Helping clients to get back in charge of their lives, with the confidence, calmness & self-sufficiency to flourish.

Happiness; meaning, flow and pleasure.

For many years the development of psychology was driven by the the desire to understand mental illness, rather than mental well-being. For this reason, little attention was paid to happiness, which was considered to be at one end of a continuum, with misery at the other end. However this has changed, in particular since the development of positive psychology, which seeks to understand our strengths, nurture talent, and help people to get the most from life… and that includes being happy and contented. Psychologists now view happiness and misery as two parallel lines, which enables us to understand that treating depression is not necessarily the same thing as making someone happier.

In reality, we’re not very good at working out what will make us happy, as Dan Gilbert points out, we have evolved a remarkable system for imagining the future, enabling us to plan and organise, however the system has it’s flaws. Unfortunately one such flaw applies to our understanding of what will make us happy, and how happy it will make us: We tend to think that getting the things we desire will make us happy, whether it’s new possessions, taking a holiday, passing an exam or winning the lottery. Research shows that we greatly overestimate the impact these things will have on our happiness, how intensely it will be felt, and how long lasting any changes will be. In fact, even just three months after any of these events, our levels of happiness will be very close to what they were before. This is known as impact bias; a tendency to overestimate the hedonistic impact of future events. Predicting how we’re going to feel in the future is known as ‘affective forecasting’, and we’re not very good at doing this: Most people would predict being happier moving to a warm sunny climate rather than to a colder, wetter climate. Yet there’s no evidence to support this prediction, intuitive as it seems.

In a similar way, research has shown that when incomes and standards of living have risen over time, people’s levels of happiness do not rise in equal measure, but tend to follow a fairly flat line on the graph, the opposite of what most people would expect to happen as incomes rise. To understand this better, we must look at what happiness is, how we experience it, and what really makes us happy.

What makes us happy?

It’s no surprise that Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, has some interesting things to say on this subject. Seligman believes there are three different ‘happy lives’ to consider, partly because different things generate these three forms of happiness; he calls them the Pleasant life, the Good life, and the Meaningful life.

The Pleasant life:

This involves having as much pleasure as possible, and the positive emotion it generates, and also developing the skills to savour these pleasures (such as mindfulness), sustaining them for as long as possible. Unfortunately, although this life of pleasure is perhaps the most obvious route to happiness, particularly from a western perspective, it has some fundamental drawbacks. The first is the fact that our genes play a significant part in our ability to gain happiness this way, accounting for around 50% of an individual’s potential. Ever noticed how some people just seem to end up happy no matter what, whilst others always seem unhappy in similar situations? Another problem is that it habituates very quickly, so if you keep seeking pleasure in the same way, you’re soon getting less and less from it. Sadly, we often don’t notice this fact, and ‘retail therapy’ can get expensive as we keep trying to generate pleasure by consuming more and more. This form of happiness also tends to fade rather than sustain, so we generally experience it in highs and lows. For these reasons, this pleasant life offers the most potential as a way of boosting our happiness levels when the other areas of our lives are optimal, rather than as a primary source of happiness.

The Good life:

This is all about being in a state known as 'flow’*, which roughly equates to everyday terms such as; ‘in the zone’, ‘in the moment’ or ‘in the groove’. This is a state of concentration and absorption, where time seems to stand still; it may be found in work or hobbies, and is generally considered to require an active role, (rather than passively watching TV, for example). Those times when you are completely absorbed in the present moment, and simply don’t seem to be aware of time passing. According to Seligman the secret to experiencing more periods of flow seems to be all about finding what your strengths are, then structuring your life around using those strengths in work, play, love and friendships. In doing this you will experience more absorption in your daily life, increasing the sense of contentment, satisfaction and even joyfulness.

The Meaningful life:

Again this involves working with your strengths, but in the service of something larger than you. This seems to tap into the way we feel the benefit of altruistic acts for much longer than we benefit from doing things that generate pleasure. It’s also worth bearing in mind that when we experience kindness from others, we tend to feel good, but it may be coloured by feelings of guilt or even obligation. When we show kindness to others, the improvement to our feelings are not usually restricted by these things, especially if we are acting in a genuine way.

Seligman’s research into overall satisfaction with life, repeated many times, has shown surprising results, quite the opposite of what had been expected. The meaningful life made the most significant contribution, followed by the good life. The pleasant life seems to contribute little to overall satisfaction with life: However, the pleasant life becomes more significant when the other two are already high.

