Ed Diener – Friday morning speaker

Ed Diener, who co-wrote a book with his son on Happiness, presented Friday morning. I am finding that the plenary speakers are excellent. It is so gratifying to know that the “founders” and “gurus” of Positive Psychology aren’t only great researchers, but they are excellent teachers and compelling speakers as well. With ED, as with PZ and MS yesterday, I found myself wanting to hear more and more…

ED dispelled some of the myths that come up in positive psychology, namely that one’s individual adaption to changing circumstances allows us to overcome any and all obstacles. Two studies that have been oft-quoted are that lottery winners are no happier than before, and those who have suffered serious spinal cord injuries adapt and regain their previous level of happiness.

I should comment at this point that while researchers are bandying about the word “happiness”, everyone has acknowledged that it is a fuzzy concept that needs unpacking, and some of them are researching into just that notion: how to unpack happiness. But that’s just a little digression… More on that in a bit…

ED talked about how those two studies (spinal cord and lottery winners) have not be replicated, and some other studies more recently have contradicted the findings. So we know now that adaptation is not complete. It is possible, but it is not complete. We also know that individual differences vary greatly, and it is misleading to look at the averages.

Circumstances matter. That was ED’s big theme – circumstances do matter. Positive psychology will be faulty if it just examines the individual apart from his / her environment and circumstances, and so a healthy dose of social psychology is beneficial. We must have healthy organizations and institutions. At global extremes (Togo vs. Denmark), external circumstances account for 60 or 70% of “happiness”.

ED also broke “happiness” down into “life satisfaction” and “positive engagement” where LS is predicted by things like income, access to conveniences and basic needs. PE is predicted by social support, learning & flow, and public trust – this is more affective. So money is weakly correlated with PE, but more strongly correlated with LS. The two are distinct, but often get bundled into “happiness”. Another distinction: LS is having what you want; PE is liking what you have. If you learn to desire what you will like, your “happiness” will go up.

My take-away? I wasn’t previously aware of how “happiness” was comprised, so this is new for me, though might not be for some of my blog readers. But also, and this is very much in line with my coaching work, that people need to be educated to desire what they will like.

So go and make a list of all the things you like – activities you like doing, things that generate a state of flow, places that give you a positive buzz, etc. Now post that list somewhere where you will see it and use that next time you have a big decision to make – can you move in the direction of what you enjoy? You will be happier for it!

Lisa Sansom

Lisa Sansom has her MBA from the Rotman School of Management, and over two decades of experience in teaching and training. Her years of work in the organizational development field have included projects on change management, employee engagement, leadership development, team coaching and employer of choice strategies.

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