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The Good Life

Everyone wants to live happily. Can science help?
By Samantha Rideout, GrDip 10

An exuberant woman with curly hair is smiling broadly with her eyes closed, arms wide open as if embracing the world. She's wearing a striped top underneath a denim jacket. The background is vibrant fuchsia with a large, mustard yellow circle positioned behind her, giving a lively and joyful composition to the image.

When Gillian Leithman, BSc 00, MSc 05, PhD 16, was an undergraduate student in Concordia’s Department of Psychology, she spent much of her time learning about mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

“That’s really important material to study, because the more we know about it, the better we might be able to treat and help people who are suffering,” she says. “But when I became acquainted with the positive-psychology movement, I found it exciting. We know a lot about illness; we don’t know as much about health.”

Developed in the 1990s, positive psychology examines the factors that help people do and feel well. Concordia researchers and alumni are among those who are moving the field forward and encouraging others to apply its findings.

Leithman, now an adjunct professor in the Department of Management at the John Molson School of Business, teaches her students about cultivating happiness, among other crucial soft skills. She also leads a seminar called “The Art and Science of Happiness” through one of her training companies, Life Skills Toolbox.

“We should never discount life’s difficulties, but if coping with them is our sole focus, that limits our vision of what life could be,” she argues. “What about flourishing?

Creating a foundation for growth

A woman with long red hair sits smiling for a portrait with a black background. “We should aim for a better balance between work and leisure at every age, Gillian Leithman,” BSc 00, MSc 05, PhD 16.

The first challenge in studying happiness is that it means different things to different people. In fact, it’s such a slippery word that positive psychologists tend to use other, more precise terms instead.

One of these concepts, subjective well-being (SWB), has three main components: high levels of pleasant emotions, low levels of negative emotions and overall satisfaction with life. Researchers use questionnaires to measure it.

“SWB is a bit meatier than happiness, partly because it leaves a place for negative emotions,” says Julie Hanck, BSc 04, who teaches in the psychology department at John Abbott College in the Montreal suburb of Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue. After receiving her bachelor’s from Concordia, Hanck earned a PhD in neuroscience from McGill University.

Another way of breaking down happiness into components is known as the PERMA model, developed by the positive-psychology pioneer Martin Seligman. Its name is an acronym that stands for Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment.

Like SWB, PERMA extends beyond pure pleasure-seeking. Staying up all night to comfort a crying baby may not necessarily evoke immediate positive emotions, for example, but it can hold profound significance and meaning for a parent. Both Hanck and Leithman find PERMA to be a useful framework.

“When I walk into a classroom, I’ll say, ‘Okay, write down 10 things that make you happy,’” Leithman says. “And then we’ll see if people have listed something that speaks to each of the five categories. If not, that’s fine: That’s where you are. Maybe the exercise could help you think about which aspects of happiness you’re not currently tending to.”

No matter how we define happiness, it’s not entirely within our control, emphasizes Hanck.

Genetics play a role, as does our environment, including social systems. Some people, as a result, face a lot more stress and hardship than others.

“I don’t want to tell vulnerable people that they’re solely responsible for their own unhappiness,” says Hanck. “And I don’t want to oversell the interventions I teach, either, because they’re not always life-changing. I just want to empower people to better understand themselves and provide them with the direction they can take to grow.”

The power of positive relationships

A middle aged gentleman stands for portrait taken outside with trees, grass and buildings faded in the background “Everybody has a certain amount of stress in their life. Which factors minimize the negative effects of these experiences?” asks William Bukowski.

Back in 1938, Harvard University scientists recruited hundreds of young men to take part in what is now known as the Harvard Study of Adult Development. The goal, unusual for the time, was “to help people live more contentedly and peacefully and well in body and mind through a better knowledge of how to use and enjoy all the good things the world has to offer them.”

Eighty-five years later, the project is still tracking the descendants of the original participants, making it an exceptionally long-running study. So far, it has consistently found that one factor impacts happiness more than any other: good relationships.

The influence of social interactions on well-being is a topic that also interests William Bukowski, a Department of Psychology professor and research chair in early adolescent development at Concordia. His work currently centres on children’s and teens’ experiences with peers.

“Everybody has a certain amount of stress in their life,” Bukowski says. “And some people have much more than others.”

Examples of childhood stressors could include transitioning into a new school year or getting bullied. “The question is, which factors minimize the negative effects of these experiences?” asks Bukowski.

The researcher and his collaborators have examined dimensions of peer friendship such as intimacy (how close you feel to a friend), security (how much confidence you have that you will remain friends no matter what) and companionship (how much time you spend together).

It’s pretty clear that the factor that reduces the effects of bad experiences the most is security: believing that a friendship will continue,” he states.

For example, in a 2017 study of Montreal-based pre-teens, Bukowski and his co-authors concluded that secure friendships moderated the anxiety that comes with this transitional stage of life.

To adults eager to help young people benefit from these kinds of relationships, Bukowski suggests starting a discussion about choosing the kinds of friends they’d like to have — and being that kind of friend in return. Prioritizing loyalty and compatibility might be a good place to start, he adds.

Thriving at work

Black and white photo of a male smiling and posing for a portrait wearing a black sweater and sitting in front of with a white background. “Happiness [at work] often hinges on day-to-day interactions with your manager and your immediate team,” says Jordan Ishak, BComm 07.

As adults, we typically spend around half of our waking hours working. It makes sense, then, that job satisfaction plays heavily into overall life satisfaction. Concordia graduate Jordan Ishak, BComm 07, aims to help improve both.

