The Power of Positive Psychology with Dr. Adrian Lopresti and Dr. Timothy Sharp

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The Power of Positive Psychology with Dr. Adrian Lopresti and Dr. Timothy Sharp

In a world that has felt weighty in recent times, we shift the discussion towards the pursuit of happiness as Dr. Timothy Sharp shares his knowledge on the principles of positive psychology.  

Tim shares his CHOOSE acronym with our ambassador, Dr. Adrian Lopresti, that is designed to support you and your clients to not only reduce stress, anxiety and negative thoughts, but also to elevate their mood and outlook to one of positivity and happiness. Tim describes the importance of optimism based on reality. 

Covered in this episode

[00:39] Welcoming Dr. Timothy Sharp
[01:15] What is positive psychology
[03:25] Blending traditional therapy and positive psychology
[07:06] The pillars of happiness
[12:03] The connection between happiness and health
[14:50] Surrounding yourself with the right people
[17:44] Can money buy happiness?
[21:18] Antidepressants aren’t a “happy pill”
[26:04] CHOOSE-ing happiness
[36:50] How we can identify our strengths
[40:22] CHOOSE recap and making consults fun
[42:20] Thanking Tim and final remarks


Key takeaways 

  • Criticisms of traditional psychology are that its focus is to return the patient to a state of eustress without depression and anxiety and that it focuses on the negative. 
  • Positive psychology is the promotion of happiness and positive emotions for a person and looks to encourage people to both thrive and flourish. 
  • Positive psychology and traditional clinical psychology are not mutually exclusive, and can be used to support patients in a integrated form referred to as positive therapy that is based on traditional cognitive behaviour therapy and acceptance commitment therapy.  
  • Positive psychology is effective at enhancing positive emotions and happiness and may also be beneficial in treating negative emotions. 
  • Positive psychology helps to promote positive life experiences through the focus on a person’s strengths and positive attributes and experiences. 
  • Happiness can be defined as positive emotions, joy, satisfaction and contentment. 
  • To thrive and flourish involves positive emotions, living a life with meaning and purpose that involves working towards meaningful goals. 
  • Happiness is directly associated with good health, connection in relationships, satisfacton through achievements and doing good as a person. 
  • The social and emotional contagion theory suggests that emotions are contagious, and can spread through close groups of people such as coworkers whether they are positive or negative. Based on this, who we spend time with can influence our outlook. 
  • While money can bring happiness in the form of material items and reduced pressure for living expenses, the happiness associated with the purchase of material items tapers off over time. The more money a person has the less happiness it can buy. 
  • Traditional anti-depressants are used to reduce depression or distress but don’t typically increase a person’s happiness 
  • The CHOOSE acronym to support happiness stands for: 
    • C – Clarity, having clear values, goals, priorities for life to support decision making 
    • H – Healthy living, the adoption of exercise, diet and sleep to support health 
    • O – Optimism, real optimism grounded in reality 
    • O – Others, consideration and connection with others  
    • S – Strengths-based approach, identifying a persons psycholigicals strengths and encouraging or enhancing them 
    • E – Enjoying the moment, not taking life too seriously, and ensure fun is part of life 
  • Laughter can support the secretion of neurotransmitters to promote happiness and is generally a product of connection with others. 

Resources discussed

Dr. Timothy Sharp
The Happiness Institute
Gallup Strengths Finder
VIA Survey of Character Strengths

July Clinical Mastery information


Transcript

Adrian: Hi, and welcome to FX Medicine, where we bring you the latest in evidence-based, integrative, functional, and complementary medicine. I'm Dr. Adrian Lopresti, and with us today is psychologist and bestselling author, Dr. Timothy Sharp. Often known as “Dr. Happy,” Tim is at the forefront of the positive psychology movement. He's a founder of The Happiness Institute and has written several books about happiness, including The Happiness Handbook, and 100 Ways to Happiness: A Guide for Busy People

We are very happy to have him on the show today. Welcome to FX Medicine, Tim. Thanks for joining us.

Timothy: Yeah, no, thanks so much for having me.

Adrian: Terrific. So, Tim, obviously today we wanted to talk about positive psychology and have our listeners learn a bit more about the positive psychology principles and approaches when working with people with depression and low mood and anxiety. Can you tell us a bit about what positive psychology is and what are the associated principles of positive psychology?

Timothy: Sure. Look, I'll give the brief version. Obviously, whole books and PhDs have been written about this, so it's hard to summarise entirely.

