Friday 28 July 2017

Dr Eddie Murphy: pursuit of happiness - the 1916 proclamation is a lesson to us all

Bright future: Muireann Kavanagh listens as the Proclamation is read to children on Arranmore island off the northwest Donegal coast. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Bright future: Muireann Kavanagh listens as the Proclamation is read to children on Arranmore island off the northwest Donegal coast. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
The 1916 Proclamation

The centenary of the 1916 Rising is celebrated this weekend. I never really looked at the 1916 Proclamation properly until about a year ago. It's a truly remarkable and visionary document - worth reading in its entirety. While many of us may be familiar with the signatories' pledge to "cherish all the children of the nation equally", it is the declaration of the "resolve to pursue the happiness of all its citizens," that really impressed me.

Reading these words, I began to consider how far our nation has travelled towards that happiness in the past 100 years, and to question how much emphasis our political leaders have placed on this goal. Our founding mothers and fathers shouted out for wellbeing 100 years ago, yet, in 2016 our society is under strain. With over 500 suicides a year, crises in mental health services, and massive inequalities in health and education, we still have a way to go. This is what has propelled me to stand as an Independent in the forthcoming elections for Seanad Éireann, with a remit for mental health and wellbeing.

Of course, attaining happiness is not just the concern of the State, it's also up to each and every one of us to find this in our lives. Positive psychology offers great insights into the pursuit of happiness and offers strategies that you can use straight away to impact on your happiness.

Prof Martin Seligman, an influential positive psychologist, embedded these strategies in scientific rigour. His team identified three different types of happy lives: pleasant, meaningful and engaged.

1 A life of pleasure

The first happy life is the pleasant life. This is a life in which you have as much positive emotion as you possibly can, and the skills to amplify it. These skills are savouring and mindfulness, which stretch these positive emotions over time and space.

However, the pleasant life has drawbacks. Firstly, your experience of positive emotion is about 50pc inherited and, in fact, not very modifiable. Secondly, positive emotion wanes fast. If I gave you a new car today it would be great. If I gave you one every day you would get little pleasure.

2 A life of engagement

This is a life in your work, your parenting, your love, your leisure - those activities where time stops for you. During a life of engagement 'flow' happens. During flow, you can't feel anything. You're one with the music. You have intense concentration. The key to capturing a life of engagement is the ability to know your strengths.

Try out the 'authentic happiness' test centre at University of Pennsylvania, which has free online tests to quantify your strengths, happiness and optimism (authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/testcenter). After you have identified your strengths, it's about reorienting your life to use them as much as can at your work, your play, your love and your friendships.

A good example is Siobhan, who found her role as homemaker very isolating in a rural area. Her greatest strength was social intelligence, so she ensured that she accessed her engagement by setting up a parent-and-toddler group.

Happiness here is not about smiley-ness or loads of laughs, its about being absorbed, about being in the flow.

3 A life of meaning

The third path is a life of meaning; it consists of knowing what your highest strengths are and using them to belong to and in the service of something larger than yourself. This, I believe, is where those who wrote the 1916 Proclamation found their meaning.

Life satisfaction

Now comes the kicker question: to what extent does the pursuit of pleasure, the pursuit of engagement, and the pursuit of meaning contribute to life satisfaction?

Seligman's research team found that the pursuit of pleasure has almost no contribution to life satisfaction. The pursuit of meaning is the strongest. The pursuit of engagement is also very strong.

If you have both engagement and you have meaning, then pleasure is the icing on the cake. Or, as others have put it, the full life where the sum is greater than the parts. If you've got all three you've got true authentic happiness.

As a psychologist I am very interested in looking at the relationships between pleasure, meaning and engagement when it comes to our physical health, mental health and wellbeing. It has also been looked at in terms of our how long you live and work productivity.

When I first became a psychologist I thought if I was good enough to make someone not depressed, not anxious, not angry, that I'd make them happy. As it turns out the skills of happiness - the skills of the pleasant life, engagement and meaning - are different from the skills of relieving emotional distress.

So it's good to engage in exercises that let you get into that space of pleasure, meaning and engagement. For some, it may be under eights' coaching or sea swimming, for others it may be throwing a stone into a river or volunteering. What is it for you? Use the 1916 centenary celebrations as a time of reflection to find out.

Gratitude exercise

Close your eyes. I want you to reflect and remember someone who did something enormously important that changed your life in a good direction and who you never properly thanked. The person needs to be alive. Remembering that, your task is to write a short testimonial identifying their qualities and character. Now, try to source their address, and send it to them. Or if you really want to go for it, ask if you can visit. Don't tell them why, just show up at their door and read the testimonial: everyone cries when this happens. When psychologists tested people who did this one week later, a month later and three months later, they were happier.

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