With a background in marketing and client services, Ishak found his way into the happiness field by accident.

“It all started when I was working for one of my former employers, a communications agency in Paris,” he explains.

“I saw that there were expats scattered around who didn’t feel fully at home.”

Ishak volunteered to organize gatherings where foreign-born employees could mingle with each other and their native French colleagues. “They took off and turned out to be a nice thing for everyone,” he says.

Later, Ishak accepted a new client-services position at another Parisian company, Havas Health & You. This time, partly due to his prior event-organizing efforts, he also had an additional title: chief happiness officer (CHO).

More than 5,000 companies now have CHOs, according to LinkedIn, a figure that doesn’t account for titles such as director of well-being. It’s a trend that’s probably related to research linking happier workers to better retention, fewer sick days and higher productivity.

Taking on his current role was an eye-opening experience, says Ishak. Early on, he sat down with every employee for a confidential interview about what was and wasn’t going well for them.

“I quickly learned that although people appreciate fun events, other needs are usually more important,” he recounts.

“Happiness often hinges on day-to-day interactions with your manager and your immediate team. For example, how do managers support their people? Do they give them the freedom to make decisions for themselves? Or do they micromanage them?”

Ishak soon plans to launch his own company and become “a full-time happiness man” providing training to businesses. His flagship course will be about becoming the type of leader that people want to work for. “It will cover gaining personal insight, developing practical management and coaching skills, putting your people at the heart of what you do and creating a supportive work environment that enables a highly productive team,” he explains.

To workers themselves, Ishak recommends doing some extra investigating during a job search.

“Zoom interviews are great, but if you can meet your potential manager and team face-to-face, that could help to give you a better idea of what the job will be like,” he says. “You could also reach out to people who’ve had the role that interests you and ask them questions about the company and its culture.”

The third act

How does our sense of well-being change as we transition from working life into retirement?

Getting older brings its fair share of challenges, but it can also bring perspective and resilience, says Gillian Leithman, whose research at Concordia focuses on aging and retirement.

“Just by virtue of having been on the planet for 60, 70 or 80 years, seniors tend to have more practice navigating difficult situations,” she notes.

Even so, it’s common to struggle after stepping away from full-time employment for good.

“So much of our identity is wrapped up in what we do for a living,” observes Leithman. “If you’ve been caught up in your career to the point where you’ve neglected other arenas of life — relationships, hobbies, interests — leaving it can be a really jolting experience.”

Leithman runs Rewire to Retire, a training and coaching business that helps people prepare for life after work. One of her tips is to reframe this stage: “Instead of focusing on what you’re retiring from, think about what you’re retiring to,” she says.

She also suggests planning to do more than just relaxing. Volunteering, working part-time or engaging in a passion project are all ways to positively direct energy and create a sense of meaning. Some seniors might even enjoy their job so much that staying on full-time would suit them best.

“Retirement becomes lopsided for a lot of people,” Leithman says. “The idea is that you worked and worked, and now you’re going to play. Arguably, we should aim for a better balance between work and leisure at every age.”

When it comes to relationships, older people tend to take a quality-over-quantity approach.

“For young adults, there’s often a focus on learning and developing skills and larger social networks for the future,” explains Leithman. “Then, starting around midlife, there’s a switch where being around people who contribute positively to your life becomes really important. Research has borne out that older people will frequently let their less significant relationships deplete and invest more in those they find the most positive and rewarding.”

The perpetual persuit

A woman with long brown hair in a white blazer and green shirts sits smiling for a portrait on a black background “I want to empower people to better understand themselves,” Junie Hanck, BSc 04

Some evidence-based strategies for enhancing subjective well-being are suited to every stage of life. They include kind and generous behaviour, regular exercise, mindfulness and gratitude, the latter of which Julie Hanck has practised ever since she was a child.

“At first it was hard, but I’ve had that habit for so long now that it feels natural to me,” she says. “Whenever a challenge happens, I ask myself what I can be grateful for. In fact, I’m grateful just to be alive! I had a heart problem at one point and almost died. They literally had to stop my heart to reset it. I feel lucky to be here.”

Numerous studies consistently suggest that being in nature enhances subjective well-being. Leithman, for one, recently decided to move from the city to a wooded property to tap into this benefit. But even regular walks in your neighbourhood park can provide a mood boost, she says.

Hanck uses a similar approach. “When faced with a task I don’t like, such as correcting exams, I’ll take five minutes to look at the garden and appreciate its beauty,” she says. “And compared to, say, taking a break on the internet, that will fuel me a lot more.”

Although most happiness strategies sound simple in theory, it can be challenging to put them into practice. “Knowing about them is not half the battle,” says Hanck. “I know that going to the gym would be good for me, but I still don’t do it!”

Leithman doesn’t have the art of happiness down pat either.

“I have a really meaningful career, and I feel grateful for it,” she says. “But integrating fun activities into my life, just for the pleasure of it, has been a challenge for me.”

Nobody has a perfectly happy life, she continues, not even the experts.

“Even if that happened for a moment in time, life is always changing. You might get married or divorced. You might have kids or change jobs or find yourself caring for aging relatives. Each of these changes would affect your emotions and life satisfaction in complex ways.”

According to Hanck, it’s helpful to think of happiness as an ongoing practice rather than a destination.

“I could be in a great mood one moment and then something could happen to wipe it out,” she says. “That’s life! Our role is to embrace the ups and downs — and keep practising.”

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