Adrian: Absolutely.

Timothy: But look, in brief, well, it's probably easiest to start with the difference from more traditional clinical or counselling psychology, which as most of the listeners would know, the greatest focus within traditional clinical psychology is on distress and dysfunction, things like stress, depression, anxiety, identifying where people were essentially going wrong in their lives, and then trying to help them fix it. 

Now, that's obviously really important. But at the same time, one of the criticisms that was levelled against clinical psychology or traditional counselling psychology was that it was an almost exclusive focus on the negative, in a sense, without paying virtually any attention to the positive. So, about 20 or so years ago, some of the psychologists who ended up leading the development of the positive psychology movement started to say, "Well, look, for so long we've been asking what's wrong with people and how can we fix it? What if we were to ask what's right with people and how can we make the most of it? What if, instead of just trying to treat distress and depression, we were trying to promote happiness and other positive emotions?"

Adrian: Yes.

Timothy: And so, from that, it brought together under a more formal structure a lot of ideas and principles that had been discussed previously. And again, the simple premise was rather than just trying to fix distress, what if we were to promote thriving and flourishing? And that's essentially the difference. But just finally, one point I'd like to make is that they're not mutually exclusive. In fact, I've always thought, and increasingly many practitioners have thought that they really work well together. We need to do both at the same time, in a sense.

Adrian: So I suppose when we look at the symptoms, so if somebody's coming in with depression or anxiety, we're asking about depressive symptoms or anxiety symptoms, what triggers may be there, is positive psychology doing that too?

Timothy: Well, yes and no. What we've seen over the last, well, more recent part of the last 20 years, so probably in the more 5 to 10 years, is a merging or a blending of the two, in a sense. And in fact, some people have come to call it positive therapy. And all positive therapy is, I suppose, as I said, it's a blending or an integration of traditional psychological therapies that have been proven to work, predominantly, as you said, the cognitive behaviour therapies, but also acceptance-commitment therapy which is, I guess I'll say is a first cousin, in a sense, of the traditional cognitive behaviour therapy. 

But what we've started to discover and there's a small but growing body of research to support this new idea of positive therapy, is that those positive psychology approaches are effective, not just in enhancing happiness and positive emotions, but also in treating some of those negative ones. So, again, they need to work well together. And I guess the bottom line is that any good therapist, a properly qualified trained person in this area will know how to balance and select the right principles or the right strategies for that particular case.

Adrian: Okay. So with the positive psychology principles, are you kind of asking more about what makes people happy? What makes them feel good? What enhances wellbeing? Are those kind of the questions that you're asking?

Timothy: Yeah. Look, I preface this by saying that there's always a risk in an interview like this to oversimplify things. But yeah, look, positive psychology would focus much more on strengths. So, yes, if you walked into my office and you were experiencing severe or significant levels of distress, it clearly wouldn't be inappropriate to identify those symptoms, to identify where you are going wrong, what mistakes you might be making, what we might be able to "fix." 

But if I were to put my positive psychology hat on, or my positive therapy hat on, at least as much, if not more, I'd be trying to identify, again, your underlying strengths. What is it that makes you tick? What is it that makes you your best? Or even at your worst, what is it that helps you cope with your worst? So we know that just like, well, everybody, including ourselves as practitioners, we all have faults and failings. We're all imperfect. None of us is perfect or 100% perfect all the time. But at the same time, just as we all have faults and failings and weaknesses, so too do we have strengths.

And for some of those out there who aren't familiar with this area, I'm not talking about physical strength here, I'm talking about psychological strengths or psychological attributes. These are things we all have, but some people either aren't aware of them or they're not using them as well, or as often as they could. So this is where the positive psychology focus comes in. I would be trying to help you, my client, identify where you are best, what brings you to life? What energises you? Where your psychological attributes lie, and how can you use them more often or in different situations? Both to overcome whatever adversity you're facing, but also to promote, to foster and develop more happiness and positive experiences in your life. 

So that greater focus on strengths, and using those strengths both to address the bad and to promote the good is a significant shift from the more traditional clinical approach.

Adrian: Yep. So definitely a more strengths based approach obviously incorporating the two. So you mentioned happiness. So what is happiness? How do you define it? Is there a way to measure it?

