The extent of well-being in society, and a reliable measure of well-being, is extremely important because of two major factors: it makes for a more an enjoyable life experience, and also benefits society and the economy. Recent research has revealed that almost all individuals rank satisfaction and happiness ahead of earning money when asked about their life goals (Diener & Seligman, 2004), demonstrating the importance of well-being for individuals throughout society.
As basic economic and material needs are met, well-being and flourishing does not necessarily increase, as shown by the fact that in the UK since 1950 GDP has rapidly increased, yet scores on life satisfaction scales have remained steady (Frank, 2005). I would argue that this stagnation of well-being levels is damaging to society, and that if they could be increased it would benefit not only the individuals in society but also society as a whole. For example, research has shown that individuals who score highly on well-being measures are more productive, have more successful relationships and ultimately earn more than those who do not have as high levels of well-being (Diener & Seligman, 2004).
In America it is estimated that just 20% of the population are flourishing, whilst 25% are languishing (Marks & Shah, 2005), illustrating how important it is to be able to accurately measure well-being so that policymakers can attempt to increase societies well-being as a whole, benefiting not only the individual but society and the economy, too.
It is something that everyone knows in theory, but never seems obvious in practice. Happiness is almost completely in your mind. I recently came across a study by Brickman et al (1978) which followed the happiness of lottery winners and people physically disabled through accidents. On the surface you might think that the lottery winners were made happy as a result of them winning the lottery, and the opposite for the victims of accidents. And this was true at the beginning.
However, after a few months, the happiness of both the lottery winners and the accident victims slowly and steadily returned to the levels that they were before the event occurred. This incredible study really demonstrates how circumstance does play a big role in our happiness. But. The way we react to the circumstance plays an even bigger role, something that we all need to remember.
What is really difficult about the negativity bias is that you know it’s there, but it can be hard to quickly and easily prove that it’s there. Researchers trying to measure it quickly have used the International Affective Picture System, volume of brain activity, and my personal favorite: BeanFest. BeanFest is a game in which you have to try and win as many beans as possible. In Kiken & Shook’s (2011) study they measured just how deep the positive and negative associations with the beans went. Pretty clever. Using this they found out that mindfulness can really decrease the negativity bias. I would love to do the same thing, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to persuade 150 people to play a bean game over the internet without some sort of incentive. (maybe).
Mindfulness is a really weird concept to understand. Lots and lots of people think that it means you have to be a Buddhist and believe in reincarnation. Which is just not true. One of the classic definitions of mindfulness is:
“a kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is”
Basically, mindfulness is about living in the moment and being aware of the moment. Though there are lots of courses charging lots of money to improve your ‘mindfulness’ a lot can be done by an individual. As the Buddhist Monk I talked to over the summer said, there are two key elements to mindfulness (and, I would argue, to life!): understanding and acceptance. Through meditation and the elimination of negative thoughts, a certain level of mindfulness can be achieved.
Studies have shown that people who meditate have less heart attacks, look at situations in a much more positive light, and score higher on well-being measures. So, in effect, being mindful is an amazing skill and one that not only makes you happier, but is good for you too.