: From what I have observed, when people step forward to take ownership of a work situation, the result is very empowering, plus it sets an excellent (and freeing) example for others who may feel stuck, disempowered, or confused. Question: Are you clear on the difference between responsibility and accountability? Just for fun, draw two columns and write down 10 words that capture how you feel about responsibility and 10 words about accountability. Do any words match?

Identification: Deciding for ourselves what makes us happy and having the courage and self-esteem to say “this is what makes me happy” (and not succumbing to someone else’s definition of that should make us happy.

  • My take: Many people live a life based on what others (society, peer group, family) tell them to do; in essence, they are disconnected from their heart’s passion. Question: On a scale from 1 to 10, how connected are you to your heart’s passion? Hmm, does your career support your heart’s passion?

Centralizing: Foster & Hicks describe centralizing as “actually following through and doing what makes us happiest”. Hurdles to centralizing are feeling trapped by responsibilities such as financial and emotional issues.

  • My take: Here is a great quote that says it all: “My life has been filled with terrible misfortune; most of which never happened” – Montaigne

Recasting: According to Foster & Hicks, happy people handle life’s set-backs in the same way: they believe that they have “the strength to master our reactions purposefully, and, in doing so, positively transform both ourselves and the world”.

  • My take: This reminds me of the famous quote by the great Victor Frankel in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Options: Basically, happy people have an appetite for life; they are open to new ways of doing things and actually like to color outside the lines … with neon markers-ha!

  • My take: I would add to this that the openness and appetite for life are also sprinkled with a generous helping of laughter (hmm, and primarily at one’s self!).

Appreciation: Foster & Hicks describe this happiness principle as seeing the positive side to any situation and then being grateful for the learning experience; it “helps us celebrate the richness of our lives and our genuine wealth.”

  • My take: I don’t know about you, but in the midst of a project crisis, it requires a lot of presence of mind and discipline to see the upside of the situation; this wisdom usually sets in after the crisis has passed, so I’d tint appreciation with reflection, pause, and regroup.

Giving: “It’s having the self-esteem to feel that what we have to offer is valuable – our advice, wisdom, expertise, skills, physical labor. The manner in which we give these gifts is a reflection of who we are”, according to the Foster & Hick’s equation.

  • My take: You might be surprised to learn that many people feel that what they are able to give is never “enough” (good enough, valuable enough”, detailed enough, strategic enough, etc). The list goes on and on. Question: Taking salary and job title out of the equation, how do you measure the value of your work contribution? On a scale of 1 to 10, how valuable is your work contribution … to you?

Truth: Happy people are truthful, and their openness is like a magnet that attracts trust and community.

  • My take: I feel that most people tell the truth when it is safe to tell the truth. When the situation is perceived as unsafe, people don a mask. Watching someone remove their mask and show up in their truth is very beautiful, fulfilling and empowering to behold. This is especially true in the work place. Question: Do you wear a mask at work? If yes, what does it look like? Does your mask add or detract from your happiness?

Is happiness sustainable? I’d have to say that my answer is a resounding “Yes!”. Best of all, there are practical, available-to-everyone, steps that we all can take to each day to generate, recognize, nourish, and sustain happiness. As for me, I’m getting started ASAP on the nine attitudes and behaviors of happy people. How about you?

Resource: Dr. Catherine O’Brien, Rick Foster, and Greg Hicks have joined forces to create the on-line  Sustainable Happiness Course.  A Sustainable Happiness course was also developed for  UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

Photo Credit: Sustainable Happiness, Dr. Catherine O’Brien


1 thought on “Is Happiness Sustainable? Let’s Find Out”

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    Wonderful stuff. So, are people who are happy born with a propensity toward happiness (they have a common gene for it), or are they just lucky enough to have an environment (role models, good things happened) that shaped them early on? Can someone who is unhappy most of the time be ‘retrained’ to be happy most of the time? Like an addict, do they have to ‘want’ to change to get happier?

    Again, great stuff, ML!

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