Timothy: Well, how long do I have to answer this question? So this is something that I've spent a good part of the last 20 years studying. And in fact, many people have spent more than that. So, look, in short, yes, you can measure it. In fact, as many of your listeners would know... Well, actually, a lot of people who don't know this about psychologists, but one of the things psychologists love to do is measure things. So, yes, it's possible to measure happiness, but more so, it's actually possible to measure happiness in multiple ways.

So there are multiple scales and inventories and questionnaires, you know? And so, there's not just one answer to that. But at a very basic level, one way is that happiness is one version of positive emotions. Now, we know, and I'm sure your listeners know, there's a whole range of positive emotions that we all experience either on a daily or weekly basis. That includes happiness, as one, that's one of the most obvious positive emotions, but there are other ones like joy and satisfaction, even calm, contentment. There's a whole range of positive emotions that we all experience day to day, and as I said, happiness is one version of that. Positive emotions are really important for living a good healthy life. 

But what positive psychology is really interested in is not just happiness in that, dare I say, simple sense. Positive psychology is much more interested, really, in what we technically call thriving and flourishing, or in general terms, living our best lives. Now, to thrive and flourish and live our best life, we need positive emotions. You can't live your best life without any positive emotions. That's a really important fundamental foundational component of thriving and flourishing. 

But there are also, and this is an important but, there are also several other significant components which are just as, if not more important. So just briefly, in addition to positive emotions, when positive psychologists talk about thriving and flourishing, they're also talking about living a life of meaning and purpose. Now, any of your listeners who have engaged in something meaningful, or set and worked towards a meaningful goal, will know that it's not always easy. In fact, sometimes working towards a meaningful goal can be bloody hard work. So there's blood, sweat, and tears involved. So as important as positive emotions are, they're not everything. Because that sense that you get when you've achieved something really hard is just as important as the joy and fun that you get from pleasurable activities.

So working towards meaningful goals is a fundamentally important part of living a good life, in addition to positive emotions. But so too are other things. Like our physical health and well-being is just as important. Again, it's hard to be happy if you're sick and tired all the time. And as, again, I'm sure many of your listeners would know that physical health and well-being and psychological health and well-being are integrally intimately linked. In fact, I don't even like to separate them because I think it's a bit misleading to talk about physical health and psychological health as kind of being separate entities. They're very intertwined.

Adrian: Absolutely.

Timothy: And then there's also things like, well, the quality of our relationships. So real happiness and real thriving is not just about me, me, me. It's very much more about us, us, us. It's about we, it's about connectedness. It's about belonging. The quality of our relationships is arguably the most important component of living a good life. And then there are things where I've already touched on, so identifying and utilising our strengths, things like hope and optimism and gratitude. All of those things together are really what positive psychology is about when we talk about thriving and flourishing. And again, that simplistic understanding of happiness as a positive emotion is important, but it's only one of those pillars.

Adrian: So it's not just about increasing positive emotions. You've also mentioned the values, the meaning, the purpose of which sometimes engaging in those behaviours, you might actually experience some uncomfortable emotions during that, but ultimately you're leading a kind of more purposeful life and you're kind of moving towards a goal or a value that you're working towards.

Timothy: Hundred per cent. So I often say that happiness isn't just about feeling good. In fact, happiness isn't always feeling good. So we don't always have to feel good to live a good life. And then even more than that, I often say happiness isn't just feeling good. It's just as much about doing good. So that's about the connecting to others. So being generous, being altruistic, being giving is very, very important as well. So all of those things together, again, highlight the importance of positive emotions, but also hopefully illustrate that positive emotions aren't the be all and end all.

Adrian: Absolutely. Absolutely. Now, I just want to ask a question. I know that there's a lot of research showing that if you're depressed, there's increased likelihood of suffering from several medical conditions, and there's all these kind of negative associations there. Is there research showing that happiness is associated with improved health, improved wellbeing, improved sleep? Is there research around that?

Timothy: There is indeed. So, yeah, again, two really important points there. You're quite right. Well, not just depression, but any form of mental ill-health is typically associated with physical poor health as well. We know that people who are susceptible to, or who have, or are experiencing some psychological disorder have an increased likelihood and more likely to experience other health problems. And in fact, there's, some research that suggests that they're more likely to die younger, it actually affects your longevity.

