How to Be Happy – 7 Questions & Answers From Emiliya Zhivotovskaya, President and Founder of Flourish
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to interview Emiliya Zhivotovskaya, Founder of The Flourish Center an organization dedicated to utilizing research based tools to enable individuals and organizations to flourish.
I wanted to share this article with you, especially durning the holidays. The article first appeared in The Beverly Hills Times on the subject of happiness.
What is happiness? How is it defined? How do you define it? The answer would be varied and unique depending on the individual and their personal experiences.
Here is my interview with Emiliya. Enjoy!
ANCIENT GREECE ON THE SUBJECT OF HAPPINESS
MN: Let’s begin back in Ancient Greece with Aristotle. He referred to happiness as “eudaimonia” a contented state of being happy, healthy and prosperous. Incidentally, we find “flourish” associated with Eudaimonia for the first time.
How does one flourish in a classic sense?
Emiliya: The ancient Greeks identified hedonia and eudaimonia, hedonia refers to the type of happiness that was about feeling good, whereas eudaimonia was about a life well lived. Today research shows that while happiness as in life satisfaction is entirely subjective, meaning it is unique to the person experiencing it, there are general factors that relate to people feeling as though they are flourishing. One model in positive psychology is referred to as PERMA which stands for positivity, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement. In my work I also add on a V for vitality to this model. While these are all standalone approaches to happiness, when you feel that they are all fairly high your life is flourishing. Positivity is somewhat similar to hedonic happiness, in that it is about feeling positive emotions and feeling good. From this perspective were not just looking at happiness we are looking at people feeling a wide range of positive emotions including gratitude, contentment, peace, awe, connection, etc. Meaning would be most closely related to Aristotle’s description of eudaimonic happiness which is about living life with meaning and purpose, as well as living a good life. Today’s research includes engagement which is the sense of having opportunities in your life to focus strongly on tasks that give you a sense of mastery and flow. Positive relationships are also key to happiness since research shows that loneliness is one of the greatest factors of depression. One research study found that the only thing that separated extremely happy people from extremely unhappy people was the number of strong social connections in their life. Achievement effects flourishing because we all have goals that we set and we can better know our strength and impact when we meet those goals. I add vitality to the list because I believe that physical wellness is essential for a flourishing life. Wellness is more than just the absence of disease and vitality refers to the times in our lives where we feel energized, healthy, physically aligned, well rested and more. All six of these separate and interconnected approaches are part of living a flourishing life.
LEARNED OPTIMISIM & POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY
MN: You studied with Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, who was also famous for “Learned Optimism,” and essentially taught us that happy people are more social, do you find that to be the case?
Emiliya: While there is a strong positive correlation between happy people being more social this does not mean that there is a causal relationship between happiness and being social. Meaning the arrow can go in the other direction as well. Social people tend to be happier. While there is some correlation between extroverts who are known to be more social and happiness, the key thing to recognize is that happiness is not a personality trait it is a skill set. People who frequently experience positive emotion tend to attract more people to them. When you feel grateful you often want to share that with others and do good things for others. Which in turn gives people an opportunity to express gratitude to you which then further boosts your positive emotion. Human beings are social creatures. We thrive from authentic relationships. When we are around people we care about our positive emotions go up. Our body releases oxytocin when we feel safe and connected to others. I have worked with many people who were quite social that were not very happy with their lives. Being social for them included strong social comparison and materialism. While they had many friends they had few deep connections or the ability to feel safe enough to share themselves truly with others. I have also worked with people who when they feel depressed they don’t want to be social and withdraw. Those people get a boost to their happiness level and decrease to their depression level when they are social. However, they get an even greater boost when they are social in the form of an act of kindness for someone else. That can include a random act of kindnessor even volunteering. The process of being social and more authentic in a positive way gives us increased happiness.
IS HAPPINESS HARD WORK?
MN: So many people have gone through hard times as a result of the economy, or are stuck in jobs they don’t like or are unemployed. Is it fair to say, to those struggling, that happiness is also hard work?
Emiliya: Happiness is not hard work, however, happiness IS effort. Happiness is a skill set. Many people assume that happiness is just something that happens to them as a result of life events. Very few people recognize that it is a tangible skill set and that they can enhance it to practice and that if they don’t enhance it through practice their brain will default to being either neutral or filled with mild worry and judgment. Our brain has a negativity bias meaning the negative experiences in our life are much stickier than the positive. We are significantly more likely to remember negative events, feedback, emotions and wrongdoings, and significantly more likely to gloss over the simple positive things that are happening around us all the time. This means we are constantly needing to counter our mind’s tendency to worry, judge, criticize, gossip and compare. And even if you are in a happy place you can always continue to build your happiness by expressing gratitude, connecting with people, setting goals, creating more flow experiences, using your strengths, enhancing the meaning in your life, and more. Neuroplasticity tells us that we can rewire our brain to think more positive and to be happier, however, that takes effort since many of our old patterns are ingrained. However, they are not permanent or set in stone. Increasing your happiness does not have to be hard work the way that training for a marathon maybe. But it does require being conscious of your pessimistic mind chatter and habitual patterns and having access to the tools to help reshape these patterns. Otherwise we feel like life is Groundhog Day.
