The Grail

It certainly seems like a reasonable goal, being happy. It is especially alluring because science teaches us that, to a great extent, happiness is a choice.

Understanding happiness

Davidson identifies four key elements of happiness: generosity, resilience, attention and goodness. Davidson’s four elements bear a striking similarity to the topics WHR covered in the 2015 report.

WHR 2015 focuses on four constituents of well-being: sustained positive emotion; recovery from negative emotion; pro-social behavior and generosity; and mind-wandering, mindfulness and affective stickiness or emotion-captured attention.

WHR 2015 explains that the ability to recover quickly from adversity is a critical component of well-being. The third component WHR studies relates directly to the quality of social bonds, which has a positive effect on well-being. Not surprisingly, WHR 2015 reports that it is indeed possible to train the brain in order to improve such things as positive emotion, resilience and compassion.

These first three constituents are unsurprising to students of human behavior. It is the last constellation of factors that has been less discussed. WHR explains that individuals are less happy when their minds are wandering, that is, when they are not focused on a task. “Affective stickiness” is about the tendency to be stuck in an unpleasant situation, or to revert to old habits, even when they are intellectually recognized as unimportant. Mindfulness is the ability to pay attention and research shows that mindfulness training can both decrease “mind-wandering” and “stickiness.”

But we’re happy!

There are certainly many practical components of well-being. Certainly, many of these objective components involve factors partly even substantially out of our control. The WHR report focuses on life evaluation, an evaluation of an individual’s current life situation versus what the individual believes is a theoretical best life

Two caveats need to be understood in analyzing this type of life evaluation.

First, the theoretical best life would be different from individual to individual. The reason for this is that different people value different things. There will, clearly, be factors that will apply to most individuals. A certain level of physiological wellness and convenience would be common. This explains why such things as life expectancy and per capita GDP correlate closely with metrics of life evaluation. Also, while there are a few human beings who seem to thrive divorced from social interaction, man is hardwired to be a social being. It is then unsurprising that many studies show that supportive social structures are correlated with increased positive emotions and increased life evaluations.

The second caveat is that many countries actually score well in terms of reported emotion in spite of relatively low objectively measured levels of well-being. The reverse is also true. One of my best friends, for example, is Singaporean and we always laugh about the fact that Singaporeans consistently self-report as being relatively unhappy in spite of the fact that Singapore scores high on virtually every other measurable metric of well-being – economics, health, and infrastructure. By contrast, the Philippines, self-reports as happy in spite of fairly low scores on many objective metrics.  The answer, of course, could be that Filipinos simply don’t have very high expectations. It could also be that Filipinos value the social support mechanisms highest of all and that is a metric the country scores very highly in.

Yes and no

Part of the answer can be found in what neuroscience tells us. What international media have discovered about Filipinos is that we are incredibly resilient. When disaster strikes, Filipinos are remarkably cheerful and resilient. Filipinos tend to get up and move on.

This is both good and bad. Certainly, the constant cheerfulness and the ability, nay the predisposition, to focus on the good and forget the unpleasant allows us to deal and survive even in the most difficult of situations. This resilience and resourcefulness stand us in good stead during difficult times. However, the predisposition to avoid dwelling on the unpleasant can often mean we gloss over problems.

The reality is that it takes staying power to create radical change. It takes powerful voices to inspire politicians to truly pursue change. Ironically, this ability to change things is something this country once showed the world it had the determination for. In the years before the Edsa revolution, a growing base of Filipinos nurtured their outrage and their beliefs and changed the leadership of the nation.

The real question is whether we are able to sustain a coordinated outrage against what seem to be smaller inconveniences – the lack of urban planning, the mismanaged transportation infrastructure, the telecommunication network that has been growing worse instead of better, a justice system riddled with holes.

When we look at the annals of the individuals who changed the world, little is written about their cheerfulness. Instead, individuals who change the world pair resilience with passion. In many cases, they pair resilience with a passionate intolerance, an inability to accept the world as it is, a zeal to remake the world.

For leaders in every walk of life, the lessons that need to be learned involve not only which things bring pleasure, they involve learning what goals are truly important. The WHR report touches on this. Mind-wandering is unpleasant. It is engagement that increases positive feelings. Pursuing momentary cheer is not a bad thing. But it is the great passions that will result in intense engagement.

In my elective on positive psychology and leadership, I explain that the real goal is to find that intersection between pleasure, meaning and abilities and to engage in that intersection. A personal mission, a personal passion, one that aligns with the work you do: that is the grail.

Readers can email Maya at [email protected]  Or visit her site at

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