But you're quite right. I mean, so the flip side of that is that promoting more positive emotion, helping more people live better lives actually improves other aspects of their health and wellbeing as well. Which is why happiness is so important, and I spend a lot of my time busting myth and misconceptions about happiness. Because I think we see these discussions of positive psychologies, kind of as just a nice thing, but maybe a bit of a frivolous aim. "Well, okay. It'll be nice to be happy, and okay, it'd be nice if more people were happy." But is it really important? Well, the bottom line is, yes, it is important because as you hinted at in your question…so I just want to clarify here, I'm talking about genuine authentic happiness here. Not slapping on a fake smile. 

But the more people that are genuinely happier, then the more people who are generally healthier. And that has significant benefits, well, not just to their individual quality of life, but it also has implications for their family and friends and their loved ones. So there's a theory within social psychology called “social and emotional contagion.” We know that emotions are catchy. So depression, for example, can spread throughout social and occupational networks, but so too can happiness and positivity, genuine positivity. So the more positive emotions that I experience, the more that spreads throughout not just my immediate family, but my social network, my family, my friends, and as I said, throughout all the communities with whom I live and operate. So it's far more significant than many people realise. And even one could argue there are significant financial or economic benefits. Because again, we know the healthier I am, the healthier more people are, there are cost savings to our health system.

Adrian: Yes, absolutely.

Timothy: There are productivity benefits to organisations and to the economy. So I think it is, again, more important than many people realise.

Adrian: So, I mean, obviously, I suppose, mood is contagious, and if around positive people we're more likely to experience positive emotions. So part of this is also, positive psychology, I suppose, is also about who you spend time with, what impact or effect they have on you and what effect you have on them. Would that be part of it too when you're questioning some of your clients about who they're spending time with?

Timothy: Very much so. Well, look, sometimes I'm asked “What's the secret to happiness?” And I'm always reluctant to answer that because there isn't a secret, and even if there was one secret for me, it would be different for you. In fact, if there was a secret to happiness, it would be understanding that there's no secret. Because I think aiming towards that sort of one simple thing is a bit of a myth, and it can be like sort of setting yourself up for failure. So I don't like to answer that. I'll often say there's no one answer, there are multiple answers. We each need to find our own combination, so to speak, our own recipe. 

However, at the risk of contradicting myself, if I had to name the most important contributor to happiness, to health, to wellbeing, to longevity, it would probably be the quality of our relationships. Time and time again, study after study, research after research keeps coming back to the significance of this thing, this quality of our relationships, our connectedness. So to come back to your question, it's super important. Who you spend time with makes a big difference. And so, one of the, dare I say, the simplest things that we can do to boost the quality of our life is to be careful who we spend time with. So spending more time with more positive people will be good for us. 

Now, there's a very, very important caveat to that, and I really do want to put this in context. I'm not suggesting you should just stop spending time with people who might be, say, depressed or people who might be not as uplifting as others. If I have a very good friend, as I do, who experiences mental ill health, sometimes spending time with him isn't all that energising for me. In fact, it can be draining. It can be hard work. But I don't want to, and I shouldn't just abandon him. And in the same way, I wouldn't want people to abandon me if I was going through a difficult time. 

So on the one hand, I'd say, yes, spend more time with positive people. That will be good for you. But don't neglect, or say don't just abandon family or friends who might be struggling and whose difficulties might bring you down a bit because supporting them, even though it can be difficult at times, it's an important part of being a good person, I suppose.

Adrian: So I suppose that spending time with somebody who might be experiencing low mood or anxiety or so forth, that also can give you meaning and purpose, can't it?

Timothy: Yes, exactly. And we know that. So helping others is a form helping ourselves, in a sense. So doing good is a way of feeling good. 

Adrian: Yeah, exactly. So are you telling me that more money, that brand new shoes, that brand new car is not going to make us happy?

Timothy: Yes and no. Again, it's not that simple. Look, there's nothing inherently wrong with working hard or doing whatever's required to make more money, and there's nothing inherently wrong with enjoying the purchases of a new car or new shoes or whatever, new gadgets. But what we definitely know from the research is that the return on investment, so to speak, when it comes to happiness, is nowhere near as great as we think it will be. 

Now, I'll just separate the two, the money from the material possessions. When it comes to material possessions, again, there's nothing wrong with that. But what we know from the research, and in fact, what most of us know from experience, if we just reflect back and think about it for a bit, is that when we get something new, it's kind of cool and it can be fun and it can be really enjoyable. But the benefits tend to tail off pretty quickly. And by that, I mean that within a few, depending on what it is and depending on how you are, within days or weeks or maybe months, it kind of loses some of its power. It loses some of its shine. So those cool new shoes just become shoes. That brand new smartphone is no longer a brand new smartphone. In fact, it becomes obsolete within a year or so because there's a newer version.

