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How to survive the wellbeing agenda

How can we think about our happiness without simply adding more items onto our already full to-do lists? And what are the costs of thinking about happiness in this way?

This week, I gave a talk at University of Bristol’s “Staff Health & Wellbeing Roadshow”. It was a nice event – many interesting talks and stalls on how staff can actively promote their health and wellbeing, from sport and exercise to making connections at work. There were the usual ‘wellbeing’ workshops as well: tai chi, yoga, pilates and, of course, mindfulness.

Amongst all this well-meaning loveliness, my talk offered a slightly different perspective. Its title was, “How to Survive the Wellbeing Agenda”, the same title of this post. Because, let’s face it, we can do a lot to improve our wellbeing, but we can also do a lot to improve many things in our lives. We can work on our relationships, have healthier lifestyles, be more efficient at work, tidy our desk, decorate our house, be kinder to strangers, and so on and so on.

Happiness and wellbeing are no different. When our employer – or partner or friend or family member – starts to tell us we need to be happy and healthy alongside all the other pressures and demands we’re just about coping with, it can feel more like an issue of survival than an opportunity to thrive.

And, let’s face it, the wellbeing agenda, though often led by well-intentioned service providers – such as nutritionists and therapists – is largely motivated by two main drivers: a) the costs of mental illness and b) the benefits of increased productivity. The UK is currently witnessing a mental health crisis, with 1 in 6 people likely to have a mental illness within their lifetime, and anxiety, depression and addictions all on the rise. And we know that unhealthy and unhappy individuals are more likely to take time off work, leave their jobs entirely or be less productive within them. The costs of mental health and the benefits of happiness mean that wellbeing is now big business.

The purpose of my talk wasn’t just to be pessimistic, however. The wellbeing agenda is something that we can navigate in either a positive or negative way depending on how we approach it. The main idea I tried to get across is that there is a right and a wrong way to think about happiness.

The wrong way to think about happiness is summed up by a well-known and prominent phrase: “If only I had ___ then I’d be happy”. People fill in the blank in many different ways. For some, fame and fortune may be all that matters. For others – perhaps after attending a day-long health and wellbeing event – they might fill in the blank with more items: not just money and status, but also friends, family, health, hobbies, novelty, enjoyment, and so on. This is what the wellbeing movement does well – it makes people focus on all the things that matter to them. On a national level, for instance, measures of wellbeing claim to “beyond GDP” and focus on “what really matters”, from physical and mental health to relationships and community.

But no matter how people fill in the blank, this way of thinking about happiness is still problematic. The more we focus on the list of things in our head that we think will make us happy, the more we blind ourselves to the other things in life that matter. This is what I call the happiness problem.

We can see this dynamic play out in the workplace, particularly with millennials. It’s easy to believe that gains in productivity will make us better off – ticking off all the items on our to-do list, having a more efficient routine, or responding to all our emails before the day is out. But any improvement we make in our lives comes with an opportunity cost. The more time and resources we spend trying to be more productive, the less we invest in the other things in life that matter – spending time with friends or family, relaxing or doing something we find interesting. The result is that being more productive may make our lives better in the short-term, but worse in the long-term.

Of course, we can learn from experience. In an ideal world, we would be able to tell when our gains in productivity outweigh the opportunity costs involved, and vice versa. But this is not how our minds tend to work. When we think “If only I had ___ then I’d be happy” the items we fill in the gap with tend to stay there. Our goals and values are sticky. And they often make us stuck. If we think that gains in productivity will make us better off, we are more likely to double down our efforts when things get worse – to be even more busy and productive – than to see things differently. Which, of course, only makes things worse. Which only makes us try even harder. And so on. It is no surprise that this downward spiral ends in people experiencing burnout.

These downward spirals pervade our lives. Instead of looking at each one on a case by case basis, we can understand their general structure and try to reverse it. They all share at least three key features: 1) certainty over what our problems are and how we can solve them; 2) urgency to make things better as soon as possible; and, when our solutions inevitably don’t work out, 3) blame towards either others our ourselves for things not going to plan. Certainty, urgency and blame – these are the three pillars of the happiness problem.

The right way to think about happiness replaces each of these pillars with their opposite attitudes. Instead of having a list of things in our head that we think will make us happy, we can be open to all the things outside of our list. Instead of certainty, urgency and blame, we can cultivate attitudes of humility, curiosity and compassion. We may think we know what makes us happy, but, with humility, we can see that our lives are too messy, complex and unpredictable to know for sure. We may feel we need to achieve all the things on our list as soon as possible, but, with curiosity, we can also see the value of exploring other interests and opportunities. And, it may seem obvious that our unhappiness is someone’s fault, including our own, but, with compassion, we can come to a deeper understanding of why things are the way they are.

This is how we can survive the wellbeing agenda. Instead of the phrase “If only I had ___ then I’d be happy”, we can acknowledge that happiness is a fleeting and fragile affair. No matter how much we improve our lives, we will still be insecure – vulnerable to disappointment, loss and suffering. With humility, curiosity and compassion, we can seek to improve our lives without the illusion that our achievements will make us live happily-ever-after. In doing so, we can do our best to make things better without blinding ourselves to what really matters.

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