Being Happy: Memories and Goals

In a recent radio interview I was asked about the process by which we recall happy moments in our lives whilst less happy times tend to fade. Of course, it’s not the same for all everyone. Some people are adept at recalling past events as reasons for not engaging with the present or the future. I’m not referring here to recalling serious trauma but more the refusal to move on in the coaching context.

Working with mature students there have been numerous examples of people who have held on to the callous remarks of (poor) teachers. It took some of them 30 years to go back into the classroom. It wasn’t that they had suddenly found the confidence to do so, it’s just that the ‘pain’ and regret of not doing so became greater. As well as teach the syllabus it was also my job to convince them that it was the right decision. These students are the main reason I got into (life) coaching.

Social Media and Memories

A recent research study at Portsmouth University by Alice Good and Claire Wilson suggests that we use social media like Facebook, not just to interact with others but also to interact with our former selves. Some people spend a great deal of time looking through the old photographs the post on networking sights. The process of looking back can create have an emotional buffering effect especially during tough times. It can create a sense of well-being and optimism to help us to deal with present challenges and to face the future.

Constructed Memories

The human memory is not an infallible storage device. Cognitive psychologist  Frederic Bartlett demonstrated in the 1930s that memories are highly constructed. When things don’t make sense or when there is missing information, we fill in the gaps based on memory default values based on our experiences of likelihood, Often our memories bear little relation to what actually happened, which is why the accuracy and reliability of eye-witness testimony (in the justice system) has been challenged by psychology, most notably by cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. In cognitive-behavioural therapy questioning techniques centre on cognitive distortions, most often on black-and-while, absolutist thinking. Similarly by exploring exceptions to negative evaluations, in the solution-focused approach, we can reveal small nuggets of possibility to build upon. In classic psychoanalysis we have he concept of defence mechanisms, where sometimes memories of painful experiences are blocked at an unconscious level in order to protect us emotionally and psychologically. Often memories seem to have a life of their own.

Being Happy

Happiness is no longer just in the realm of pop psychology, it has become a legitimate topic in academic psychology led by pioneering Positive psychologist Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. For Seligman, happiness is about living our lives according to our values and strengths. For Csikszentmihalyi happiness is about setting goals that stretch us and put us into a state of flow. ‘Flow’ is that state of total engagement in what we are doing, when we are totally ‘in the present moment’ and lose a sense of time and of ourselves. We can actively do something about our own happiness. Along with confidence-building it is one of the main motivations for seeking (life) coaching.

The Past-Present-Future Balance

As with all aspects of life, balance is key. It’s good to reminisce and look back and be reminded of the good times. The best times in our lives are often when we most in tune with our strengths and values. For some people the past has a powerful lure, so much so that it taints the present and the future. Philosopher Walter Benjamin said that ‘History is an angel blown backward through time’.  It means that, essentially, we walk backwards into the future. We cannot help but look back but still need to move forward. It’s important to value the past for its lessons, for uncovering our strengths and for providing us happy memories to see us through challenging times. Perhaps it’s greatest value is to help propel us into the future. There lie new opportunities to live according to our values, to use our skills and strengths and more opportunities to experience a sense of flow, those moments where time appears to stand still. Over the past few years there has been an explosion of interest in mindfulness – the ability to live in the present moment for what it is without letting it get crowded out by the past or the future. It’s all a delicate balance that becomes a whole lot easier when we take a few moments out of our day to settle our minds and take a few, long, slow deep breaths. Taking control of our stress/relaxation is the first step to confidence and happiness.

(In conversation with Annie Othen, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, 21/3/13 )

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One’s reach should exceed one’s grasp

One’s reach should exceed one’s grasp, or what’s a heaven for?

