The Psychology of Living Life Fully

New research in psychology addresses the age-old question of how to be happy.

Posted May 24, 2018

"I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived...I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."  Henry David Thoreau

What does it mean to live life more fully?   

When Randy Pausch delivered his "Last Lecture" at Carnegie Mellon on September 18, 2007,  he modeled his talk after a series of lectures by top academics asked to give a "final talk" as if it were their last opportunity to speak to the world. In Pausch's case, his providing a "last lecture" was all the more poignant given that the popular teacher and lecturer was dying of pancreatic cancer. Though he lived long enough to repeat his lecture on the Oprah Winfrey show and to co-author a book based on his talk which became a best-seller, the message he imparted, and his central theme "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams," continues to resonate with fans and admirers around the world.  

It was one of these admirers, David Dozois of the University of Western Ontario, who was inspired  by Pausch's message to write a new article about positive psychology and the art of living fully.  Based on his outgoing address as president of the Canadian Psychological Association, Dozois decided to step outside the "comfort zone" of his own research (he is a clinician specializing in the cognitive roots of depression) both with his address and the article, which was recently published in the journal, Canadian Psychology.   

With that in mind, he began his article with three caveats: a) that it wasn't his area of expertise, b) that he doesn't always practice living fully (though he says he is more deliberate about it than he has ever been), and c) that his article fails to capture the full range of available research that can help people learn to live more fully (which would have made it a much longer article.)   

In his article, Dozois points out that psychology has largely focused on the various things that can go wrong with the human mind, including different forms of mental illness and how we react to traumatic events in the world.   While positive psychology tries to remedy that by focusing on topics such as happiness and self-fulfillment, the countless research studies exploring what it means to live more fully tend not to be known outside the academic community. Even though the popular media is now bursting with stories and articles describing how to diet effectively, have a better sex life, develop washboard abs, have a successful marriage, etc., they also seem to perpetuate various myths about happiness and how it can be attained.   

As an alternative to the various quick fixes promised by media sources worldwide, Dozois instead breaks down his advice on living more fully into the following life lessons:

Engage in happiness-relevant activities.  In her book, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting The Life You Want, psychologist Sonya Lyubomirsky argues that people often fail to attain true happiness because they are too preoccupied with what society says they should be doing and ignoring those activities that bring them genuine pleasure.   

This can include the need to get the "right" job, "right" income, getting the "right" marriage, having the "right" size family, and attaining the "right" social status. Instead, she argues that true happiness often depends on the behavioural choices we make as well how we interact with other people. Happiness and well-being also depend on attaining two types of goalshedonic goals (focusing on increasing pleasure and decreasing pain) and eudaimonic goals (increasing personal growth, finding meaning, and developing greater self-awareness). Still, given how complex our lives can be, recognizing what is really important in life often depends heavily on the next step:

Savor and simplify. Research shows that people enjoy life more when they consume less. In other words, the more you have, the harder it becomes to savor life experiences. Even people who give up something they enjoy on a temporary basis can find that they appreciate it much more afterward. 

For example, a 2013 research study dividing participants examined this "absence makes the heart grow fonder" phenomenon through an interesting research design. Participants were divided into three groups: one abstained from eating chocolate for a week, a second group ate lots of over the same period, and a third group acted as controls with no instructions. What they found was that participants who had given up chocolate savored it more after the week was over and experienced a more positive mood when eating it than participants in the other two groups. In the same way, temporarily depriving yourself of things that you otherwise take for granted can help you gain new appreciation for them.

Focus on others.  While we tend to be preoccupied with making money in the hope that it will provide us with happiness and security, the greatest satisfaction we can have often comes from spending that hard-earned money on other people. Whether that spending takes the form of charitable donations, buying gifts for loved ones, or performing random acts of kindness, the sense of satisfaction that can result often does more to promote well-being than buying things for yourself. Even in toddlers, research studies showed that children who gave their own treats away to others seemed happier than if they ate the treats themselves.

Be passionate—but do so harmoniously.  While we are often urged to find our "passion" in life, this can be difficult to do for many people. Of all the different activities we might engage in, only a few of them will really resonate with us to the point of making it an important part of our lives.  Often defined as “a strong inclination toward any activity that people like, find important, and in which they invest time and energy”, a passion is more than just something to do. It can be a form of self-identity as well, i.e., playing a guitar makes you a musician, painting or sculpture makes you an artist, etc. But it also needs to be a harmonious passion, i.e., being a part of someone's life without crowding out other things that are just as important. Research looking at harmonious passion indicates that it can spill over into other aspects of someone's life, including better interpersonal relationships, less overall cynicism, and greater energy.

