Dr Andrew Parnham, creator of The Happiness Course and author of “Lasting Happiness. In search of deeper meaning and fulfilment” shares his thoughts on wellbeing in the current crisis caused by coronavirus pandemic and on the wider meaning of happiness in our life.
When I first came across Dr Andrew Parnham and The Happiness Course I knew I would want to interview him for the blog. Well, this interview couldn’t be more timely!
As we all live in an unprecedented lockdown, Andy shares with us some helpful thoughts not only on the current situation but also the wider meaning of ‘happiness’.
I hope that this interview will provide you not only with some encouraging and uplifting practical advice but some time of relaxation as you read it.
This is only the beginning though. Come back in a few weeks to read the full interview or sign up to the email list and you will be notified when it’s available.
Happiness, mental wellbeing and maintaining good health during this time of lockdown is one of the hottest topics not only in the UK but around the world too. What are your thoughts?
We are all adapting to a new normal and it takes time. For obvious reasons the focus is on physical health but we need to look beyond physical – at mental, spiritual and relational side of life. Seeing the whole of our lives and taking steps appropriate to each of its ‘department’ is fundamental. The longer the lockdown lasts, the more we should focus on these things.
What does it mean in practice?
Some things are natural when life is normal but we might forget about them during a crisis. Physical activity, eating well and taking care of ourselves is important anyway but even more during this time. However, there is a risk that in the current situation we might forget about some of those things. Maintaining healthy routines, being thoughtful and reflective is important right now.
Our personal choices, however small, are especially important. They will not only help us to get through this situation but thrive in it.
What have you been doing with all your time during this lockdown?
It’s a very helpful psalm because, among other things, it talks about infections and epidemics and how God sheltered people in those times. Not only this psalm but the whole Book of Psalms is very helpful in this kind of crisis. Psalms are all about how we feel, about our emotions and our relationship with God. Psalmists ask questions like ‘where are you God’ and ‘why are you not listening’ while at the same time talk about God as our protection. There is
I’ve read also a lot of helpful articles elsewhere. There are great resources on the website of mental health charity Mind.
What are the things we should be especially looking out for?
It’s time to reflect on our self-awareness, in particular on our mental, emotional and psychological patterns. We all have different coping mechanisms. Sometimes they are helpful but not always. Some people may have coping mechanisms that will take them on a wrong path and now is the time to take a closer look at them.
We are looking for comfort and to alleviate the stress and we need to make sure that we do this in a positive way, like through connecting with other people.
Some people will reach out to others but other people with different personalities might withdraw and that might be dangerous, especially if they live on their own.
In your book “Lasting happiness” you write how crucial the relationships are to our wellbeing. They are harder to maintain at this time as we cannot meet friends and family in person. What can we do about this?
People in different settings will have different challenges – parents will feel overwhelmed by children not going to school but single people, particularly older people, will feel lonely.
Everyone is under a pressure, even more so that we’re not able to give each other support as we usually do. Any kind of challenge that we face on a regular basis feels bigger now, so we need to be aware of other people’s situations and support each other as best as we can.
Neither during the lockdown, nor in ‘normal’ life will we always wake up in a great mood. What can we do about this?
Gratitude is profoundly important in day to day life. Robert Emmons, a specialist on gratitude research, wrote a very interesting book called “Thanks!” In it, he writes that every area of life is affected positively by gratitude. People who live an appreciative life do better in every area. You cannot be grateful and ungrateful at the same time.
How we look at happiness or wellbeing is also important. We talk about happiness as a state of pleasure and constant positive feelings but of course life doesn’t look like that. Everybody experiences different emotions along the way. We wouldn’t even want the life to be about constantly experiencing ecstatic joy.
“Standing at the front of a small lecture hall, Ed Diener, University of Illinois psychologist and world-renowned happiness teacher, held up a real brain in a jar with a blue liquid, which he called “joy juice”, trickling into it from a small plastic pouch held above. He asked the audience to pretend that their brains could be treated with a hormone (ie joy juice) that would make them ecstatically happy, and that they could be happy all the time. Then he asked the crucial question, “How many people in this room would want to do this?”C.R. Snyder, Shane J. Lopez, Jennifer T. Pedrotti, “Positive Psychology: The Scientific and Practical Explorations of Human Strengths, p 117
Not only life isn’t like that but the vast majority of people wouldn’t want it. The emotional terrain is populated by different kinds of emotions – anger, sadness and others, among them, joy. The most balanced people experience a wide range of emotions and are in touch with their emotional life. When they feel sad, they don’t just put a lid on that – they name it.
Some of our emotions are only considered negative because we think we need to be constantly positive. Emotional diversity is very important to experience and it’s a very healthy place to be in.
How do we then ‘define’ happiness?
Happiness in our culture is all about pleasure, positive emotions and joy. These are good things but this is not what happiness or wellbeing, or lasting satisfaction is about.
Dr Martin Seligman, professor at University of Pennsylvania commonly known as the founder of Positive Psychology, says there are three dimensions of happiness. The first, The Pleasant Life, one is associated with material things – e.g. having a good drink. These are things we don’t have to do anything about. We simply consume them.
The second dimension, The Engaged Life, is associated with engagement. It’s to do with relationships, occupation, hobbies. These bring us satisfaction but they are not necessarily pleasurable things, like being a mum, a teacher or a doctor. It requires some work from us but in the longer term brings satisfaction. Being married for 40 years is very satisfying but it is hard work too.
There is also a third dimension – The Meaningful Life. It’s what Seligman calls living something bigger, beyond ‘me’, in which pleasure is not the point. Example of that is somebody who has given to other people without looking for pleasure – like Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela or maybe your grandma.
The second and third dimension bring satisfaction in a longer term but they’re not often in our culture described as happiness.
What helped you in the past in the situations of crisis?
I don’t like to list things that make you happy as it seems a bit reductionistic. Nonetheless, in the book I wrote about four things to live by. They can be summarised by: what, how, who and why.
Our society mostly focuses on what and how – medicine, economic and politics, but is not very good at addressing questions of who and why.
Who is about relationships, community, family and friendships and sharing your life with somebody. ‘Why’ is about the bigger picture, like vision for life. For us Christians it is also about our faith. I find being able to refer to this 4-questions framework very helpful in any situation in life.