Adrian: Absolutely.

Timothy: So, if we're focusing on happiness, if we're focusing on living a good life, they don't give nearly as much benefit as we often think. And it's same with money. More money actually does lead to more happiness, but nowhere near as much as we think it does. So the idea that money can't buy happiness, it's actually not true. It does, but only a tiny bit.

Adrian: Okay.

Timothy: And it adds less and less value the more and more wealthy you are. So, for example, if we were to take someone below the poverty line, someone who's really struggling to, say, pay the bills or put food on the table or pay rent or whatever. If you were to give that person more money, they would actually become significantly happier because you are removing a significant stressor. But as you move up and up the wealth scale, and as you get above what different researchers have called “enough,” so above what might be considered the average income or the average amount of wealth, and look, that varies. Different people will define that differently.

And it varies from, from study to study. But the further up that scale you get, the less your money buys, in a sense. So it's like a law of diminishing returns. As you get wealthier and wealthier, your money buys less and less happiness. Now, it still buys some, but the equation then shifts to, well, what's going to give you the biggest bang for your buck, in a sense? And again, as you move up that scale, there are other factors that will give you a significantly greater return, and those factors are the ones we talked about, particularly the quality of your relationships. So we've all heard stories that you can have $1 million, $10 million, $100 million, but if you are lonely, if you've got no friends, you've got no love in your life, is that really a quality of life that you want? So the quality of relationships is probably far more important than the amount of dollars in your bank once you get above a certain amount. 

And then the other big one, actually, is our physical health and wellbeing. I mean, again, you can have all the money in the bank, but if you are sick and dysfunctional in some way, that's not really going to serve much of a purpose. So, again, once you have "enough," and again, we'll all define that differently, I suppose, there are other ways that we probably should be spending our time if happiness is our goal. 

Adrian: Okay. So we've talked, obviously, as psychologists, there's the counselling and the interventions that we provide there. What about anti-depressants? Do they make us happy?

Timothy: So you're talking about the traditional psychiatric medications that are prescribed?

Adrian: Yeah. The pharmaceutical. Yes. Because they're called anti-depressants. They're not called pro-happiness pills, are they? They're called...

Timothy: Exactly. Well, so the reason I clarify that is, so I would argue that the most potent antidepressant available is exercise. Maybe that's a different debate, we'll come back to that later. 

If you're talking about the medications that are traditionally described by GPs or psychiatrists, etc., then in a sense, I think you've already answered this, which is in a simple answer is no, they don't necessarily make you happier. They might make you less distressed. But this is actually one of the fundamental aspects of positive psychology. This is one of the fundamental mistakes, I suppose, that positive psychology has tried to remedy. 
Even traditional clinical psychology approaches, so we look at CBT, for example, CBT was predominantly focused on minimising distress or treating depression. But one of the things that we worked out fairly quickly is that even if we treat depression effectively through whatever means, treating depression doesn't necessarily promote happiness, or even alleviating anxiety doesn't necessarily promote happiness. They're not exactly the same thing. Now, obviously, if you remove a significant amount of depression from someone's life, that's a good thing, but it's not necessarily the same as promoting happiness. 

And if you were to think about the average person and their moods on a scale of minus 10 to plus 10, where minus 10 was major depressive disorder, serious anxiety disorder, etc., and plus 10 was joy, happiness, etc. Traditionally, many people would walk into my office at minus 10, minus 9, minus 8, whatever, my goal would be to get them back to zero. No longer depressed. Once they got to zero, I was pretty much trained to say, "See you later. My job is done. You are no longer depressed. You no longer have those symptoms of major depressive disorder or the anxiety disorder or whatever." 

But again, a lot of people will question, "Well, is that really enough? Are we really doing the best job we could? Sure, zero is better than minus nine, but why stop there?" And that's where positive psychology came in and said, "Well, okay, helping someone go from minus 10 to zero is a great start. That's fantastic. And we should never underestimate the significance of that achievement. But what if we could then help them go from zero to positive 10?" Or at least...

Adrian: Yes.

Timothy: I mean, no one's going to be at positive 10 all the time, obviously, but at least to be in a positive 9 or 8 or 7 more often. So, again, to come back to your question, antidepressant medications, aren't really designed to make people happier. They're kind of designed and used to make people less distressed. 

