Dr Mukesh Jain, IPS, talks about positivity and its effect on personal well-being inside and out. Mr Rajagopal Swaminathan, Founder CEO, La Poochi (Azzetta) and Dr Asit K Barma, Director, Bharathidasan Institute of Management shared their insights in a conversation with the author.
Michelangelo was one of the greatest sculptors humanity produced. Someone asked Michelangelo, “What do you do to make your statues look so lively and full of life?” Michelangelo replied, “I don’t make statues. Every stone has a beautiful statue in it. I just remove the unnecessary stone out of it.” At a very abstract and philosophical level, the Science of Happiness is about removing the unnecessary stones, which are our wrong notions and principles and stories about what gives us happiness. We all have numerous ideas about what happiness is and what will give happiness. But unfortunately, that is anecdotal—something which my father or teacher or guru taught me. What they experienced as happiness may or may not apply to us. Fortunately, in the last 25 to 30 years, there has been an evolution of a science called positive psychology. For hundreds and hundreds of years, psychologists had emphasised on the negative part of psychology, studying the mentally ill like the neurotic and psychotic people. The analysts were trying to elicit negative energies or negative memories of people’s childhood.
In 1990s, people decided to focus on the positive part—like how people flourish and how they become successful. Ironically, if you try to remove the negativity from a person like neuroticism, he doesn’t become flourishing and successful. The whole science of positive psychology is a different ballgame. But before we understand positive psychology, we must know the clear distinction between self-help and positive psychology.
Self-help vs. positive psychology
Positive Psychology is not self-help. We keep reading so many self-help books. Typically, they have two or three problems. One, you would have realized that on reading them, you get really energized and motivation goes up. But within two or three days, the motivation goes back to the normal situation. The problem with self-help is it follows a one-size-fits-all approach. If a person born in a very poor family followed a particular strategy and got very rich, the author will propagate that this is the strategy for you also to follow to become rich. That actually doesn’t happen. Your circumstances are different from mine; your skill sets are different from mine. The recommendations are not scientific.
They also tend to overgeneralise. If three people who are extremely fluent in English have good business success, can I generalize that all people who are fluent in English can become successful businessmen? No. It has to be scientifically experimented. Self-help books have the hallow effect. If somebody has achieved success in one field, they will try to say that whatever the person says about other fields also may be true. So self-help is not positive psychology and it is not scientific at all.
Since childhood, we have been taught a happiness equation: If you do hard work, you will be successful. If you are successful, you will be happy. If this equation is broken at two places, first, hard work does not necessarily lead to success. There are so many intervening variables. Second, even if you get success, it does not always lead to happiness. In the process of getting success, you might miss some of the important things like health, family happiness, your child’s education, the company of your best friends, etc. Happiness cannot be the endpoint.
We have also faced a paradigm: If I get this degree, I’ll be happy; If I get married to this girlfriend, I’ll be happy; If I get a four bedroom apartment, I’ll be happy. Positive psychologists say that this is not the proper equation. They say that the real happiness equation, demonstrated by millions of experiments is this: Happiness cannot be the endpoint but it has to be the starting point. Be happy. If you are happy, then you will do a lot of good work, which will anyway convert into success. If you go to your office being happy, you do something energetically. You help other people. Other people in turn help you. You end up doing good work, which ultimately converts into success.
If we deliberate on why we are not happy, we can find out that psychologists have zeroed in on four important things that are impediments to our happiness and they are: Impact Bias; Shifting Goalposts; Negative Bias and Comparison.
For every event in our life, we tend to assign that by achieving a feat, we’ll get a certain amount of happiness. For example, when we want to get admission into one of the best engineering colleges or management institutes, we think we will be so much happier. We may put it on a scale and there is always a gap. Psychologists say that this perceived gap will create unhappiness in our life.
We achieve so many things in life. But whatever happiness we had attributed to these goals, we don’t really enjoy on achieving the goals. We keep shifting the goalposts. Every time we achieve certain things, we shift the goalposts for a next target. Ultimately, we miss the happiness of that particular goal which we had attributed.
