FINDING YOUR SIGNATURE STRENGTH by Dr. Phil Noone
From Mental Health For Millennials Volume 3: On Happiness (pp. 4-16, Published by Book Hub Publishing, 2019).
What is happiness? According to the Dalai Lama the purpose of our existence is to seek happiness (Dalai Lama & Cutter 1998, 5). His message is that, “We don’t need more money, we don’t need greater success or fame, we don’t need the perfect body or even the perfect mate – right now, at this very moment, we have a mind, which is all the basic equipment we need to achieve complete happiness” (5). When the Dalai Lama refers to the mind, he is not merely referring to cognitive ability, but rather to the Tibetan word sem which includes feeling, heart and mind. It embraces a connectedness that is filled with compassion, love, tolerance and kindness, which “automatically opens up your inner door”.
For me, happiness is the open door of awareness. It is transitory, caught, experienced, held, felt, tasted, and enjoyed in the present moment. I believe it to be layers of connectivity, fleeting, captured, lived, experienced just now—in this moment. The happiness literature is evolving with new and emerging theories that attempt to explain what seems to be a very complex, often elusive concept. This chapter details personal accounts of my deep, intense, connectivity to nature and how I use it as one of my “signature strengths” as a coping mechanism in difficult or challenging times. I will also discuss Millennials and resiliency, endeavoring to answer questions like, “Do Millennials recognize their signature strengths?” Current research on Millennials, their happiness and their connectivity to nature provide valuable insights as we explore themes on generational happiness.
Evolving Thoughts on Happiness
Happiness has been of interest to scholars since ancient Greece, conceptualized as hedonic (pleasure) and eudaimonia (meaning a life well-lived) (Kringelback & Berridge 2010). Della Fave and colleagues suggest that happiness can be described as either a transient emotion (joy), a sense of experience or accomplishment (cognitive evaluation), as well as a sense of purpose (achieving one’s potential) (Fave et al 2011). The word “happiness” refers to a state of subjective well-being that results in positive enjoyment, pleasure or satisfaction (Besser-Jones 2013). From a positive psychological viewpoint, Seligman (2002) suggest that “authentic happiness” occurs when a person is aware of their personal strengths and then develops them as signature strengths, by focusing on what went well, on the positive aspects rather than on the deficits or ‘can’t do mode’. The term ‘flow’ is used by Csikszentmihalyi (2000) to describe how happiness occurs when a person is totally absorbed in an activity, as in art, nature or work, a theme developed by Dr. Niall MacGiollaBhuí in the second volume of this series.
In his 2013 volume, Hardwiring Happiness, Dr Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, argues that by using the power of everyday experiences we can build new neural pathways in our brain to attract happiness, love, confidence and peace. He explains that our brains have a default mode (or are wired) to take in and focus on the bad and ignore the good. This can make us—as individuals—more stressed, worried and anxious instead of confident, happy and secure. The good news is that we can re-wire our brains to enhance the brain’s ability to withstand its ancient negativity bias. In other words, according to Hanson, it is possible to hardwire in happiness by cultivating a sense of awareness from our everyday experiences (Hanson 2013:12).
Researchers like Moss (2017) caution that the pursuit of happiness is not always beneficial. She suggests that happiness is elusive for many people and wonderfully describes the attainment of happiness as, “like fog, you see it from afar, dense and full of shape. But upon approach, its particles loosen and suddenly it becomes out of reach, even though it is all around you” (Moss 2017:1). I love this account because in today’s world of social media (including snapchat, Facebook and Instagram), the sense of everyone else having fun and being happy in the virtual space may often coat the sadness underneath in the desire to create the perception of a perfect, happy life, explored further by my colleague, James Mahon, in this volume in the context of media manipulation and happiness, as well as Anna Gray, who talks more about the dark side of social media through advents like the “selfie.”
Moss realistically debates the issue of life events that create fleeting moments of happiness, which can be enhanced by having a sense of gratitude and writing a gratitude journal. She further suggests that happiness is not about being cheerful, but about taking the good with the bad in a way that reframes our difficulties in some way. My colleague, Dr. Niall MacGiollaBhuí, and I, argue in our forthcoming book on the connection between happiness and resilience that one of the misconceptions in relation to happiness is that it is viewed as an end rather than a means to an end. A common assumption, for example, is that when people get the new house and the new car, those material things can and will make one happy. But research shows that in the mere striving to be happy, it loses its spontaneity—its essence. Happiness arises spontaneously, unexpectedly when we ‘just are’ in the (admittedly elusive) present moment.
