By Tania Morris
I was fortunate enough to have had the very positive experience of attending the Happiness and its Causes conference recently in Sydney (June 2019).
It presented a great mix of the latest research and understanding about the neuroscience of happiness and also how we can look after our health and well-being to flourish and live a more fulfilling and longer life. So many inspiring stories from the speakers left me with an even greater sense of awe at the human brain and how our fellow humans can put this knowledge to use for the benefit of all in our personal and professional lives.
Below is a personal account of my experience of the conference and what impacted me the most over the four days I attended.
Focussing on strengths is very powerful and was a theme that linked several presentations over the four days of the conference.
We don’t spend enough time focussing on our individual strengths or strengths of a system for ways to evolve and improve with the help of powerful questions, instead we focus on problems which don’t give us the powerful answers.
The first workshop I attended was by David Cooperrider and Michelle McQaid about Appreciative Inquiry. This is a strengths based approach for creating change by enabling generative connections. Many examples were presented of large companies, organisations in healthcare and even the UN being involved in harnessing the power of the whole (key stakeholders) in achieving change. However, it could be applied to smaller groups and also in an individual scenario in a coaching conversation with the strengths focus to achieve change.
In line with this overarching theme of the conference was the awareness of your character strengths (24 of them as per www.viacharacter.org/character-strengths) because you go into flow (engagement) when your highest strengths are deployed to meet the highest challenges that come your way. But most importantly these strengths also underpin all the other elements in Seligman’s Well-Being Theory.
Martin Seligman’s work was quoted often throughout the conference and in his book “Flourish” he describes his Well-Being Theory which is an upgrade on his Authentic Happiness theory.
He explains the Well-Being Theory as having five elements. These five elements are positive emotion, engagement, meaning, positive relationships and accomplishment (PERMA).
When Seligman explained why the concept of positive relationships was included in the PERMA framework it resonated significantly for me possibly because the Happiness and its Causes conference included several references to connection with others not only as a strong predictor of “happiness and well-being” but also for longevity in our lives.
Seligman explains that about 500,000 years ago, there was a doubling of the hominid’s brain capacity. The fashionable explanation for all this extra brain was to enable us to make tools and weapons; you have to be really smart to deal instrumentally with the physical world. But the British theoretical psychologist Nick Humphrey has presented an alternative: the big brain is a social problem solver, not a physical problem solver.
When you think about it, how do we solve the problem of when we interact with our patients and their relatives to convey compassion whilst breaking bad news, with our colleagues and trainees to give constructive feedback that serves them well or with our families to show them we care and love them in challenging times? How do we solve the challenge with our friends when we are influencing them to join us on a fundraising mission or donate to the cause, or when we disagree with our neighbour about a hedge height that is compromising your own panoramic views, or when we want to be humorous and we hope our joke will land well with our audience?
These are extremely complicated problems – problems that computers cannot solve. But we humans can and do solve social problems every hour of the day.
So the big brain is a relationship simulation machine, and it has been selected by evolution for exactly the function of designing and carrying out harmonious but effective human relationships.
Dr Michael Mosely contributed significantly to the well-being agenda. He highlighted the importance of relationships and how they contribute to lifelong happiness and health. Amongst plenty of studies he presented he summarized some of Gottman’s work on secrets to happy relationships.
The top things to do are –
- Nurture your mutual fondness and admiration
- Turn towards each other, making a bid to the other and responding. (A bid is any attempt from one partner to another for attention, affirmation, affection, or any other positive connection).
- Build love maps – take an interest in their world eg. know their friends’ names
- Be kind to each other, be glad to help
- Make jokes
The number one killers for relationships are having contempt and making sweeping criticisms.
Dr Michael Mosely also spoke of the health benefits of fasting, the Mediterranean diet for our gut health along with fermented foods, exercise in the morning and incorporating periods of high intensity exercise and meditation. He spoke about money and interestingly he quoted the research shows we only need $50,000 as a minimum for a happy life, $90,000 for satiation of our emotional well-being and at least $140,000 to view ourselves as having “made it”/”to have bragging rights”.
Professor Elissa Epel, international expert in chronic stress, mindfulness, wellbeing and healthy ageing with co-author, Nobel Prize winning Australian molecular biologist Dr Elizabeth Blackburn, of The Telomere Effect, presented some very interesting information about what influences telomere lengths.
Several factors can shorten our telomeres and then shorten our lives by leading to disease states. Overall, ways to keep from shortening your telomeres are to address unhealthy stress, cultivate supportive and loving relationships and address our unhealthy habits.
So specifically BURNOUT is a stress known to be predictive of shorter telomeres. Mitochondria are affected by our mood. How we start and end our day affects our mood and health. Gratitude and having something to look forward to – having a purpose – makes a significant difference to our health. A quote I heard which I particularly liked to illustrate how we can reframe a negative, stressful situation to a positive meaning was “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life”.
Some of the healthier habits we need for our telomere lengthening are adequate sleep (7-9hrs and in bed by 10pm), aerobic exercise and regular meditation which trains us in metacognition and an awareness of our thoughts so we can influence these positively. Anti-oxidant rich food (Mediterranean diet again!) which involves eating a “rainbow”, can also affect our mood positively – perhaps that is the red wine?!
Shannon Harvey, who is an investigative journalist and author of “The Whole Health Life”, spoke about her experiences with committing to Mindfulness meditation for 365 days. She experiences the effects of a chronic inflammatory condition and wanted to see how she could improve her symptoms and well-being generally with this skill in her toolbox. She embarked on a 10-day silent Mindfulness meditation retreat which accelerated her practice. She has partnered with health researchers to study the effects and will write further about these when finalised. Her main take home message to date for Mindfulness was described as achieving the state of being “DISCOMFORTABLE”, comfortable with discomfort. She also feels she has developed more discernment and wisdom and doesn’t feel afflicted by the feeling of resignation.
The workshop on Perfectionism, “The Joy of Being Imperfect”, by Dr Toni Noble was also very relevant. She stated that perfectionism is a form of self abuse of the highest order. Some strategies to counter perfectionism included addressing the fear of failure, developing self-compassion, challenging harsh inner critical and irrational thinking, developing resilience to bounce back and giving yourself permission to fail as it enables learning and adoption of a growth mindset. A statement that resonated with me was, “If you’ve never failed, you’ve never tried anything different”.
There were numerous other great talks and experiences for me at this conference but one last thought I will leave you with is one that I heard from Sue Langley, a researcher in neuroscience: “Positive psychology is good on the good days and essential on the bad days”.
Go gently colleagues.
Dr Tania Morris
Specialist Anaesthetist and Pain Medicine Physician
Personal and Leadership Coach and Mentor
Business owner – Evolve Shenpa
My written reflection is either direct information from slides which were presented by the individuals mentioned or my observations and overall experience of the conference.
The list of presenters and their works are below.
Dr Michael Mosely, “The Fast 800”
Dr Martin Seligman, “Flourish”
Dr David Cooperrider and Michelle Quaid – http://www.davidcooperrider.com/ai-process/
Professor Elissa Epel and Dr Elizabeth Blackburn, “The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer”
Shannon Harvey, “The Whole Health Life”
Dr Toni Noble – Adjunct Professor, Institute for Positive Psychology and Education, Australian Catholic University. In conjunction with Dr Helen McGrath developed “Bounce Back!”
Nick Humphrey, The Inner Eye: Social Intelligence in evolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986)