Don’t Aim for Happiness

While attending the IPPA World Congress this summer I learned a lot.  I took a lot of notes.  Then I promptly forgot a great deal of what I heard.  Why?  Well, I was a little distracted.  We were launching our book, Character Strengths Matter:  How to Live a Full Life, which has been doing really well.  There was a lot of excitement among all the contributors and endorsers and we had a lot of books to get out to them.

And I was on the practice committee which had to review 1/2 of the 800 abstracts, so I was busy greeting my committee and thanking them.  But one of my takeaways was Barbara Fredrickson’s new research that people who aim for happiness are actually less happy than those who aim for positivity in their lives.  If you focus on those moments that create positivity for you rather than trying to get at ‘happiness’ you will be more successful.  It reminds me of what Ed Diener, former head of the International Positive Psychology Association and well-being researcher, said at the IPPA conference a few years ago.  He said he was asked to head up the American Psychological Association (APA).  It would be very prestigious.  But he had to ask himself, “What will I be doing all day?  I like crunching data.  I knew as head of the APA I would not see my family as much and I would not be crunching data.”  As a result he turned it down.

Now the new issue of the *Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology* includes a study which shows that focusing on others linked to decreases in depression, anxiety, & Stress; while focusing on self has the opposite effect: “Focusing on Self or Others Has Different Consequences for Psychological Well-Being: A Longitudinal Study of the Effects of Distinct Interpersonal Goals.”

The authors are Joana Duarte & José Pinto-Gouveia of the Cognitive–Behavioral Centre for Research and Intervention (CINEICC), University of Coimbra, Portugal. Here’s an excerpt from the Introduction: “We propose that having self-image goals (trying to create and manage a positive image) may lead to psychological distress, while genuinely taking others’ needs into account and caring for their welfare (compassionate goals) may promote psychological well-being.”

Here’s an excerpt from the results: “Regression analysis suggested that compassionate goals predicted decreases in pre- and post-levels of depression, anxiety and stress, while self-image goals predicted increases in these psychopathological symptoms.  Positive affect and feelings of clarity and closeness and less interpersonal conflicts mediated the relation between compassionate goals and depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms, while feelings of fear and confusion, loneliness and interpersonal conflicts and less positive emotions mediated the relation between self-image goals and depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms.”

(Thanks to Ken Pope and Lisa Sansom for passing the study along.)

So the bottom line is…focus on positive experiences and not general happiness; and focus on others, not on the mirror.

This entry was posted in Positive Psychology by Shannon Polly, MAPP. Bookmark the permalink.

About Shannon Polly, MAPP

Shannon M. Polly is a corporate communications trainer, facilitator and speaker and founder of Shannon Polly & Associates, a leadership development company in downtown D.C. Shannon works with executives, managers and employees of Fortune 500 companies in two areas: executive presence/presentation skills (based on over a decade of experience as a professional actor/singer in New York) and positive psychology. Shannon is one the first 100 people in the world who have received her Master in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) degree from the University of Pennsylvania under Dr. Martin Seligman. She also holds a graduate degree from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in classical acting and a B.A. with honors from Yale University. She also holds a coaching certificate from the Georgetown Leadership Coaching Program.

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