Other relevant research conducted by Killingsworth (2017) from Harvard University discusses happiness via an app he built called, “Track Your Happiness.” Killingsworth then collected data from 15,000 people in 83 countries, asking them about how they were feeling as they carried out various activities during their day. Instead of asking, “Who is happy?” (as has been the emphasis in previous research), Killingsworth sought to find out when people were happy. In total, he collected over half-a-million data points about emotional states during everyday life. One of his findings showed that people are less happy when their mind is wandering yet become happier when focused on a task or activity. Killingsworth noted that people’s minds wander approximately 50% of the time and that this appears to lower happiness level. Mind-wandering occurred 60% of the time when commuting, 30% of the time when talking to someone else and, perhaps surprisingly, 10% of the time during sex. This research shows that happiness is not a stable condition in our lives, whether we are married, wealthy, or not. It also shows that the key drivers of happiness are the small, everyday things that count the most, even more than having a high salary or high status. It concluded that a focused mind is a happy mind. But achieving and maintaining a focused mind is increasingly difficult in an age where technology provides 24/7 access to things like social media.
Are Millennials Happy?
The desire for happiness is universal, but how Millennials perceive it and achieve it is unique to that generation. Research tells us that 94% of Millennials prefer to spend money on experience rather than on material items (Rampton 2017). This is something my colleague, Cathy Fitzgibbon, takes up in this volume in the context of food and culinary curiosity. Ray Flannery also touches on current research involving Millennials prioritizing experience over things like investing in a home to achieve happiness. This differs from the parents of adult Millennials, many of whom were still influenced by the relics of post-WWII cultural modernism (or the idea that there is no greater good than the greater good), so believed that one had to have a career and steady income in order to be happy.
In 2019, a 25-year old is twice as likely to be a student, only half as likely to be married, and, of that number, fifty percent are more likely to be receiving financial assistance from their parents. Millennials have created their own definition of adulthood tending to view it as a journey to finding their purpose in life, their own key to happiness. The Deloitte Millennials Survey (2018) based on the view of more than 10,000 Millennials in 36 countries, reported that 43% of Millennials in the global market believed that they would be happier than their parents. This comprised of 31% in the developed market and 57% in emerging markets. As a parent myself, this offers interesting food for thought.
When speaking to a group of Millennials last weekend, I was fascinated to hear how one girl took part in the Dublin City Marathon in 2018, holding her phone on a selfie-stick so that she could both record her achievement and then post it in social media. Is she less happy for doing so? The answer is “no.” She was happy sharing her achievement in virtual space. This raises the question of the pursuit of virtual happiness? How much do we really know about it? Who am I to say that just because my experience of happiness is different than hers, that it is less so? Maybe a Millennial’s signature strength involves posting an achievement on social media. For me, it is being in nature, which I will briefly share next.
Personal Glimpses into Moments of Happiness
A few weeks ago, while conversing with friends, a discussion arose regarding our favorite landscapes in Ireland. My love of the Burren landscape was compared to the love for the ruggedness of Connemara by others. Stimulated by this conversation and curious to discover what I was missing, I journeyed to the heart of Connemara and spent two days in its wilderness.
I was, indeed, struck by Connemara’s stillness, its winter-spring colour, and its towering, stark mountains providing a backdrop to the wheaten earth. I stopped the car. Walked quietly along a rugged stony path. Silent beauty surrounded me, entered my being, filling me with wonder, joy, and amazement in a surge of power that turbo-charged my inner spirit—my inner being—in a way I’d not experienced before. It was so profound it’s difficult to articulate, as if there are no words with enough adequacy to describe it. I walked through the forest and spotted a deserted house at the foot of a mountain. Decided to walk there. To have a look. To take a photograph. I sat at a stream. Just sat. Silent. Still. Present. The sound of the water gently reaching my ears. The wildflower Gorse or Furze bush a vibrant yellow nearby. The sun was out. The sky was blue. I felt the warmth of the sun gently caress the skin on my face. A hare approached me, then stood perfectly still as if he had just noticed my presence. He cautiously advanced to look at me, giving me an equal chance to eyeball him. I whispered, “You beauty.” He remained for a few more moments, whilst I remained still and in the moment. Then, he darted away. Gone. That simple, albeit brief, experience was truly profound. Beautiful. Happy.
