Can you learn to be happy?

March 28, 2007 at 3:34 am Leave a comment

Flower - ThailandIn an earlier post, I explored Positive Psychology (PP) and its nexus with knowledge management (KM). I think that PP will continue to rise in popularity and its impact on KM will become increasingly obvious.

The world map of life satisfaction (University of Leicester) ranks Australia at No.26 for subjective well-being ie a sense of satisfaction with one’s life, both in general and in specific areas of one’s life such as relationships, health and work. We rank behind the Scandanavian countries, Antigua and Barbuda, the Seychelles, St Kitts and Nevis, and our close neighbour, New Zealand.

Economists believe that when average incomes reach about £10,000, life satisfaction starts flatlining. We can afford the basics and money can buy us happiness, but not for long. Modern malaise soon sets in and is the result of mass consumerism and hedonism, the subject of Oliver James’s excellent book, Affluenza.To earn our incomes, most of us trot off each day to the citadels that occupy our cities – corporations. Here we spend our time navigating bureaucracy; fretting over what the latest restructure might mean for us; trying to find the information we need to do our daily jobs; pondering over what level of trust exists (or doesn’t) in the organisation.

Couple this with today’s fast paced life, full of pressures to be thin, rich, botoxed, toting the latest brand-name accessories or being available 24/7 – it’s little wonder that the question of whether you can learn to be happy is popping up. Instead of spending our time worrying about our weaknesses, wouldn’t it be great if we could learn how to be optimistic; learn how to better respect people; learn how to be collaborative and sharing? Organisations tend to focus on the negative: assessing your performance against some KPI and then shuffling you off to yet another development course to beef up your weak points. But what if we looked at signature strengths instead?

So I was pleased to see this article today, which shows how PP is leading to new conversations about the notion of well-being. At a public school in Berkshire UK, the ‘super-head’, historian and political biographer Anthony Seldon, has introduced ‘happiness’ lessons for its 14 and 15 year-old students. He believes that schools should be harmonious and inspiring (now there’s a thought: schools taking the lead and producing the next generation of positive, well-adjusted, resilient people!).

And another UK school offers lessons in ‘excess’ where students study the lives of famous individuals who pushed themselves over the brink or became prematurely dead rock-stars. And they watch a video of a young self-made millionaire entrepreneur who spends £100,000 a month on Lamborghinis and glaringly bad-taste suits threaded from real gold. These sessions are part of the citizenship lessons the school’s curriculum offers.

Dr Nick Baylis, Britain’s first lecturer in positive psychology at Cambridge and co-director of the university’s Wellbeing Institute, believes that well-being skills can be learnt. The question here of course is whether well-being and life satisfaction is the business of Government, corporations or schools. But let’s for the moment assume it is.

PP is not about thinking “positive thoughts” or spraying lavender essential oil all over your pillow case. It’s about identifying positive traits or signature strengths AND looking at the types of positive institutions ie democracy, strong families, free inquiry, that support the traits and strengths. So what exactly are the positive traits that PP has identified?

Martin Seligman’s book, Authentic Happiness, outlines the 24 signature strengths, which are arranged into 6 clusters or core virtues: Wisdom & Knowledge; Courage; Love & Humanity; Justice; Temperance; Spirituality & Transcedence. Each cluster is subdivided, so Wisdom & Knowledge, for example, can be broken down into the strengths of curiosity; love of learning; judgement; originality; social intelligence; and perspective.

Now, these subdivisions alone have my ears pricked up! being a KM practitioner, I am constantly focusing on the rich characteristics necessary for organisations and individuals to collectively share knowledge and learn from one another.

Let’s look at the Wisdom & Knowledge cluster more closely (leaving aside the comment I want to utter at this point that wisdom is erroneously viewed as being at the top of the irritating Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom pyramid. Death to that pyramid I say!). As Seligman points out, each cluster starts with the most developmentally basic virtue and ends with the most mature. So for the Wisdom & Knowledge cluster, Curiosity/Interest in the World is the most basic virtue and Perspective is the most mature. Let’s have a look:

  • Curiosity: displaying curiosity about the world and other people entails being open to experience and being flexible enough to accommodate things that don’t fit into one’s perspective. Curiosity is about actively engaging with novelty and having a wide-eyed approach.
  • Love of Learning: aka life-long learning. There’s a passion for learning new things; a passion for learning all there is to know about your particular knowledge domain; and there’s an inquisitiveness about other knowledge domains.
  • Judgement/Critical Thinking/Open-Mindedness: looking at something from all angles; not jumping to conclusions; examining available evidence as a basis for decisions; ability to change one’s mind in the light of new evidence; sifting information objectively and rationally; not indulging in over-personalisation (ie it’s my fault); putting aside your values and what you might believe in.
  • Ingenuity/Originality/Practical Intelligence/Street Smarts: always striving for new ways of doing things and not being stuck in the rut of conventional approaches.
  • Social Intelligence/Personal Intelligence/Emotional Intelligence: social and personal intelligence is knowledge of self and others and being aware of the motives and feelings of others. Social intelligence is also about noting and working with differences in others, especially moods, temperaments and intentions. Personal intelligence is being finely tuned to your own feelings and using this knowledge to understand and guide your behaviour.
  • Perspective: others seek you out to draw on your experience to help them resolve problems and gain a different perspective. Perspective is about looking at the world in a way that makes sense to you and others.

Clearly, the KM discipline can draw on work in the PP field. Looking at the above descriptions, these are all qualities KM practitioners want to build on: finding and working with people who are curious about learning and learning from others; encouraging people to make decisions based on observing patterns and evidence; encouraging and promoting deep, critical thinking skills; building on employees’ ability to reflect, to empathise, to question, to respect and work with diversity etc; encouraging an environment in which experts (Perspective) are valued and sought out; building a culture of trust that is based on social and personal intelligence.

So it seems to me that KM initiatives that incorporate notions of PP will be incorporating a field of practice that is demonstrating how individuals can learn their signature strengths and work with these.

There are two books I have on my To Read pile at the moment that deal with Social Intelligence and whether in pursuit of the hedonistic lifestyle, we’ve all lost the art of sharp, incisive thinking (the sort of thinking that Malcolm Gladwell is his book, Blink, seems to suggest is not necessary). A future post!


Entry filed under: Knowledge Management, Positive psychology.

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