Sociologist Charles Wright Mills’ idea that: “we cannot see what is ‘out there’ merely by looking around” sums up an important reality.
What we see and what we don’t see depends entirely on the lenses through which we view the world. By putting on a different lens, we are able to take new perspectives and see things that would otherwise remain invisible.
The contemporary science of positive psychology offers us an opportunity to look at mental well-being through a new lens and present us with practical new insights that we can use to “go north of neutral” and buffer ourselves against mental unhealth.
Positive psychologists shifted their focus from “what is wrong with people” and “how can we treat mental illness to get people back to neutral” to looking through the lens of “what is right with people”, and how can we expand and build on that to help generate lifelong well-being and flourishing in people.
Two interesting realisations emerged from the initial research:
- the absence of mental illness does not equal psychological well-being; and
- the skills of flourishing or attaining a state of well-being are almost entirely different from the skills of not being sad, depressed, anxious, or angry.
Positive psychology has been embraced within education and organisations around the world. For example, the Suffolk University Law School has integrated a two-credit Positive Psychology for Lawyers course into their curriculum. And specific positive psychology strategies have been integrated into employee well-being programmes across legal practices to improve job satisfaction, engagement, and overall thriving.
Some have dismissed it as “happyology” or criticised it for lacking scientific rigor, but when you take the time to understand it fully and notice that its research applies the gold standard “placebo controlled” method, it quickly becomes a powerful lens to look through.
Hugh Norriss in his LawTalk article in July 2019 (issue 930) argued that “limiting our conversations to illness is a missed opportunity”. The practical models and strategies offered up by positive psychology enable us to expand the conversation and adopt ways to use mental health as a strength to realise our full well-being potential.
So how you can use positive psychology strategies individually or within your team or your practice? Let’s explore a practical model.
The PERMA-V model for flourishing
“Flourishing” is defined as encompassing both feeling highly satisfied with your life and also functioning well in it, learning, growing and making contributions to others and society.
A practical model for flourishing started off as the PERMA model, developed by psychologist Martin Seligman and was later expanded to the PERMA-V model by Emiliya Zhivotovskaya, CEO of the US-based Flourishing Center.
PERMA-V is an acronym of six key foundations for happiness, fulfilment and wellbeing: Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Accomplishments, and Vitality.
Understanding where you currently stand and proactively investing in each of these domains is an evidence-based pathway to going beyond being moderately mentally healthy.
Positive emotions have a broadening effect on our thoughts and actions and actually boost our immune system. Unlike negative emotions, they are quite subtle and fleeting. We need to pause long enough to notice and take them in. When we do, they enable us to override our automatic responses and open us for more creative and flexible ways of thinking and acting.
Each emotion takes it as its job to recreate itself in the next experience, so tapping into positive emotions can be an effective reset and shift into a better state.
The good news is that on average we experience slightly more positive than negative emotions in our day. Therefore, it’s not so much about creating more positive experiences but rather about learning to pause regularly and long enough to notice the positive events that are already there.
When we focus on doing the things we are good at, truly enjoy and care about, we can begin to engage completely with the present moment and enter the state of “flow”.
Often reserved for recreational activities such as sport, music or other creative pursuits, flow-based engagement occurs in a professional context when we have an opportunity to use our strengths.
Extensive studies have shown that understanding and applying your strengths more has wide-ranging benefits, including increased happiness and well-being, lower depression, higher performance, increased energy and vitality, less stress and higher resilience.
High-quality relationships are fundamental to well-being and connections to others can give life purpose and meaning. People who are the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 are the healthiest at age 80. On the other hand, loneliness can kill and can be just as damaging as smoking or alcoholism and high-conflict relationships are toxic and really unhealthy for us.
Fundamental to lawyers’ well-being is the need to buffer the impact of the often high-conflict, high-stress, and sometimes isolated context by deliberately investing in establishing and nurturing high-quality connections. Even micro-moments of positivity resonance increase our well-being and connections with others.
Meaning (and Purpose)
Meaning is about comprehension – purpose is about action. They are different but strongly correlated and both deepen our lives and enhance our well-being.
Meaning is about feeling that life fits into a larger context, has significance and as a whole, makes sense.
Purpose is about having an overall sense of goals and direction in life, being able to utilise our strengths to contribute to something bigger than ourselves. Consciously (re)connecting with the purpose in our profession or actively crafting a sense of purpose in our personal life can move us closer to thriving.
Human beings pursue success, accomplishment, winning, achievement and mastery for their own sakes. Accomplishment contributes to our well-being when we are able to look back on our lives with a sense of achievement and say “I did it, and I did it well”.
Setting achievable goals, finding ways to leverage your strengths to realise them, seeking constructive feedback from others and celebrating your achievements are simple but powerful ways to influence your well-being.
Physiological health, balance and vitality is integral to our mental well-being. Martin Seligman has been famously quoted to say that “50% of psychology sits below the neck.” Yet more often than not, healthy living habits are the first thing we sacrifice when life gets busy.
Out of all the factors that influence mental health, nutrition, recovery during the day, sleep, staying physically active and maintaining a flexible body are the ones we perhaps have most control over.
Bringing the PERMA-V model to life
Human beings are a walking contradiction. We want to live a long and healthy life while continuing to live the way we always have.
Adopting new habits of thoughts, feeling and action offered to us from the PERMA-V model is not without its challenges. The key is to take stock of these six foundations for life-long flourishing and invest in the one that holds the most opportunity for you.
Taking stock is often best done by measuring it. Various surveys are available, for example, the PERMAH Workplace Survey from The Wellbeing Lab.
Use this different perspective on mental health perhaps to find that two-degree angle change, the one that only requires a small shift in the now but projected out over time creates a significant impact on your well-being.
Some of my personal favourites to get you started:
- Carve time out in your day for micro-moments of positive connections with others. Don’t make it about business but take an interest in the other person’s goings-on, interacting with them and life’s challenges in a positive way, showing mutual care and finding ways to contribute to their well-being.
- Take the Strengths Profile assessment which measures all three important aspects of strengths: performance, energy and use. Seeing 60 strength attributes organised into four quadrants (realised strengths, unrealised strengths, learned behaviours and weaknesses) tends to be an eye-opener and spark practical ideas for increasing positivity, energy, engagement and job satisfaction.
- Adopt a mindfulness practice to develop the capacity to pause more often, connect with the present moment and make room to notice and savour positive emotions. This doesn’t have to include a formal daily practice involving sitting to meditate. Simple mindful resets, such as a 3-minute “connecting with your breath” or a 5-minute walk around the park.
- Invest in boosting your vitality. Perhaps just allowing yourself to have sufficient sleep, find a good routine to downregulate at night to ensure you get good recovery during sleep or make some adjustments to your diet to “eat for well-being” a bit more.
It pays to invest in positive interventions to enhance your well-being and they really do pay off. Studies show that people with higher levels of well-being are more resilient, have more energy, are more liked by others, perform better and are more productive and are healthier and happier.
Other studies show that at least 40% of our longitudinal mental health and well-being potential is determined by intentional activities directly under our control.
Erik van den Top firstname.lastname@example.org is an internationally certified wellness and performance coach and expert.
Sarah Taylor is the co-ordinator of this series, a senior lawyer, and the Director of Client Solutions at LOD.