Interview with Prof. Felicia Huppert
The word 'wellbeing' is increasingly being thrown around workplaces today. As a result, the emerging field of positive psychology with its promises of evidence-based approaches to improving wellbeing has led to CEOs, CFOs, human resources leaders, consultants, coaches and trainers around the world to introduce these practices. Even governments have been getting in on the act. But is any of what's been done really working?
"Improving wellbeing begins by taking a systematic approach to defining and measuring what we mean by wellbeing," explained Professor Felicia Huppert, founder and director of the Wellbeing Institute at Cambridge University, and one of the world's leading researchers on the science of wellbeing when I interviewed her recently. "Given that psychological wellbeing is the opposite of ill-being, we believe there are ten features of wellbeing: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, accomplishment (or competence), resilience, emotional stability, vitality, optimism and self-esteem. Or put simply the ability to feel good and to function well."
Of course the presence of each of these features in your life isn't a guarantee that you'll only ever flourish. Rather, Felicia suggests the goal as you navigate life's natural highs and lows is have the resources to be able to flourish most of the time.
So what evidence-based approaches might help to improve your wellbeing?
While there are a growing array of interventions and resilience programs to help improve your wellbeing, Felicia particularly recommends the following three approaches:
- Practicing mindfulness - Knowing how to be aware, how to pay attention and how to sustain our attention is the foundation to being able to effectively apply any of the other skills that can help us to flourish in a sustained way. For example, Felicia and her colleagues have found that teaching mindfulness to teenage students through the .b program can help to improve depressive symptoms, lower stress and lead to greater wellbeing. Studies have also found that mindfulness-based interventions for adults have consistently been found to reduce self-reported measures of perceived stress, anger, rumination and physiological symptoms while improving attention and cognitive capacities that may help you to have a more positive outlook, sense of cohesion and overall quality of life.
Personally, I've found one of the practices Felicia teaches students to text a buddy during the day a reminder to ".b" - stop, be and breathe - can be a helpful mindfulness practice. In addition, there are many reputable programs to teach mindfulness in workplaces.
- Engaging in self-compassion - some researchers are finding that mindfulness only reduces depressive symptoms concurrently if people are taught to be self-compassionate and speak kindly towards themselves rather than engaging in self-criticism. There is also increasing evidence that people who are more self-compassionate may be more motivated to change their behavior, making it easier to create lasting positive changes to our wellbeing.
Understanding that self-criticism shifts our brains into a state of self-inhibition and self-punishment that causes us to disengage from our goals, whilst self-compassion activates our brain's care-giving and self-awareness systems enhancing our motivation, performance and resilience is something every employee should be aware of. Personally, I've benefited hugely from Dr Kristen Neff's wonderful toolkit of self-compassionate practices.
- Shifting the curve - Geoffrey Rose, a famous epidemiologist,suggested that if you shift the curve of a population you not only decrease the probability of serious mental disorders, but you also increase the probability of flourishing. Felecia also believes that introducing practices like mindfulness, self-compassion and other evidence-based wellbeing interventions in workplaces, families and schools is the key to helping more people flourish.
And while evidence is still being gathered to test this hypothesis, Felicia recommends the range of tested interventions featured in the 10 Keys For Happier Living created by Action for Happiness as a great place for workplaces to start.
Of course Felicia acknowledges that much is still being learned. For example, even leading mindfulness researchers lament the lack of rigorous, longitudinal studies that demonstrate the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions. Her hope is that new funding for large-scale longitudinal research will provide more clarity in the coming years.
In the meantime, as the research tries to catch up with our appetite for certainty, it's important to remember that scientific predictions are always uncertain; models are refined, theories come and go in the face of new evidence, and we rely on scientific consensus to guide our knowledge and practices. So while Felicia and her colleagues continue to explore evidence-based practices to improve your wellbeing, you should use their findings to accelerate your thinking, inspire your practices and ultimately take responsibility for discovering what works best for you in your workplace.
For more information check out the University of Cambridge Wellbeing Institute or grab a copy of Felicia's book "Wellbeing: A Complete Reference Guide, Interventions and Policies to Enhance Wellbeing".
How can you shift the wellbeing curve for yourself and others around you at work?