We all have an intrinsic negative bias in our mind which is related to our survival instinct. For example, if I’m sitting in my office at about 2.33 PM and my boss calls me on intercom and tells me to meet him when I leave my office at 7 PM, in my mind, I start worrying if something has gone wrong. If my son or daughter has gone to some birthday party and does not return by the expected time, I am filled with only negative thoughts, because, we are wired for negative thoughts and this has got something to do with our evolution. When people lived in caves thousands of years ago, there were only two possibilities whenever there was noise outside the cave. Either the man could have killed a small animal to eat or he could have been attacked by a tiger. It was safer to assume that there was a tiger outside the cave. This negativity that continued down the ages, stops us from being happy. We have to consciously overcome this negativity
Psychologists say that in Olympics, silver medallists are less happy than the bronze medallists. Because the silver medallists compare them with the gold medallists and feel for missing the gold medal narrowly. But the bronze medallists are happy to at least figure in the list of medallists, rather than being left out, without any medal. A Maruti car owner residing in a colony of people owning Mercedes car will be the least happy person. But if they live in a colony full of two wheeler owners, they are happy, as they compare themselves with others. Comparison is probably one of the important reasons as to why we are unhappy.
Back to the old ways
Dan Gilbert, a great expert on positive psychology, did some wonderful experiments and one of which was about winning the lottery. When he asked the respondents, ‘If you win a lottery of say, five crore rupees, what will happen to your happiness?’ they said it will go up continuously. By winning the lottery, Dan Gilbert says, one’s happiness goes up but only for a while. Then it comes back to the normal level. Similarly, he did experiments with people who met with some serious accidents and were wheelchair bound after the accidents. He measured their happiness after the accident and extrapolated it before the accident. He found that after the accident, people’s happiness came down, but only for a while. Then it came back to its normal level. That means, something inside you is pulling you back to the same level.
The gene factor
Happiness has also got to do with genetics. Psychological experiments were done in Minnesota, United States, using two groups of twins—identical twins and fraternal twins. Identical twins come from the same zygote and fraternal twins come from different zygotes. This essentially means that identical twins have the same genetic structure, while fraternal twins may have some common genetic structure or not. They studied 1300 pairs of fraternal twins and identical twins from the age of zero till 14 years and followed their psychological makeup, how they got stressed, etc. They discovered that identical twins are much closer in their psychological happiness compared to fraternal twins.
There is a gene called 5 HTT, in every one of us. We have two different variations of that. Some people have the shorter variation and some have the longer variation. People with shorter variation tend to be more sensitive towards happiness. If a nice, funny video is shown to both of them, the shorter variation people will laugh more intensely. So, gene has something to do with happiness.
Sonja Lyubomirsky has done several studies and meta studies and she has reached the conclusion that 50% of our happiness comes from our genes. This is both good and bad news. The good news is that 50% is still in our hands and the bad news is that we can’t do anything about our 50%. Sonja also says that only 10% of our happiness comes from external circumstances like driving a car, sitting in the clouds, etc. 40% which is a major chunk of our happiness comes from our thoughts and actions.
Search for meaning
Psychologists discovered that it’s not the positive things like going to a theatre, eating good food or singing a song that give greater happiness. On the other hand, things that provide meaningfulness and purpose in life are those that give real happiness. Richard Ryan, Veronica Huta and their team did some experiments to find out this. They went to a college and divided the whole group into two parts. For the next 10 days, one group was asked to do one positive activity which made them happy. On day 1, they could go to a music class, day 2 to a cricket match and so on. The second group was asked to do one meaningful activity per day for the next 10 days. They could sit with a lady who is a cancer terminal patient on the first day and teach a blind boy to learn braille on the second day.
Their happiness was measured at three points – on day zero, on day ten and after three months of the experiment. On day zero, it was the same for everyone. After ten days, the happiness was more for group 1 (who did one positive activity that made them happy) but after three months, the group which did one meaningful job a day had substantially higher happiness. They could remember each and every moment of the time they spent in doing those activities. Even after one year, their happiness was higher.
Author and TED speaker, Emily Smith, has written a book, ‘The Power of Meaning.’ She talks about four pillars of meaning that give us happiness. (Loving and engaged relationships; a sense of purpose; an attitude of optimism; and a connection to spirituality). She says that despair in people’s lives is not because of lack of happiness but lack of meaning. People who have meaning in life are more resilient, they do better in school and their work and they even live longer.
