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Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Is selflessness an essential part of being happy?

Positive Therapy (and its academic parent - Positive Psychology) have focused extensively on the question of how individual happiness can be increased. One area of work which has produced interesting results is the role of gratitude. The PRACTICE of gratitude and kindness has important implications for how happy and content people are... and it acts as a strong antidote to negative states such as depression, anger and anxiety.
How exactly do you practice gratitude and kindness?
Martin Seligman's early work on gratitude suggested writing a 300 word statement to someone who had done something good for you (but whom you had never thanked) and to go round to their house and read it to them!
Robert Emmons therapeutic interventions have asked clients to write about five things for which they were thankful, every week for 10 weeks.
Sonja Lyubomirsky meanwhile found that asking clients to perform five acts of "kindness" a day significantly improved their mood.
There are of course motivational issues around with this work which would have to be addressed with our clients. However it does appear to raise a number of important issues:
It suggests client improvement can occur NOT by addressing their problems but instead by enhancing qualities and emotions that are incompatible with those problems;
It suggests that to be truly happy it is essential that you practice some form of selflessness;
It suggests that "going through the motions" of kindness and gratitude produces useful results even if one does not initially have these feelings.
We welcome any of your thoughts on the topic.


  1. I agree with your suggestions and think that changing negativity to positivity may be linked to habitualising a different way of thinking and feeling, i.e. I believe that there is strong evidence to suggest that if something becomes part of an individuals routine for six weeks then it becomes habit therefore by encouraging random small acts of kindness in ourselves and clients over a distinct period we may be able to change negative states as you suggest.

    J. McD.

  2. I have attended some of your seminars in the past and have always derived benefit, both personal and professional from them. Thank you.

    You asked for comments which could be useful in prompting discussion during your seminars. No doubt you may be inundated, but I take the risk of accepting your invitation to offer some observations from my own 'client' group.

    One thing I have noticed in working with clients, often staff working within organisations in my case, is that they can so easily slip into a habit of adopting a negative, “what's the point”, attitude, a self-fulfilling prophecy! Sadly, often the climate, the philosophy of the organisation, reinforces this attitude.

    My work is mostly to do with working with staff on a number of different issues. So often they feel detached from the 'decision-makers' to such a degree that they actually feel powerless, ciphers whose only motivation is an instrumental one — that of salary. It is a downward spiral, and permeates an entire organisation. If only those decision makers could see that to open up communication channels, spread information and involvement and respect for the workers throughout the organisation rather than keep to the “Knowledge is Power” attitude, it would be so valuable for the entire organisation. So much for enlightened management practices.

    My observations spring from working with many organisations and encountering the same, slightly depressed, slightly cynical, somewhat hopeless workforce who do not feel valued. Your positive therapy techniques need not only apply to what we usually perceive as more identifiable 'clients'. I would risk suggesting that from the countless, hundreds of people I meet during my courses, that about 60% fall into that sad, slightly depressed category, who have often lost sight of their real value as it is never reinforced. In the majority line managers are too busy to meet with them on a regular, supportive basis. Anxieties, therefore, are kept suppressed. No one wants to admit feeling vulnerable or frightened in situations such as domiciliary visits to potentially risk clients, for example. 'Don't admit I was afraid or they'll think I'm not up to the job'. How often I encounter that!

    I feel that part of my role, whatever the subject is to reflect to the participants on my courses that they actually are entitled to question risky working practices, and that they do possess the skills, and that the first thing they need to do is remind themselves of that!

    C. W., Training Consultant

  3. It made me smile reading it because I have felt much happier when I practice kindness (outside of my counselling sessions). I really do believe it works!

    D. F., Counsellor

  4. I have heard of this idea and did an experiment with my clients in the summer of last year. I asked every one of them, in one week, to note down one thing they felt grateful for — each day — over the week between sessions. It had a very high success rate in alleviating the symptoms of depression.

    F. K.

  5. Thank you for your e mail on selflessness and happiness. I read it with an eerie sense of “déjà vu” as it was the focus of my session with my personal life coach only this morning! It goes to confirm my belief that the more we are interested in something, the greater the chance of the "Universe" providing us with more of it! ....Which I find fascinating.

