7 Insights on Happiness from World Congress of Positive Psychology 2019

I’ve just returned from an amazing few days attending the World Congress of Positive Psychology (WCPP) 2019! The Congress brought together many of the field’s experts, and participants from 50 different countries. It was my first time attending AND my first time presenting my work on Positive Education! Definitely something special.

Here are 7 insights on happiness that I’ve garnered, that I hope to remember and practice:

FOCUS ON THE GOOD EVEN AMIDST THE HARD. Positive Psychology has long been misunderstood to only focus on the positive, and somehow ignore the negative. It is as if that isn’t part of the human experience. Was very touched when Dr Lucy Hone shared how, in the wake of losing her daughter Abi in a car accident, she was determined to focus on the good so that she could keep going. Love her quote: “Don’t lose what you have to what you’ve lost.” Of course, she would want her daughter back in her life, but she also knew she had to continue living. Being a researcher in the area of resilience, Lucy went on to write the book Resilient Grieving, helping so many others who have had loss in one way or another. From her struggle emerged a new kind of growth and meaning.

STRENGTHEN YOUR SOCIAL CONNECTIONS. In Bonnie Ware’s book 5 Regrets of the Dying, one of the items was “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.” Human beings are inherently social creatures and when we are connected with others, our well-being is enhanced. This applies to situations ranging from talking to strangers on the bus to conversations with the people in our lives. Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky’s research suggests that the more connecting moments we had, the more positivity we experienced. Also, being connected face-to-face mattered- simply liking a post on social media was not as powerful as having a video chat or actual convo. Looks like it’s time for us to grab coffee with our friends, hey? ??

BE AN AGENT FOR YOUR HAPPINESS. Dr Lyubomirsky went on to share about the influences on our happiness and boiled it down to 3: our genetics, our circumstances and our intentional activities. By intentional activities, she meant: ways we think and behave, and activities we intentionally do that increase our happiness. This is something I’ve always believed – when we set an intention to live a happier life, we think differently, feel differently and that prompts us to behave differently. For example, instead of thinking “my life sucks” when a challenge comes around, I might think “this is a challenge at the moment”,w which will then prompt us to feel more in control, and result in us finding ways to manage the challenge, and hopefully some relief. The question is, are you willing to take action towards your own happiness, or are you simply waiting for it to land on your lap?

UNDERSTAND HOW YOUR CULTURE INFLUENCES YOUR HAPPINESS. Sitting on a Positive Education panel with my counterparts from China, Denmark, UK and South Africa, one thing stood out clearly: our happiness is greatly influenced by our culture. For example, in China, values of responsibility and harmony were fundamental; in Denmark, it is cosiness, intimacy (or in Danish, hygge). If we are doing activities that are against our culture, we might become less happy. Perhaps what we should be thinking about is: What does my culture stand for & how does it influence my own happiness? What works for me, and what doesn’t work for me? What other influences have I had, apart from my culture? For example, as a Peranakan, food and a sense of community are a huge part of my culture. Hence I spend every Saturday having a huge feast with all my cousins – our children get to play and we get to bond. We even travel together (19 of us!!) once every 2 years. ?

5. WATCH WHAT YOU EAT. Probably not the first time I have come across this idea, but was blown away by Dr Jon Cryan’s research on micro biomes! His speech “A Gut Feeling of Happiness” shared about the brain-gut-microbiome connection. The experience of too much stress literally changes the micro biomes in our gut, which impact our immunity and mental health in the long run. Our diets have shifted dramatically from decades ago (more natural food, diverse) to now (more processed food, less diverse) and that has impacted the diversity of micro biomes in our gut. This extinction of a certain kind of micro biome (due to our diet changes) is particularly critical for adolescents, whose brains and bodies are going through crazy changes. It may be one of the reasons why adolescence is a prime period for the onset of mental illness. To combat this, we could consider taking action to increase the diversity of our micro biomes: (a) Increase intake of pre & probiotics (b) decrease intake of processed food and (c) minimise antibiotic usage. More yogurt, anyone? ?

6. SHOW UP AUTHENTICALLY. Was blown away by the panel who shared about Positive Psychology through Mass Media. What really touched me was how they were using their position as public figures to bring messages of hope, love and inspiration to others. Milad Hadchiti shared about his journey as a journalist, and how he felt that he was “faking happiness on a screen”. Sophie Scott shared how, as a medical investigator, she uncovered stories of resilience and strength. Angie Hilton & Chris Mackey shared about Destination Happiness – a show that shared visually beautiful and inspiring stories. Finally, Lisbeth Gorr who helmed a Health & wellness radio show for the “flawed yet optimistic” and found how powerful it was to provide a safe space for people to be heard. The central theme was about how we need to embrace our vulnerability and authenticity. It’s time we stop putting on so many masks, and accept who we are. That will enable us to show up as our true selves.

BALANCE PLEASURE WITH MEANING & GROWTH. Prof Incheol Choi, director of the Center for Happiness Studies at Seoul National University, shared about his research on how people’s beliefs influenced stress and happiness. He found that people who had beliefs tied to eudaemonism (focus on meaning, personal growth, authenticity) were less likely to experience stress in their life, and more likely to feel better in their everyday life compared to people who had beliefs tied to hedonism (focus on pleasure and enjoyment, and absence of distress). This doesn’t mean we don’t want any form of pleasure or enjoyment at all; but if that is the only path you are pursuing, it might not lead to a deep sense of satisfaction in life, and may have an negative impact on your response to stress. This was apparent particularly for teachers – in another presentation, when teachers connected their job to a deep sense of meaning (e.g. helping students thrive, being change agents), they experienced less stress, a better ability to manage student behaviours and were able to last longer in the profession. Perhaps the key here is to find the balance between the pursuit of pleasure vs meaning.

My major takeaway from all of this is: there is no simple path to happiness, and everyone’s path is going to be different. However, scientific research and practice is advancing every single day. That means we have reliable sources from which to take inspiration from, which allows us to set intentional goals from which we can act upon. The next step is simply to take action and try it out – because that is how you learn what really works for you.

I’d love to know: which of the insights resonated with you & why? Which of them will you be taking action on? I know I am going to be spending more of my time connecting with people that matter, move away from putting up a mask and living more authentically.

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