MN: Your practice and website encompass so many helpful methods: CBT, Mindfulness, Flow, Resilience, Grit. These are all extraordinary and well-researched tools to help combat depression and emotional roadblocks.
What do you say to negative people that these methods don’t work?
Emiliya: I hope I’m interpreting your question properly. What I hear you saying is what do I say for the people for whom these methods don’t work. Is that what you mean? If so, my answer is that in my seven years of professional life coaching and being involved in positive psychology, the only times that I have not been able to find a tool to help people become happier was when they truly did not want to make a positive change. It is like the saying you can bring a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. If a person does want to change the reason that I have so many methods on my website and bring so many tools into my practice is because happiness is not a one size fits all model. Just the same way that there are many forms of mindfulness practice or types of artistic expression, there are many different pathways to happiness. What is most important is to figure out which one will give people the biggest return on their investment in themselves. I often think of myself as a tool collector. One of the reasons I spent most of my life studying the human mind, the human body, Eastern traditions, positive psychology and other research based modalities as well as spirituality, is that all of these different methods all have great tools for supporting people. And there’s never a tool that works the same for everyone. So I’m constantly collecting new tools, metaphors, stories and research for how to help people better understand themselves and become more masterful in living their lives.
THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
MN: Tell me about gratitude enhancers?
Emiliya: One of the biggest challenges people can experience around gratitude is when they can think of things that they “should” be grateful for,” however, they don’t authentically feel the emotion of gratitude when they think of those things. This can be particularly toxic because not only are people not getting the benefit of feeling gratitude for those positive things in their life but they are also increasing the experience of negative emotions such as guilt. One of the best things people can do to enhance their experience of gratitude is to savor what they are grateful for by getting even more specific about what makes them grateful for that person, place or thing. For example, if I am writing in my gratitude journal and my list sounds something like, “I’m grateful for my health, I’m grateful for my family, grateful for my home, etc” and they are all generic gratitudes, I can enhance the gratitude by digging deeper into why I’m grateful for those things and what my life would be like without them. I keep digging deeper and savoring more until I can authentically feel grateful.
Another gratitude enhancer, or opportunity to get even more benefit out of the practice of listing what you are grateful for, is to ask yourself how you contributed to that good thing happening. For example, if I am grateful for my two adorable dogs I can think of the ways in which I contributed to this blessing in my life. This includes the fact that I followed my intuition on getting my dog even though I did not know at the time how I was going to handle a dog with such a busy schedule. As a result, I met my fiancée through his dog and my dog meeting and I now have two happy dogs instead of one. Simply going to this brief thought experiment of how I contributed to that good thing happening gets me a boost to my positivity and greater gratitude.
DON’T WORRY BE HAPPY & THE SONGS THAT MAKE US SMILE
MN: Let’s look to musician and lyricist for a moment. David Cassidy told us “C’mon Get Happy in the 70’s. Bobby McFerrin then sings “Don’t Worry Be Happy” in the 80s. REM sings “Shiny Happy People” in the 90s. Lady Gaga most recently sang: “So Happy I Could Die” – Even legends like the Rolling Stones and Frank Sinatra sang a happy song. Music mirrors culture– and I know you’re also a singer– what’s our culture’s song now from your perspective?
Emiliya: Wow, this is a tough one. I may need to give this one some more thought. My first intuition is a song about money such as, “Money money money money, money!” Or “If I was a rich girl.” But the song I’m really looking for is one that tells the story about our cultural obsession with individuality and customization. One of the greatest contributions to why our GDP has increased yet our happiness levels have flat lined and our depression rates have escalated is that our culture has moved away from the world of the “we-pod” to the land of the “i-pod.” Many people are so focused on themselves and so disconnected from a sense of strong, positive and life enhancing community. Just 100 years ago our society was focused much more on a sense of “we” which included families spending more time together, neighbors knowing each other and a sense of personal connection to a reasonable amount of people. Now we are continuously told that not only can we have the best, but we should have the best. Marketers constantly bombard us to think we should want more and more, and we get obsessed with having things customized to make us unique. Psychologist use the term “maladaptive self-preoccupation” to describe people who become so caught up in themselves that it causes depression, anxiety, insecurity and more. Do you have a song for that? I can talk for hours about all the things our culture is doing that severely impedes our happiness. Instead, I’d prefer to say that today is also the best time be alive. More and more people all over the world are taking happiness and well-being seriously. We’re seeing psychology, medicine, and even politics take greater interest in flourishing and moving our society north of neutral and aspiring to build a world where more people are happier than those that are not. There are also more tools and more people to offer support in applying those tools than ever before. I’m optimistic.
MN: Can you tell our readers about your six-week course and how they can get involved?
Emiliya: I run a number of both online and in-person workshops that are available on my website www.theflourishingcenter.com. I also offer positive psychology coaching for anyone interested in learning more about these science based tools for increasing their happiness level. And the last thing that your readers might be interested in is that we offer one of the first certificate programs in positive psychology. It’s a 6 month program that equips coaches, therapists, counselors, managers, teachers, or anyone that works with people, with training in positive psychology skills and theory.
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