Returning to pleasure…

…it turns out we can be fooled into experiencing it; Paul Bloom describes an interesting experiment where participants were given wine to drink, whilst inside an fMRI brain scanner. Half were simultaneously told that the wine was cheap, whilst the others were told that it was an expensive, high quality wine… Of course, they all tasted the same wine. Remarkably, for the group that were told the wine was expensive, the pleasure centres in their brains lit up far more than for the others. Quite simply, they literally experienced more pleasure from the wine, they didn’t just believe they were experiencing it: Their reality changed. Bloom suggests that the belief we have about the history of an object changes how we experience the object. This is why we can attach huge value to an original artwork, and little value to an identical fake; we value the unique act of original creativity that is present in it’s creation, and missing from the copy.

So, raising our overall level of satisfaction with life, happiness and well-being is achievable, but not necessarily in the ways that might seem obvious to most of us, thanks to the way our brains are wired. It’s not about winning the lottery, regardless of how appealing that may seem. There may be nothing intrinsically wrong with having a winning ticket, but before you do, just make sure you’ve done what you can to develop the meaningful life, and the good life, so you can really savour the pleasant life.

Links for the TED Talks referred to above:

Dan Gilbert: The surprising science of happiness.

Martin Seligman: The new era of positive psychology.

Paul Bloom: The origins of pleasure.

* ‘Flow’ was named by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, there’s a Wikipedia page on the subject here.

Supporting Anxiety UK

Anxiety UK

I am now an Anxiety UK Approved Therapist, providing therapeutic support to the charity’s members and partner beneficiaries in my work as a hypnotherapist. I am subject to Anxiety UK’s regular monitoring of my professional qualifications, supervision, continual professional development, insurance and professional body membership in addition to complying with the ethical framework and professional standards set down by my registered governing body, the National Society of Hypnosis, Psychotherapy and Mindfulness.

Full details of the Anxiety UK Approved Therapist scheme can be found here:

Details about becoming a member of Anxiety UK to be able to access therapy via the charity can be found here

Anyone who becomes a member of Anxiety UK can gain a number of benefits, one if which is access to reduced-rate therapy services. These must initially be booked through Anxiety UK (see the membership link above).

Alternatively, non-members can access therapy through the charity’s FAST referral service, the details are here:

Of course, my services are still available to be booked directly.

Anxiety UK Approved Therapist logo

Hypnosis and Pain

I decided to post this video in my blog as I've often suggested it to people who are unsure about whether or not hypnosis 'works'. It's a TV documentary from More4 in the UK, dating from 2006. It includes live footage of a patient undergoing a hernia operation without the use of a general anaesthetic, or any anaesthetics for that matter. Pain is managed by hypnosis. The program also includes discussion and debate about hypnosis and it's use in healthcare, with other examples of it's use in the operating theatre, along with it's benefits in terms of healing and the speed of recovery. All in all it's very enlightening to anyone who is unsure about the validity of hypnosis, especially if they’ve been seeing too much of it's use in entertainment.

A few decades ago the argument over whether or not hypnosis was an altered state of consciousness was at its peak. Some very sound research work seemed to suggest that hypnosis was mostly evidence of 'social compliance', rather than an altered state of consciousness: When hypnotised people were simply behaving as they thought they should, and complying with the instructions of the hypnotist. Whilst this made sense in terms of the research studies, it made little sense to people working with hypnosis in a clinical setting, who regularly worked with people who had misconceptions about hypnosis being like sleep, or unconsciousness, a state where they would have no control. Yet, when hypnotised they did not behave in any of these ways, as they had expected to. Instead, they behaved as people normally do when hypnotised. And of course, as this program shows so wonderfully, it would be very difficult to undergo major surgery without an anaesthetic, and to be free of pain or discomfort through social compliance alone. It's not that such research and theories were 'wrong', they actually were very helpful in developing understanding, but they were incomplete, and seemingly disconnected from hypnosis in a clinical environment.

