Are you hoping for a happier life? I've spent a lot of my life searching for happiness. I've travelled the world, spent a small fortune buying books and attending courses and been fortunate to sit with some of the world's leading scientists to try and understand what would make my life happier.
The good news is, what I discovered -- particularly from the growing body of research in positive psychology -- absolutely worked.
My relationships improved. I truly came to enjoy my work. My health was never better. And although I'd still have blue moments, overall I felt significantly and consistently more happy. The unexpected twist though was that the happier I felt, the clearer it became that happiness wasn't actually what I needed to live a life I loved.
I know that may sound strange. But haven't you ever really wanted something to make life better, only to get it and realize it wasn't what you actually needed?
It's my heartfelt belief that when it comes to happiness, this is a mistake most of us are making. So let me save you some time and effort and share what I've found -- and the newest research also recommends -- is far more important than happiness when it comes to improving your life.
"People who are whole, those of us who are willing and able to shift to the upside or the downside to get the best possible outcomes in a given situation," explained positive psychology researcher Robert Biswas-Deiner when I recently interviewed him about his newest book The Upside of Your Dark Side.
"Studies are finding that the healthiest, most successful, best learners, who enjoy the deepest well-being have the psychological agility for example to navigate between positive and negative emotions, mindfulness and mindlessness, kindness and selfishness," explained Robert.
But just how do we get balance right?
Robert suggests we use an 80:20 rule of thumb when it comes to wholeness. For example, being able to cultivate and experience positivity roughly 80 percent of the time, but able to avail ourselves of the benefits of negative states the other 20 percent.
Three approaches you may have dismissed when it comes to improving your life, but Robert recommends cultivating at least a little of to improve your sense of wholeness include:
- Taking the negative out of negative emotion - Every emotion is useful. Rarely does anger turn into the kind of overwhelming rage that leads to violence, more often it stirs you to defend yourself and those you care about, and to maintain healthy boundaries. Similarly, embarrassment is often a signal that we've made a small mistake and that a small correction is required. And guilt may signal that you're violating your own moral code and therefore need to adjust either your actions or your code. Rather than avoiding or suppressing these emotions, see them as opportunities for learning and growth.
- Investing in a little mindlessness -- While mindfulness can be beneficial, you are also naturally predisposed to mindlessness. Automatic thinking helps conserve mental resources and mindless processing often leads to superior performance and better decisions, especially in complicated situations. So make time for mental meandering. When your mind wanders, ideas collide and creativity happens.
- Getting comfortable with discomfort -- One of the reasons we are increasingly stressed is because we put such an emphasis on feeling comfortable. But people who lack the capacity to withstand physical discomfort, negative emotions, frustration, and uncertainty are at a marked disadvantage in life. Instead of dealing with the challenge at hand, their energy gets diverted to worrying, procrastinating, and pursuing harmful activities to try and rid themselves of pain. But if you can open yourself up to a little more danger, a bit more risk, a little more uncertainty and even a little more failure, then you stand to regain some of the mental toughness that often required to live a life that is meaningful. Practice stepping outside your comfort zone at least once a day and be willing to accept that failure is a healthy part of learning.
"Acknowledging seemingly contradictory aspects of yourself will increase the power and influence you wield in the present, and the vitality, agility, and perseverance you can bring to the life tasks that lie ahead," explained Robert.
I have to agree with him. You wouldn't use a hammer to fix everything in your house, and neither should the quest for happiness be used to improve every part of your life. Rather, as I've grown more confident to explore different psychological approaches, in different situations to obtain different outcomes, I've experienced a far greater degree of joy in my life than happiness alone ever brought.
What might the goal of wholeness -- rather than happiness -- open up in your life?
*This article was first published in Psychology Today.