Adrian: I mean, yeah, you're right. I suppose if they do work, they're helping people go from minus 10 to zero, as opposed from zero to 10. So I suppose what you're saying kind of fits really well with a lot of naturopathic and integrated principles. Because what they're often trying to achieve is not about reducing disease, but it's about promoting health. And obviously, when you go see your GP, it's, "I've got this wrong with me. Can you take this problem away from me?" But seeing your GP is not necessarily about, "I feel pretty good, but I want to feel even better." And that's not the approach that's generally taken even from a more medical-based approach. So this kind of fits really well with them.

Timothy: Oh, definitely. And I think you've hit nail on the head, that it's not just clinical psychology. And I don't mean to be critical of clinical psychology. I spent a significant portion of my career there and it was incredibly satisfying and it's a much-needed profession that does fantastic work. But I do feel, traditionally, it's sort of fallen short a bit. And I'm extremely appreciative and a strong advocate of the slightly more modern positive psychology approach to extend that above and beyond what is traditionally done. But, again, it's not just clinical psychology. 

Adrian: Yeah.

Timothy: So our medical system is not a health system at all. It's a sickness system, as you quite rightly pointed out. And I think that's a major, major problem. So many wellness practitioners, to use that broad term, you're right, have been much more interested in health than our traditional system has. And I - I’m probably preaching to the converted here - I think many of the listeners would agree. I think we could all benefit from a system that focused more on health and wellness than just on sickness. I mean, that's not to say we should forget about sickness. Of course, we need to address that, but a greater focus on, well, on health and wellness and on prevention would I think make a massive difference in many, many ways.

Adrian: Now, I've heard you mention that happiness is something that you CHOOSE, and CHOOSE being an acronym. Can you tell us a bit about this CHOOSE acronym and what it all means?

Timothy: Yeah, I can. And, look, we've already touched on most of these components, so I'll run through it fairly briefly. So as you said, well, CHOOSE is both a philosophy, the way I use it in this context, both a philosophy of, I guess, of taking responsibility. And I think this is something, again, I imagine many of the listeners would agree with. We all need to be responsible for our health and wellbeing. We need to make it a priority and do what we can, not just be sort of passive recipients of what the world gives us, I suppose. So it is that sort of positive philosophy of being responsible and being proactive, but it's also, as you said, an acronym that stands for six key strategies that we've pretty much touched on and all of which have been supported by the research.

So CHOOSE starts with C obviously. C stands for clarity. And by that, I mean, having clear values, life goals, clear priorities, knowing what's really important, which means knowing what to say yes to in life, but also, I suppose, knowing what to say no to. So setting and working towards clear and meaningful goals, we know is a very positive strategy that has positive benefits. Focusing on the values that are important to you within that we know is also a positive strategy with positive benefits. So that's the first aspect of CHOOSE, is being clear about who you are, what's important to you, what you want to do to live and what you need to do to live a good, healthy life. 

That might sound a bit obvious, but unfortunately, not enough people give enough thought to that, I think. Many people just sort of stumble through life and they might trip over happiness every now and then if they're lucky, but they don't actively create it or actively choose it by being clear about those sorts of things. And I think many people, if nothing else, many people could benefit from that first step.

Adrian: It's often a question that if you ask somebody, they can't answer that, can they? What's your direction, what's your life purpose? They just don't know the answer to that.

Timothy: I know. And it probably shouldn't anymore, but it still surprises me. I do a lot of public speaking and corporate speaking and I sometimes ask this question, “If I had a magic wand and I could wave the magic wand and make you all happier, how many people would want to be happier?” And not surprisingly, 99 out of 100 hands go up. What I then say is, “How many of you actually have a happiness plan?” And depending on the audience, you might get anywhere from 5%, maybe up to 10% or 20%, but it's still usually a fairly small minority. And so, what that says to me is everyone wants to be happier and healthier, but very few people are making or creating a clear plan to achieve that.

Now, we know in other areas of life, that planning is important. If people want to get fitter and stronger, they need an exercise plan or a dietary plan. Or if people want to create more wealth, they need a financial plan. Well, it's no different here. Without that clarity, it's very hard to achieve. And again, it's a relatively simple thing that many people could benefit a lot more from. 

Adrian: Okay.

Timothy: And that sort of encapsulates all the other bits because the next five strategies will then, I suppose, become part of that plan. So the second letter is obviously H, which stands for healthy living. Now, I touched on this earlier. I don't really even like to differentiate between physical health and psychological health and wellbeing. But that being said, it kind of makes the discussion easier if we do in a way, because that's how most people think about it.