One's reach should exceed one's grasp or what's a heaven for? - Robert BrowmingBased* on a quotation by Robert Browning the sentiments expressed are important for personal growth and happiness. Heaven doesn’t necessarily need to have a religious connotation. We can just take it to mean ‘higher purpose’ or ‘fulfilment of values’. As a coach, one of the things I do is to help people complete MBA application forms. For the top business schools, candidates are required to write a number of short essays relating to themselves. Some people are bewildered by the numerous questions and all the nuances of wording. However, invariably when we break it down, there are often three main questions: (i) What are your goals, (ii) What are your values, and (iii) What’s the relationship between your goals and values.

At the heart of this Browning quotation is the relationship between goals and values. Now happiness may be one of your core values. There’s a strong connection with goals, happiness, and personal growth. Goals need to stretch us. If we make goals too easy, we become bored and lose motivation. If we make them too tough, then we give up and lose confidence. So we need to reach for something we can’t presently grasp but is still within sight. Computer games succeed or fail on this principle. If a game is too easy, it will be cast aside in no time. If it’s too difficult, players simply give up. Getting the balance just right is what makes people coming back to a game. There’s enough progress to maintain motivation.

A common experience of computer game player is becoming so engrossed in a game that we lose all sense of time. In psychological terms this is known as ‘being in flow‘. I’ve mentioned this concept in earlier posts. Coined by the positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, he regards it as a key to happiness. That is, we set goals that stretch us in areas that interest us and usually support our values. Positive psychologist Martin Seligman refers to our strengths as ‘values in action. According to him, this living to our strengths and values leads to Authentic Happiness.

So, the Browning quotation is a useful motto for personal growth. Yes it’s something to be passed on Facebook and Twitter for daily inspiration. It’s also a great principle to live by and work towards.

*Note: The original Browning quotation is ‘Ah! Man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’ I’ve just de-gendered it.

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Life, Fun, Gratitude and Regret… a call to action

Sometimes life gets us down. We get stuck in a routine, become overwhelmed by circumstances or paralyzed  by fear. We claim not to know what we want except we know that we don’t want more of ‘this’. Knowing that you do not want more of the same is a start. Describing what we want to move away from is the first step in describing what we want to move towards. It also helps to take stock of what we already have. It’s often described in self-help speak as acquiring the attitude of gratitude. Simply be focusing on what we are thankful for (however small), helps to retune our perceptions to potential positive opportunities. It’s become a key strategy in my confidence building approach (See Unlock Your Confidence).

I saw ‘International Fun Smuggler’ Mrs Barbara Nice’s show at Edinburgh Fringe. Mrs Nice takes great delight in celebrating the small things in life (and it’s difficult to come away from her shows feeling anything but uplifted). In the show she also touched on the regrets in life. These provide clues to what we might do to escape ‘more of the same’. Bronnie Ware, palliative nurse recorded the top five regrets of dying patients and at first glance seemed all rather un-sensational. However they provide a recipe for living without regret. Here are our biggest regrets:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

Consider how you allow the expectation of others to limit your choices and perpetuate more of the same. Consider what small thing you could do today that brings you a tiny bit closer to your idea of your true self. It could be starting a new hobby or attending an evening class. Start with a small thing to build your confidence and create momentum. Do it today.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

Consider how you can create a little balance in your life. What do you do to relax? What small things can you let go to make time for yourself? When I run confidence building workshops I ask about the moments when people have more confidence invariably they report times when they are relaxing and having fun. In Don’t Wait For Your Ship to Come In…Swim Out to Meet It, I wrote that a melody consists not just of the notes, but also of the rests in between the notes. Taking time out can improve efficiency at work and can have a knock on effect in other areas of your life. What will you do today to create some moments of fun or relaxation?