Experience humour (but in an adaptive way).  While laughter is still the best medicine, research has identified different styles of humour, some of which are positive and others which can be detrimental and aggressive.   For example, affiliative humour involves using quips or jokes to defuse tensions and encourage interpersonal relationships by amusing others. Self-enhancing humour involves using humour to relieve stress and maintain a cheerful outlook on life. Then there is aggressive humour which is pretty much the way it sounds: humour aimed at putting down or demeaning others (sarcasm, ridicule, teasing). Finally, there is self-disparaging humour, i.e., poking fun at yourself to gain approval from other people. It can also be used to avoid any constructive solutions to a problem you might be facing.   

As you might expect, research shows that affiliative and self-enhancing humour are strongly linked to positive well-being, optimism, and self-esteem. Self-defeating humour, on the other hand, has been linked to depression, anxiety, and neuroticism while aggressive humour correlates with hostility and neuroticism. So don't be afraid to use humour in your life, but avoid the aggressive and self-defeating humour that can aggravate problems instead of diffusing them.

Think with Evidence. While positive thinking is important, it is also important that you stay grounded in reality. Unrealistic optimism and illusions of control are often counterproductive since the inevitable disillusionment can leave people feeling depressed and hopeless afterward. This can also mean avoiding popular misconceptions that, while seeming to be true, fail to be supported by available evidence. The ability to monitor our thinking patterns and to change them when we discover that they aren't true is an essential aspect of cognitive flexibility and helps in avoiding the rigidity of thought that can reinforce feelings of depression.

Self-compassionSince we are often our own worst critics, we have a tendency to beat ourselves up for mistakes that we would likely forgive in other people. This "double standard" can undermine our self-esteem and make us seem more flawed than we really are. In their research on perfectionism, Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett identified three basic types: self-oriented (setting strict standard for themselves), other-oriented (setting unrealistic standards for others), and socially prescribed perfectionism (believing that other people hold unrealistic standards that we are unable to live up to). As you might expect, self-oriented perfectionism is more likely to lead to depression and despair in people who don't think what they do is good enough. So stop beating yourself up and try being your own best friend instead.

Being Present-focused and Mindful. Since we often waste time ruminating about mistakes made in the past or worrying about mistakes we might make in the future, it can be life-affirming to focus on the here-and-now instead. Through mindfulness exercises, including meditation and other forms of relaxation training, people can learn to "ground" themselves in the present moment and get away from the constant worrying that that leads to depression and unhappiness. Some of the most effective psychotherapies available today use mindfulness strategies to help people come to terms with negative thinking and understand themselves better. With that understanding comes a greater acceptance of who we are and how best to live our lives.  

Being Uncomfortable and Taking Risks. How often do you step outside of your comfort zone, really? While everyone engages in a certain amount of risky (and downright dangerous) behaviour when younger, we are typically expected to "grow out of it" once we become adults. But that can often mean settling into comfortable routines and not trying out new and potentially risky activities due to our fear of the unknown. Though not everyone is cut out for skydiving, whitewater rafting, extreme sports, etc., learning to face our fears can be an important part of living life more fully. But facing your fears can also come into play whenever you do something that makes you feel uncomfortable or awkward. Whether it means learning to speak in public, overcoming shyness, or simply exploring new life options, facing your fears can help you expand your boundaries in ways you cannot even imagine.

Be Connected. The final key to living fully is to be connected to the people around you. We evolved to be social beings and the quality of our relationships plays a crucial role in how satisfied we are with our lives. In his classic book, Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman argues that depression has become an epidemic because our society places a greater value on individuality than it does on being part of a greater community. Research into health psychology consistently demonstrates that people with strong social connections tend to be much healthier and live longer than those who are more isolated. Studies also show that being in a committed relationship can help protect against chronic stress, improve immune system functioning, and even help people heal from injuries more rapidly. Conversely, people with insecure attachment styles tend to be much needier and engage in frequent reassurance seeking which, in turn, can lead to greater rejection, loneliness, and depression.    

While it isn't always easy to connect with other people, not every social interaction you have needs to be deep and meaningful. According to recent research, even the weak social ties that can result from having a pleasant conversation with someone you meet in passing can brighten your day (and theirs).  Wouldn't that be a nice alternative to the usual silent treatment that occurs while you're on the subway or in an elevator?   

As you can see in looking over the different lessons in David Dozois' article, living life fully often means finding the right balance during the course of daily life.  But there is another underlying theme that we need to be aware of:  other people matter.  Interacting with the people around you, even if it is something as simple as thanking the waitress who bring your food to the table, helps reaffirm that our social relationships are what truly make us happy. 

While we often look for shortcuts when trying to improve our lives,  there really aren't any. The different life lessons outlined in this article require time and effort to put into practice, especially when it can seem so much easier to keep living our lives the same old way.   So keep practicing these lessons and, sooner or later, they may just become habit for you.    

David Dozois closes his article with the following observation that I thought I'd share:   "It’s not the years in your life but the life in your years that matters most."   Just something to think about...

References

Dozois, David J. A.  Not the years in your life, but the life in your years: Lessons from Canadian psychology on living fully.  Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, Vol 59(2), May 2018, 107-119

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