In management schools, we hear about job enrichment and job rotation. Even without changing the content of the job, can you craft it so that it becomes more meaningful? Job crafting is a wonderful concept. We have seen people in our organizations who are extremely intelligent, talented and energetic, but they become dysfunctional. Their meaning is not aligned to the organization’s meaning.
We must create an atmosphere of positivity and nurture positive emotions like pride and gratitude, which create happiness. There is a famous study of nuns done in the US that brings out the correlation between positivity in linguistic expressions and longevity. Handwritten notes from several nuns, composed when they were young, were scored for emotional content and related to survival during ages 75 to 95. A strong association was found between positive emotional content in their notes and their longevity. (Snowdon, Danner and Frieson: Positive Emotions in Early Life and Longevity: Findings from the Nun Study). 90% of the nuns who had written that they felt very positive, found the going exciting and that they were learning a lot, continued to live till 85 years whereas only 34% of those who had many grudges and complaints in their notes, survived till the age of 85.
Whenever somebody does a good thing to us, we are grateful. But psychologists say that unless we express our gratitude, the benefits don’t come to us. In Indian culture, we tend to presume that whatever our parents or spouses have done for us is part of their duty. The fact is, the more we express our gratitude, the more it creates happiness for us. When we go to sleep, we can write a gratitude journal. We can also make gratitude visits, when we want to visit the person to express thanks.
Relations, experience, mindfulness
Social Relationships matter a lot for our happiness. Good relations make us healthy and happy. We are not talking about how many friends we have on Facebook or LinkedIn or WhatsApp. It is the high quality of connections in our life. Money gives happiness but only up to a certain point and not as much as we thought. Researchers arrived at this conclusion by surveying a group of people. For example, when asked to rate their happiness on a scale of 1 to 10, if their salary was increased threefold, they said that it will increase from 4.5 to 8.5 or 9. But another group of people who were already drawing a much higher salary rated their happiness only around 5. The study was done on different groups of people with similar geographical and social backgrounds.
More than material possessions or purchases, experience gives you more happiness. So a nice vacation with family or a nice dinner or party would give more happiness than buying a good car or an iPad. Also, whenever you want to get happiness, create an anticipation effect. Let’s say you want to go for a foreign vacation next month. In the one month preceding the trip, you’re extremely excited and planning for the trip, which is probably better than the actual visit. If you want to buy a movie ticket, don’t buy it for today evening but buy it for two days hence, so that, for two days you will anticipate that happiness.
Mindfulness is another aspect of happiness. Thinking of negative things that happened in the past or worrying about the future stop you from being happy or productive. If you are fully engaged in your present work, you are not only happy but also, you are more productive and creative.
The four chemicals
Dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin and serotonin are the four chemicals that our body produces. Eating chocolates can produce dopamine in us but we can also get it by hugging a loved one. Doing exercise or dancing can give us a lot of endorphin. Listening to good music can produce good serotonin. Helping the body generate these brain chemicals can be the immediate artificial outside interventions to give us happiness.
To summarize, experimenters in positive psychology have come to the conclusion that happiness is 50% genetic but still 40% is in our hands. That 40% is thoughts and actions of ours. Seek meaning and purpose in life. Create positive moments and positive emotions. When you start from your home to the office, don’t ignore that little beautiful boy or the rose flower shop on the way. Be grateful not just to your parents but to a worker in your office or a subordinate who helped you make a nice and effective presentation. Maintaining social relations and high quality connections can probably be the best thing you can do to achieve happiness. Practice mindfulness. Remember the four chemicals that can give us happiness. If we follow all these strategies and become happy, our families, organisations and nations will become happy. Happiness has a habit of creating a virtuous feedback loop.
When we join the civil services, we go to Mussoorie for our foundation course—whatever service we belong to. On the first day when we joined Mussoorie, we started walking in the evening along the Mall Road. There was a point where it was written ‘Echo point.’ We wanted to test whether the echo point really works. One of my friends started barking like a dog. The whole valley reverberated with the dog’s voice. I told my friend, “You are a good singer. Why don’t you sing a good song?” He started singing a nice song and within minutes, the Mussoorie Valley echoed the nice musical song. Life, I think, is an echo point. Whatever we give to our life, it comes back to us in a multipolar form.