About a year ago, I stumbled on a series of short YouTube videos, by Shawn Achor, on how to become happier. He is a delightful lecturer and his topic could hardly be more important. Achor taught a course on positive psychology at Harvard and one seventh of Harvard undergraduates enrolled in the course. Positive psychology is an approach that places its main emphasis on guiding people, including those who are already functioning well, to function at better levels.
After seeing Achor’s videos, I went in search of more information about new research on how people can learn to be more happy.
Achor mentions that a professor named Tal Ben Shahar had developed the positive psychology course so I looked for his work. Shahar has written several guides to increasing happiness. One was a book called “Happier” and another was a book called “Even Happier”. Recently, Shawn Achor published a very readable book “The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work”. It is a pleasant read, and a nice overview of current research on how to become happier.
What was most striking for me in these books was the remarkable overlap between what makes people happy and what makes them resilient. The overlap is so extensive that it would be reasonable to wonder whether the principles of happiness and the principles of resilience are the same.
To illustrate in a concise way, let’s consider the procedures Achor offers in his final summary in the third YouTube video. You can find it in the last few minutes of that video. They are:
1. Gratitudes: taking note each day of several things that went well that day, and that you are grateful for.
2. Journaling: Spending three minutes each day writing about something that went well.
3. Simplifying your life and avoiding multitasking.
4. Focusing on your strengths and building from them.
6. Meditation, specifically mindfulness meditation.
Numbers 1, 2, 5, and 6 are important aspects of our approach to resilience training. The remaining two are present in our training, but haven’t been central training principles. It would not be unreasonable to include them as central.
There are also many aspects of resilience training that are not in this list. For example, mastering the skill of deep relaxation, or learning how to breathe in a way that helps you stay reasonably cool under pressure. So resilience training seems to have a wider range than happiness training. Though resilience training helps you to function effectively under threat and stress, it also enhances life satisfaction when your baseline is fairly good.
In any case, it seems that when you are doing resilience training, you are also doing happiness training.
A reasonable question would be the old “chicken and egg” one. Does happiness cause resilience or does resilience cause happiness? The truth is, we don’t know. For the scientifically minded, it is a complicated question, but for those who simply want a better life all that matters is that the resilience training can be expected to make them both more resilient and happier.