    In essence I believe that setting myself practical performance (or "doing")goals, is extremely important in providing a structure for helping me make changes in my life. However, I also believe they alone are not enough to necessarily make me happy. What I describe as "being" goals, i.e. how I am going to express myself in relation to others and the world, are for me even more important.

    My "being" goals for this year are based around developing a greater generosity of spirit and respect both for myself and for others. This is encapsulated in the question I now ask myself every morning which is "how can I make today just that little extra special for someone (and of course by so doing, for myself)?” This helps me to anticipate the day ahead as a pleasurable opportunity rather than as a set of problems to be worked at – which sounds quite close to, and intentionally the same as, the practise of kindness and gratitude that you refer to.

    As a coach I would invite my clients to develop their own "being" goals along similar lines in a way which best serves their individual needs. However, I am also a therapist, and in that capacity I have clients whose problems need to be heard. They are often people who need to be given kindness and attentive love before they have the resources to give it back. Which begs the question of where the crossover point lies. That would take a longer e mail!

    Yours kindly (what else!),
    B. H., Personal Coach and Therapist

  6. You might also want to look at the writings of Albert Ellis (founder of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy) for your debate. He proposed the idea of long-range hedonism or selfishness. He essentially believes that martyrs tend to burn out quickly and so don't live long and happy lives so if a long and happy life is your goal you should put yourself first and your close relatives a very close second.

    P. J., Clinical Nurse Specialist

  7. Sorry it has taken me so long to reply but this subject goes right to my heart. I am a Christian but have a wide spirituality in that I find much interesting stuff within other religions and I am a trained Spiritual Director within our Diocese.

    Not all my clients are Christian neither do I inform them of such however quite simply I believe that all my work — and I do use the Brief Solution Based Therapy model — thoroughly enjoyed the course thank you — is underpinned by the person centred approach, genuineness, unconditional positive regard and empathy and I guess all these could be called — love.

    It is with loving kindness that I work with all my clients, giving them as much as my full attention as I can and empowering them to use all the positive power that they have. I believe that as therapists we work with the whole self — physically are they looking after themselves for example, mentally of course with the problems they bring, emotionally and spiritually. Where is their anchor — who helps them positively — sometimes they tell me they believe in God without being prompted and this can open up another dimension in our work.

    So in that 4 letter word for me it's “Love” — but many people misrepresent love in all manner of ways and of course one has to be careful in abuse work as love can be very misinterpreted.

    There, I could go on and on but for me the flow of gratitude and kindness is underpinned in love.

    E. M.

  8. I am lucky that in my role we work in a positive way with our clients. I strongly believe that we should treat clients as individuals and with respect. We can build on positives however small and then we can build confidence and self esteem. It may be that no-one has ever told that person that they have done something well.

    A. C.

  9. This sounds interesting and makes sense to me — we often talk with clients about being positive, fostering hope etc but focused on the problem and even in an abstract sense whereas this approach appears to value action in terms of gratitude and kindness.

    A. McA.

  10. I found this question an interesting point of thought and felt compelled to respond.

    I am a counsellor in training on my final diploma year and currently working placements within the fields of traumatic bereavement and also within a family centre where I meet a wide range of issues.

    On the outset positive therapy sounds very positive and feel that as I am training predominantly from a person centred view point that acceptance is a large part, encouraging the client to value all aspects of their whole self.

    I feel from personal experience that we have to learn to love ourselves first. When I was 17 I was sexually assaulted and at the time this happened knew that my life script had changed and that there was no point. My focus in life became about making others lives better and for many years this proved to be a successful way to feel better, however when we sell our souls to the service others we run the risk of losing ourselves.

    So I ask a question what happens when our good deeds and acts of kindness become expected by those around us? How do we then burden the responsibility of others expectation?

    When we look to who we are and can't see what we have done for ourselves? What happens to our own sense of value?

    Don't get me wrong I am all for focusing on positives and helping people to find there positivity and enhance happiness yet it seems to me that is just one of many emotions that a person could need to accept. It could be argued that by training to be a counsellor I am still following the positive ethic, in wanting to be of help offering warmth and acceptance unconditional positive regard empathy and congruence, but feel that even in time limited therapy we need to connect with the whole person.

    And how can anyone truly love another if they don't love themselves first?

    D.K., Counsellor in training


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