So what I'm talking about here in the H are things like, well, I've already talked about this, exercise, diet, and one thing we haven't actually touched on is sleep. They're the pillars of healthy living. Sounds bloody obvious, sounds like common sense, but again, I'm sure many of your listeners know, so few people do it well. We know that a lot of people just don't exercise enough, they don't eat well enough, they don't get enough sleep. And so, they are literally sick and tired most of the time. It's a major, major problem. 

We know in Australia, for example, I think the last study I said, less than 10% of Australians, I think, ate the recommended amounts of fruit and vegetables every day. Something like 80% of people report being tired on a daily basis because they don't get enough sleep. So, these are basic building blocks of health that are just not prioritised as much as they could or should be. And yet, if we do do these things, they're fantastically useful for our health and wellbeing. We've got more energy to do what we want to do. And if we do more of what we want to do, we can be happier and more satisfied in life.

Adrian: Absolutely.

Timothy: So that's what, yeah, so we've got the clarity, C, you've got the H is for healthy living. The first of the O’s stands for optimism which, again, study after study shows is super important and one of the most important contributors to happiness and wellbeing. Now, just to clarify here, I'm not talking about "positive thinking." Real optimism, when psychologists use the term, it is about being positive to a point. There is a very strong element of positivity within optimism, but the important difference here, and this really is an important difference, is that when I talk about, or when psychologists talk about optimism, there is a positivity, but it's grounded in reality. And where unfortunately sometimes the positive thinking movement shoots itself in the foot, so to speak, is if it's unrealistic. Unrealistic positive thinking can be just as bad as negative thinking. Because if you're unrealistically positive and you set yourself up for failure, well, that just leads to disappointment and frustration.

So that's really important to keep in mind. Optimism's super important. There's no doubt about it. People that are optimistic are not just happier, but they're healthier, they live longer, they have better quality relationships, etc. But for that optimism to work, as I said, it's got to be grounded in reality. And what that means is, it's not about denying the reality of real problems in the real world. There are real problems in the real world. We all know that. Real optimists don't deny that. They don't bury their head in the sand, but they face up to that. They face up to the cold, hard realities, but in a constructive way. And that's really, really important. 

The second O then is about others. It's about remembering that real happiness is not the same as selfishness. It's not narcissism, it's not just sort of, again, about me, me, me. It's about my wife, my children, my family, my friends, my colleagues. It's about all those other people in my life, my community, or communities, I suppose, the different communities of which I'm a part. All of those things are really, really important. And we know that, again, one of the myths about happiness is that we've just got to be selfish and take care of our own needs. Well, that's not true at all. Really happy people have more and better quality relationships. They're also more generous, more altruistic, more giving, more caring. So that's really, really important as well.

And then the S, well, we've already touched on the S as well. That's about the strengths-based approach. As I said, we all have weaknesses, we all have faults and failings, and if we can fix them, well, that's self-development, that's self-improvement, and that's a good thing. So if I'm aware of my faults and failings and my weaknesses and I can do something about it, then great. Well, we shouldn't focus all of our efforts there. In addition to that, I should also be thinking about and might encourage you and all of our listeners to think about, not just what am I bad at and how can I fix it, but what am I good at and how can I make the most of that?

Adrian: Yes.

Timothy: So identifying my psychological strengths. And here, I'm talking about things like curiosity, love of learning, humour, loving and being loved, leadership, social intelligence, etc., etc. There's a number of different systems that we use for this. But if we could identify our psychological strengths and attributes, and then find ways to use these as often as possible in as many areas of our life as possible, we know that that has massive benefits. So people that do that are happier and more successful, particularly in the workplace. There's a really effective strategy in the workplace. We know that strengths-based organisations tend to be more effective, more productive, more profitable than comparable organisations on almost every measure. 

And then the final letter of CHOOSE is E, which is about enjoying the moment. That's about remembering, I suppose that, well, I don't know about you, but I fall victim sometimes of taking life and taking myself too seriously.

Adrian: Yeah.