Happiness is about being in the now. It is of now. And, it is being in tune with what makes us so. Another simple moment I’ll share happened while I was home. Alone, in the house. It was quiet. Still. Silent. Raindrops, glossy, transparent, fell in waves from the roof. I watched as they sprinkled their magic outside the living room window again and again. Pausing as if in thought, before the next set of heaven’s tears descended. The soft droplets of water belonged here today outside of my window. I was inside, warm, cosy, taking a moment to contemplate the contents of the current book on my lap. And, for but a second, the essence of happiness enveloped me. I looked out of my window and was struck by the layers of nature: My plant on the inside windowsill, bluebells dancing outside with the rain, bracing their colorful bell-like petals against the elements as ancient trees stretched towards the sky. It was evening. My inner calm opened a spiritual door that connected the inside world of me to the outside world of nature. It was pure happiness, IN the here and now, despite being quietly at home. And, all alone.
It has been suggested that human beings have an innate desire to be with nature (Wilson 1984). This is called “biophilia hypothesis” (Kellert & Wilson 1993) and is explained by the evolutionary process of human life where, historically, human beings have spent most of their time in nature and only recently (in the last 15,000 years) have migrated to urban dwellings. The need to connect with nature is thought to be part of our psychological makeup—our hardwiring, if you will. For the first time in human history, a greater portion of the world’s population now lives in urban settings instead of rural areas (United Nations Population Division 2008). Research indicates that this disconnection from the natural environment may have a negative impact on emotional well-being as studies continue to show that being in nature is associated with increased happiness (Capaldi & Zelenski 2014).
A meta-analysis based on 30 samples (n=8523) to examine the relationship between nature connectedness and happiness indicates that being connected to nature and feeling happy are, in fact, connected (Capalidi et al. 2014). Those who were more connected to nature tended to experience more positive affect, vitality and life satisfaction compared to those who were less connected to nature. Young et al (2008) suggests that Millennials use leisure and nature and that fresh air, sunshine and happiness intersect with each other as a kind of built- in salutogenesis.
Experiencing nature and its importance for happiness can be understood when using Hanson’s model for happiness called HEAL, an acronym: H=Have a positive experience, E=Enrich it, A=Absorb it, and L=Link positive, with room for optional negative material (Hanson 2013). Seligman’s PERMA model of happiness came before Hanson’s and includes: P= Positive emotion, E= Engagement, R= Relationships, M=Meaning, A=Achievement (Seligman 2011). All of these models depict happiness in different ways. Choosing one that fits you best and using it to enhance your awareness of moments of happiness that occur throughout your day can combine to create a neural network of experiences that quite literally hardwire our brains for happiness.
To conclude, though current research suggests Millennials find happiness through experience, and that social media can create such experiences, the need for happiness itself transcends generational boundaries. Regardless of age, gender, geography, ethnicity, philosophy, or theology, we can all benefit from increased self- awareness. By living in the present moment, we both improve and increase our happiness levels. And, there’s something comforting about that.
I’d like to end with a poem that reflects one of my signature strengths, a connectedness to nature. My hope is that you are inspired to take a walk in a local woodland, or on a stony beach—perhaps even in a local park or your own backyard. Be present to what you feel, sense, touch, hear, and see. Just be. As my own model depicts in simple terms: ‘B-P-C’ Be-Present-Connect’ (Noone 2019, shortly going to press).
The Peace of Wild Things
“I go and lie down where the wood drake
Rests in his beauty on the water and the great heron feeds I come into the peace of wild things
For a time, I rest in the grace of the world and am free” – Wendell Berry
Life is complex, full of challenges. Find your signature strengths, what you like to do, what makes you happy, then get in the flow and do it. Embrace tiny moments of happiness in the simplicity of the everyday. Spend time in nature. Be still. Savior it—let nature enter your inner being and feel the sense of happiness that emerges.
Experience the moment, be present to it, connect to it and enjoy.
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