Chasing Happiness Can Leave You Glum – Why Not Thrive Instead?

It’s hard to measure happiness, or even pin down what it means, which is why scientists talk about thriving instead – and now one researcher has uncovered the method of how to thrive

What Has Thriving Got To Do With Happiness?
Judging by the 28,256 e-books on happiness listed by Amazon, the whole world wants to be happy. But what does that actually look like on an individual level? Look up the definition of ‘happy’ in the dictionary and it will say ‘feeling or showing pleasure’, which sounds about as authentic and temporary as the ‘slightly smiling’ emoji. If we can’t even agree on a measurable definition, then how can we hope to live the dream of lasting happiness? Dr Daniel Brown, a sport and exercise scientist at the University of Portsmouth, says it’s more practical and helpful to look at how we can thrive – if we’re prosperous and flourishing, then the chances are we’ll be happy too.

Dr Brown has reviewed decades of scientific research to track what helps people thrive. ‘The definition of thriving that we arrived at was this idea of having a joint experience of both development and success. By development we mean progressive enhancements – that might be developing the ability to swim, for example – but then also success, which might be successful outcomes such as acquiring wealth,’ he says.

‘There are traits you can learn to adopt, which mean you’ll be more likely to thrive’

The Benefits Of Thriving Day To Day
Life is more than a list of key performance indicators, or a running tally of successes and failures, but you can prepare the ground to make progress and success more likely, which will help you to thrive. ‘There is a circular link between the broader outcomes of development and success, and more specific day to-day transient outcomes of performance and wellbeing – if you’re experiencing high levels of wellbeing then that will lead to these developmental outcomes,’ says Dr Brown. The evidence shows that there are certain traits you can learn to adopt, which mean you’ll be more likely to thrive. ‘Characteristics like being proactive, socially competent and optimistic allow someone to approach situations more positively and they are therefore more likely to experience positive outcomes.’ But it’s not all down to the individual – your environment has a massive impact on your chances of thriving. ‘If we’re talking socially, it’s those supports that you have around you to help you move forward but also to challenge you, so that you are more actively engaged, and that drives you further forward,’ says Dr Brown.

Perception Of Your Experiences Is Everything
Much as you can’t be happy all the time (even the dictionary agrees that perpetually happy people are sometimes acting), so you can’t thrive all day long. The difference between thriving and struggling can be nothing more than perspective – thriving relies less on emotion than happiness does. Ever had a totally shit day, then taken a deep breath and said something like: ‘Oh well, at least I learnt how to change a tyre.’ This kind of thinking is more than looking for a consolation prize, says Dr Brown. ‘If people are able to perceive these situations and experiences as opportunities for gain and growth, then that’s going to result in these thriving outcomes.’

In fact, even traumatic events can leave you with a greater chance of thriving. ‘If you have experienced a difficult or traumatic event, then you develop skills as a result; things like confidence in your ability to overcome it in the future. You learn strategies that might help you move forward so that if you experience a similar situation, you’ve got those personal resources around you.’ You become psychologically resilient, basically.

‘High-quality, intrinsic motivation is when you do something just for the joy of it’

Find Things You Want To Do For Their Own Sake
The other thing that thriving people do is self-motivate, says Dr Brown. You might think that this is easy – after all, you’re motivated to win a race to get that medal, and you’re motivated to work hard for that shiny new possession. Unfortunately that’s not enough to make you thrive, because you’re relying too much on external factors to drive you. ‘We’re all motivated to act – we might feel obliged to act or we might be motivated to perform in a sport because we want the outcome of winning, but to generate high-quality, intrinsic motivation is when you do something just for the joy of it.’ It’s like an athlete being in The Zone, operating in a heightened state of consciousness, at the absolute boundaries of their skill – you can’t experience that if you’re focussed on the outcome over the process.

Of course, you really have to enjoy what you are doing to be intrinsically motivated, which is why this is something to work towards rather than expecting to drop into your lap – try experimenting with your career and pastimes outside work. ‘Everybody absolutely can thrive, it’s about allowing yourself to experience internal motivation, and find these things that you do for themselves,’ says Dr Brown.

How To Thrive At Work
Thriving in the workplace is about more than having the right role, or leading the right start-up. It turns out that the relationship you have with your colleagues is the most important thing. ‘Having a trusting relationship between yourself and your boss (or employees) means you’re more likely to approach tasks and situations more positively – you’re more likely to try new things out and develop new skills, whereas if you are in a relationship with your colleagues where they don’t trust you or you don’t trust them, then you may stagnate.’ This trust is also vital for self-motivation, and it cuts both ways. ‘One of the things about having internal motivation is feeling like you have a part in the choices that are made and the actions that you take. It’s being trusted from above but you are also trusting the things that your manager is saying to you, and the support they are providing to you.’

‘If a work environment is volatile then actually it becomes quite threatening’

Why You Need To Check Your Surroundings
You might picture a thriving workplace or social environment as one that’s constantly busy and changing – if things are moving quickly then progress must be being made, right? In fact, this may trigger some ancient reflexes, according to the research, which shows having learning and career opportunities with a higher promotion focus are helpful, whereas volatility is not. ‘If an environment is volatile then actually it becomes quite threatening – an individual is more likely to retract from a situation to become more protected, rather than approaching it as a challenge,’ says Dr Brown. ‘We need challenge in our work and to be pushed but if you’ve got things like a high staff turnover, or high levels of turbulence, then that’s actually detrimental to thriving.’

Don’t Get Tunnel Vision
If you want to thrive then get used to thinking about your life as multiple strands – no one thing should totally dominate everything else. ’It’s really important that people branch off – we’re talking about the opportunity to gain from development in multiple areas of your life. Not just focussing on development and success at work but development outside of that in terms of your social networks, your sport, your music or whatever it might be so that you don’t end up becoming siloed in a particular channel,’ Dr Brown recommends. So if work is taking over, then start a sport or something creative, but remember to measure your progress by setting realistic goals or monitoring your skills.

It’s Not All About You
No man is an island, even more so if you want to thrive. ‘The ability to interact with others around you is a really important skill and one we learn – the environment can help by promoting those exchanges, but it does come from inside by you being proactive and seeking out those exchanges,’ says Dr Brown. You need to build bridges to other people, while making sure that they are worth the investment. ‘It’s about people forming trusting bonds with other people. Feeling an attachment to them will generate these positive outcomes, and having trust and belief that the people you’re engaged with really care about you, and that they have got your best interests at heart. As a result you’re more likely to feel that you can engage in the situations, demands and pressures that we all experience, more positively.’

WHAT NEXT? One of the simplest ways to learn how to thrive is to start a new sport, particularly one you have to do with other people. ‘Exercise or sport provides an arena for someone to experience both development and success — its an opportunity to learn new skills and make those progressive enhancements,’ says Dr Brown. So get Googling…

Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.