Thursday, 10 January 2013

Psyching up for 2013

Another new year. Time to ring in the changes. January is a month of resolutions, stodgy thighs and enforced abstinence. We leave the excesses of Christmas behind and move into a new phase of betterment. For goodness' sake, why?
Red wine being poured into a glass
Not for me, thanks!
© Photographer: Milogu | Agency: Dreamstime.com

Facebook is full of miserable people bemoaning their decision to give up alcohol this month. Why do we impose these rules on ourselves? Lose half a stone. Go to the gym more. Learn a new language. Be nicer to the children / husband / mother / mother-in-law [delete as appropriate]. 

It's all in pursuit of happiness. Or at least an attempt to increase our sense of wellbeing during one of the bleakest months of the year. Setting resolutions provides a roadmap to a better future!

If we are to believe the American psychologist Martin Seligman, there are five elements that contribute to our sense of wellbeing. So aside from resolutions, we should also be thinking about:

  • Positive emotion (life satisfaction, positive thinking)
  • Engagement (being absorbed in something to the point of losing self-consciousness)
  • Relationships (enjoying and constructively building relationships with other people)
  • Meaning (having a purpose in life, belonging to something that is bigger than yourself)
  • Accomplishment (achieving goals)

Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was asked to help develop a program to train the US Army in positive psychology. The goal was to make one million US soldiers more resilient to psychological trauma, at a time when the army was experiencing nearly a decade of protracted conflict. As a result, positive psychology is taught and measured throughout the US Army.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Simon Weston, a British veteran of the 1982 Falklands War. Weston, a Welsh Guardsman, suffered severe burns when his ship Sir Galahad was bombed by an Argentine plane. For 23 years afterwards, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, which took the form of vivid nightmares, panic attacks and broken sleep. He even contemplated suicide.

After a slow and difficult recovery, Weston has become a motivational speaker, encouraging people to take control of their own lives. He is a classic example of someone who finally achieved post-traumatic growth. "What does not kill me, makes me stronger," the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, once said.

Of course ordinary people like you and me are unlikely to experience the horrors of war. Our combatants are more often depression, divorce, bereavement, or on a more modest scale, relationship issues and job dissatisfaction. Weston believes that we have to accept our situation and turn it to our advantage. It is all about having a positive mental attitude.

Who knows if this or Seligman's brand of positive psychology work - the US Army is still evaluating the success of its training program - but I am interested enough to put them to the test. So here it is: 2013, the year of engagement, positive emotion and accomplishment (hopefully). I guess it beats enrolling for boot camp or attempting to shed half a stone.


Click here to watch Martin Seligman deliver a lecture on the PERMA elements of wellbeing to the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. I would like to thank Jamie Reed, an executive coach and author, for introducing me to Martin Seligman's work. 



Emma Clark Lam is the author of A Sister for Margot