Love & Purpose – Happiness with extra bandwidth
The Bristol Happiness Lectures were an annual event at the University of Bristol set up by Dr Chris Johnstone, the co-author with Joanna Macy of Active Hope, a book that makes the connection between personal and planetary well-being. When Chris relocated to the wilds of North-East Scotland, he asked me to help transform the Happiness Lectures from a local into a free global event by taking it online. The 2014 Happiness Lectures Online explored the concept of Sustainable Well-being and for the 2015 Happiness Lectures we have chosen the theme of Love & Purpose. So why love, why purpose and why put them together?!
I see love and purpose as ways of turbocharging the path to happiness. Love is the supreme positive emotion according to leading emotions researcher Barbara Fredrickson and the capacity to love and be loved is a character strength. To love and be loved is like reaching the summit of well-being and having a purpose gives us a depth of satisfaction and fulfilment. This is happiness with extra bandwidth, stretching from peak positive emotions to a deep sense of meaning and bringing together hedonic and eudaimonic well-being, the two dimensions of authentic happiness.
Another goal of these Happiness Lectures is to democratise love and purpose, which are often viewed as something rather exclusive and extraordinary. In Love 2.0 Barbara Fredrickson shows how love is not only the preserve of happy couples and doting parents, but can even be experienced with a stranger. ‘Positivity resonance’, her term for love, is a micro-moment of connection with a shared experience of positive emotion, synchrony of biochemistry and actions and a mutual impulse to care for one another. For those who are single and treading a solo path through life this is a source of active hope – we can still be experiencing the benefits of love for our psychological and physical health outside the bonds of close relationships. I first read the book when I was on a train and looked up and experienced a micro moment of positivity resonance with the ticket inspector – a mutual consideration, kindness and a laugh!
Having a purpose in life always seems like such a big deal. ‘What is your life purpose?’ along with ‘what is the meaning of life?’ are questions that crop up late at night when the wine is flowing and the conversation turns philosophical. But there is purpose to be found in the everyday. The purpose of a mundane task like shopping for food might be to nourish our bodies and nurture our loved ones. The purpose of mowing the lawn might be to care for the environment. Purpose is fluid and can be as simple as what is my purpose for the next hour.
Having a sense of purpose gives us a direction in life, something to work towards and a tick in the box of achievement (the A in the PERMA model) as we progress towards our goal. The big question is how do we get to a sense of purpose? There are two major routes according to the 2009 study from King & Hicks. We tend to detect purpose in life’s positive experiences eg. becoming a parent and having a sense that things are exactly as they are meant to be. On the other hand we tend to construct purpose from life’s negative experiences, asking ourselves ‘why did this happen to me’ and attempting to make meaning from the trauma and tough times. This is how I constructed my own purpose in life. Making sense of episodes of depression led to my mission in life – to put people on the path to happiness and to a book Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression, conceived at the 2010 Bristol Happiness Lectures. This life purpose provides me with an abundance of intrinsic motivation and satisfaction with life. I get to live my life purpose every day in my work as a positive psychology practitioner and I’ve not had an episode of depression since embarking on the MAPP at the University of East London in 2007!