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

Often bottled up feelings can lead to resentment and bitterness and sometimes people turn those feelings in on themselves. Many people spend years in work meetings saying nothing until one day they speak up. At that time it didn’t matter if anyone else agreed, it was just enough for them to ‘say my piece’. Like anything else, if you have little practice at expressing your feelings (saying your piece) then start small, with something almost inconsequential, as long as it’s a first step. Expressing our feelings will engage others in feedback. Sometimes they will agree and sometimes they won’t. Either way the act of speaking up and dealing with the feedback is a way of building self-esteem. Of course, it can be positive expressions of feelings such as gratitude to another person.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

Sometimes we take friendships for granted and let other aspects of our lives get in the way. The same applies to family members. We just assume that they will always be there. They become part of our ‘psychological furniture’ rather than real people. There have never been so many ways to communicate as there are today. A group text message to all of your contacts is not staying in touch. It’s going through the motions. When looking back over our lives we realize that all the things in life that, at the time, mattered more than people, don’t. Forget Facebook (for a while) and focus on facial expressions and vocal inflections with real people, off line. So who can you reconnect with, voice to voice, face to face?

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Getting the ‘gratitude attitude’ helps to create a foundation for happiness as does making time to have fun. It’s interesting that the regret here is ‘let myself’. This implies that the opportunities were there but not seized. A key way of finding more happiness to set goals that stretch in areas of life that interest us. In his classic book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Chick-sent-me-high) offers a simple message. To be happier we just need to spend more time ‘in flow’. These are the moments when we become so totally engrossed in what we are doing that we lose all sense of time. We set goals to improve our personal best and develop skills, engaging blissfully in the present moment. So what would that be for you? What start can you make today?

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodNothing here requires massive life changes. All that it takes is small affirmative steps. In my coaching practice, the emphasis is on creating small, shifts in perception and action. It has always amazed that clients do far more between coaching sessions that we agreed or that either of us expected. It’s not bungee jumping or fire walking that transform lives, but small steps of persistent action in the desired direction.

What will you do today, to build happiness and regret-proof your life?

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Going for Your Goals or Going with the Flow

We often talk about ‘going with the flow’ as an indication that we are flexible and relaxed individuals who make the best of what comes our way. And it’s true, ‘going with the flow’ can sometimes be a good thing. ‘Digging our heels in’ and resisting change can be stressful, especially when the change is inevitable.However, taken to its extreme ‘going with the flow’ could mean that rather than ‘taking the plunge’ we let ‘life wash over us’.

‘Flow’ is a concept discussed by Positive Psychology by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced ‘Chick-sent-me-high’). For him, to be ‘in flow’ is a definition of happiness. Flow is that state when we ‘lose ourselves’ in the moment with some activity. We lose sense of time and hours pass and seem like minutes. We are totally captivated by the experience. When we set goals to increase the amount of time we are ‘in flow’, we also increase our personal happiness.

Increasing ‘flow’ and therefore happiness is one of the main themes running through my self-help book Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet. In keeping with the aquatic theme of the book, I offer the GO-FLOW model of goal-setting, which is a development of the GROW model.

  • Goal – clearly and specifically stated (with a time frame)
  • Observation – observing opportunities, reality and choices
  • Feelings – checking your feelings, perceptions, emotions and attitudes to the goal.
  • Limitations or Let-downs – considering the personal and situational limitations for this goal, how you can counter them or work around them, and how you will deal with the let-downs.
  • Options – considering all possible options of achieving the same outcome
  • Will – that is, I will do it.

Bear in mind that goals shouldn’t be too easy as we’ll become bored and lose motivation. Without being totally out of our reach, goals should stretch us without overwhelming us, that way we are more likely to be ‘in flow’. So on to the pitfalls.

Two of the most common stumbling blocks when goal-setting are:

  1. Carrying on regardless when the approach is unlikely to succeed with adjustments
  2. Giving up prematurely.

The key to overcoming both of these is how we use feedback. If we don’t succeed the first time or with only limited success it’s most likely that the goal needs a tweak. With the new information that ‘what you’re doing isn’t working’, review the GO-FLOW process to see if you can diagnose the problem or make an amendment.Think of it as going back and checking for leaks. It sometimes takes a few attempts before we get a watertight action plan.

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