The debate about an altered state of consciousness has largely subsided in recent years, no doubt in part because we still don't really know quite what a 'normal' state of consciousness is. Unfortunately the disconnection between research into hypnosis and it's clinical application is often still there. There are some practical reasons for this: Researchers need to be able to measure and repeat many aspects of their work. This means working with hypnosis in a standardised way, rather than adapting it to suit the individual, as a clinician would. It means focusing on the depth of hypnosis, which is more likely to be unhelpful in a clinical setting, unless working with pain. It also means working with highly hypnotisable subjects, something that would be impractical in healthcare settings. This last factor is particularly significant, as it may cause some research results to be inappropriate in the context of hypnosis used in the general population. Ultimately, research into hypnosis is a fascinating subject, but we do need to be careful when considering how findings relate to the use of hypnosis within a healthcare setting.

Einstein's optical delusion

Listening to Jill Bolte Taylor's description of her 'stroke of insight' reminded me of a quote from Albert Einstein, which Richard Davidson used to close his session at the thirteenth Mind and Life dialogue, "The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation":

'A human being is part of the whole, called by us 'Universe,' a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest - a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.'

This brief quotation seems to connect so well with the insights that Jill shares in her presentation: The concept of oneness, or connection, and how we are cut of from it by the 'optical delusion' of our consciousness. The sense that we can observe this restriction and strive to free ourselves from it. And not least, the need for compassion.

On that subject, Davidson's presentation, (Mind-Brain-Body Interaction and Meditation), covered some of his research into neural states in experienced and novice meditators. He noted, 'Many areas of the brain were more activated during compassion meditation compared to the neutral state… Another brain region, the medial prefrontal cortex, has been implicated in self-relevant processing… This area of the brain associated with the self is deactivated when people are generating compassion, which is very much a selfless state.'

A transcription of the thirteenth Mind and Life dialogue has been published in "The Mind's Own Physician" - ISBN: 978-1-57224-968-4

Despite the fact that this is quite a well-known quotation from Einstein, there seems to be some uncertainty as to the exact wording he used. It’s possible he may have re-written this a few times, leading to confusion today, but after some searching I found the following quote was included in a letter he wrote in 1950.

'A human being is a part of the whole, called by us 'Universe', a part limited by time & space.
He experiences himself, his thoughts & feelings as something separated from the rest –
A kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.

The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion.
Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind'.

Albert Einstein, February 12, 1950.

A trip to La La Land

Something that I posted on my previous blog, and I really think is worth sharing again, is this unmissable TED talk;

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroanatomist who woke up one morning with a headache, which turned out to be the early indications of a stroke. Her understanding of the brain gave her insight into what was happening, and an ability to interpret what the changes in her brain function meant in terms of her moment-by-moment experience. In this presentation she sheds light on how the functioning of our brains impacts our perception of reality, how our knowledge of the world, and of ourselves is fundamentally changed by the the ways in which our brains are wired. The fact that she does this with humour makes it all the more compelling to watch…

Much of our sense of an embodied self is generated in the left hemisphere of the brain, (in the Parietal lobe), along with our internal dialogue, whilst activity in the right hemisphere creates the sense of present space and time that we are in. It would seem that some degree of disconnection between the two, which may come from deep meditation, psychedelic drugs, damage, etc., can transform our experience and understanding. The result may be an experience of insight that is religious, mystical, enlightening, spiritual and profound, often accompanied by a loss of the sense of self, and a feeling of connectedness or oneness. But what is remarkable about these experiences is that they so often produce enduring changes to the outlook of those people that have them. Whether they are monks, hippies or neuroanatomists…

New web site, new Blog...

So, a new web site comes at a cost. Roughly $99 and a couple of days work. But it also brings the opportunity for a few changes, one of which is a new blog, which should be a lot easier than trying to transfer the old one. This is all happening as it seems a certain well-known search engine was 'punishing' my web site for not being friendly enough to mobile devices; I'll not name them in case they punish me for that too. Aren't near-monopolies great? Anyway, enough whinging, it had to be done, and so far I'm quite pleased with the results.

A few of the more useful posts from the past will probably end up here, especially anything that I know has been helpful to clients.

Back in June I gave a talk at the 2016 Conference of the National Society of Hypnosis & Psychotherapy, the subject was Hypnosis, Mindfulness and Compassion; three areas that overlap in interesting and sometimes confusing ways. Hopefully I'll be adding some posts on that subjects once I get a bit more time to write. Meanwhile, back to tweaking web pages.

This site uses cookies and tracking technology to improve your browsing experience & analyse site traffic.