The New Science on Feeling Happier and More Successful

Model of Scales against the evening sky

I love it when modern science overlaps with ancient philosophy. Recently, Positive Psychologists found evidence for the ideas that philosophers have known to be true for thousands of years.

“When people don’t believe there is a way up, they have virtually no choice but to stay as down as they are.”
– Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage
“When we fail, or when life delivers us a shock, we can become so hopeless that we respond by simply giving up.”
– Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage

Shawn Achor, a Positive Psychologist, explains that we get stuck when we do not believe we have options; we become helpless.

Modern psychology refers to this as learned helplessness. We give up because we stop having hope or faith that there is a way through difficult moments. We believe that we lack the resources, time, or ability overcome our present day challenges.

Learned helplessness is not a new idea.

“Everything in the universe is within you. Ask all from yourself.”
― Rumi

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Learned helplessness can be seen in small moments or major life events. Every time you have a sense that you have no choice you are stuck: You have no control, you have adopted a helpless mindset.

You Always Have Choices

Every difficult moment can be an opportunity for growth, change, or a new perspective. The solution is to get clear on what you have control over and what you do not have control over. Much of our lives are spent attempting to influence situations that we cannot control: other people’s actions, health issues, physical differences, even the weather.

We have no influence over the weather, a health crisis, or a gossip who said something hurtful. But we have total control over our self and our decision about how to see our options in those moments.

To illustrate this idea, Shawn Achor uses the image of a seesaw. Do you remember the moment when a kid twice your size sat on the other side of a seesaw? The result was that you were launched into the air and the other kid sat on his side of the seesaw, feet on the ground, watching you flail around 5 feet above the ground.

Sometimes life situations are what they appear to be. We are smaller, shorter, slower, less healthy, or born into more challenges than others.

Yes, there are fixed realities.

But what are the points of leverage?

Shawn explains that we can think of life as a seesaw that has a movable fulcrum (that middle part that holds the equipment together). Imagine that you can slide the fulcrum and redistribute the weight. The more the center point moves towards the bigger child, the lighter he will get and eventually he will lift up off the ground.

What does this mean in our lives?

Focus on what is changeable and use the changeable parts to create as much leverage as possible. You may not have the job of your dreams, but it pays well. Maybe you feel you cannot leave because you have to pay the bills.

But what can you influence? You have choices: buy a smaller home, spend less, travel less, or get a second job.

You may not have the health you desire, but what can you do to get healthier? Or what can you do with the current health status you have? Many people have inspired us despite insurmountable physical challenges.

Scan the world for what you can impact, change, leverage for success, and create more happiness.

Looking for Opportunities

In life, do you focus on the things you can change to empower yourself? How many hours in a day do you focus on life events that you cannot influence?

Our life is not determined by the fixed external circumstances that we perceive, but by the amount of options we can perceive in any given situation. The more we can see choices, the more empowered we become and the more we can reach our potential.

I love the Positive Psychology movement and the ancient philosophy and here is how I would apply this theory to practical life.

Steps to “falling up:”

1 – Make peace with the external situation placed in front of you. Part of getting stuck is wasting time rehearsing the unpleasantness of your current situation. Take time to grieve, scream, cry, or whatever emotional response you need to feel. Then, accept what is in front of you. You do not have to like it, but you have to accept that the external world is what it is. We cannot change the weather, health setbacks, and other such fixed realities.

2 – Look for the ways you can move your center point. The two kids on the seesaw cannot change the weight difference, but the center point can be moved. Separate out the things you can change and the things that you cannot change. Make a list of all the ways you can improve or grow from your current situation.

3 – Take massive action. Acceptance of “what is” allows for opportunities that we did not anticipate. Our family recently had a major health issue. I cannot change that. However, we decided to turn this winter into an opportunity to connect and relax as a family. We ate dinner on the floor, “picnics” and caught up on every Netflix show imaginable.

Our picnics, netflix, and family time was an opportunity to come together. We did not fall down, which we could have done for 3 months, we fell up. We grew from the experience. We are closer. As we sat down for a family picnic, my son said, “I love our family.”

“It’s about capitalizing on setbacks and adversity to become even happier, even more motivated, and even more successful. It’s not falling down, it’s falling up.”  – Shawn Achor

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