Timothy: Now, life is serious and life is important, and we all have responsibilities, and I think all of our listeners have important jobs they're doing. And it's fantastic that they're up and they're doing those important jobs, but it's important to not forget about fun and play and laughter. Again, although that might sort of sound frivolous at times, it's actually really important. Those things fuel us, they energise us. So just remembering to play a bit, to have fun, not forgetting that inner child, so to speak, and knowing that those things will add zest and energy to our lives, which will then pay off in other areas is really important. So it's about being grateful and enjoying the pleasures in life, which can then actually help you do all those other things. So that's the CHOOSE acronym. And I said we've sort of covered that in different ways throughout the discussion so far.

Adrian: And just that last one, there's probably research showing in terms of... I don't know the research specifically, but in terms of laughing and what effect laughing has on us physiologically. And I agree with you. We need to not take life so seriously all the time, and sometimes we need to just kind of do those things that just make us feel good and have fun and be in the moment, which also includes the mindfulness-based stuff too. Doesn't it?

Timothy: Well, exactly. Definitely. There's a bucket load of research looking at laughter, looking at play, looking at fun. I mean, all of these things foster creativity and innovation. So we know that laughter, for example, when we're laughing, there are natural chemicals released within our neurotransmitters that are released within our bodies and our brains that actually promote positive feelings and happiness, etc. But what people sometimes forget about is that when we are laughing, not always, but more often than not, when we're laughing, having fun, who are we...? We're with other people. So it's actually a potent form of connection. It's a great way to connect and to foster and forge deep relationships with others. And as I've talked about a lot, those deep relationships with others are vitally important for health and wellbeing. So fun and play are not frivolous. If they connect us with others, if they add to the quality of our relationships with others, then as I said a few times, that's just so, so important.

Adrian: Yeah, absolutely. Just one other thing, I know that you mentioned strengths and I know that there's some questionnaires that people can kind of… I'm sure this will be of interest to some of our listeners. So strengths questionnaires, is there something that you recommend in terms of questionnaire to help identify strengths?

Timothy: Yeah, there are. There's a couple that are available, and they're all sort of good in different ways, I suppose. So for example, well there's one called the Gallup StrengthsFinder, which is, I suppose, a more corporate model, which is a fantastic model but you have to pay for it. And it's, again, it's a bit more sort of corporate language. 

The one that I usually recommend, partly because it's free but also because it's very well researched, it's got a massive database, I think it has several million people in their database that have added to the research behind this, it's called the VIA Signature Strength Survey. So if anyone goes out there and searches for that, just VIA Signature Strength Survey, you'll find your way to a website. And as I said, is totally free and you can use it yourselves. In fact, I'd recommend you use yourself. It only takes about 20 minutes, but it's a great investment of your time. 

So, again, what you get at the end of that - and you can use this either yourself or your clients - is that effectively you get a report. So in this particular model, in the VIA model, there are 24 strengths. And essentially, what it does is it will rank your strengths from 1 to 24. So it will tell you after you've filled out all the questions what your top strengths are down to your 24 strengths. So, again, that's fantastically useful. And then what it's up to you to then do is to go away and think about or talk to your clients about how can you use those strengths at work, at home, with your friends, with your family? How can you use them as often as possible? And the more you do that, the more benefits you get. 

But let me just clarify one point then because one of the mistakes people make, people go there and they do that and they get the report and might think, "This is fantastic." But a lot of people, because of the way we've often been trained, because of the way a lot of other psychological surveys work, they'll go straight down to the bottom and look at 24 or 23 and think, "Oh, that's what I'm no good at." Now, that's not true. This questionnaire doesn't measure what you're not good at. It only measures what you are good at. So even 24, 23, 22, they're still strengths. They're still strengths that you have. All it means is that for whatever reason, as well, for a variety of reasons, the ones up the top one, two, three, four, five, whatever, they're things that come more naturally to you. Things that you more naturally tend towards. And so, the easiest place to start is with those top ones. 

So start with your top three or four or five and say, "Okay, these are things I'm already really good at,” things you're probably already using. "How can I use them more or better or whatever?" But there's no reason why you can't, if for whatever reason you choose to go to number 10 or 15 or whatever it might be and say, "I really want to improve my kindness strength, or I really want to improve my love of learning," whatever it is. There's no reason why you can't choose any of those. Because this is one of the good things we know from the research now is that even though there are some strengths that we are kind of naturally drawn to, that we are naturally good at, we can, if we so choose, improve any of them. It's kind of like you would go to the gym, for example. And if I go to the gym, I could build up my biceps or my shoulder muscles or my leg muscles. Well, we can go to the "strengths gym" and build up any of those signature strengths if we so choose, effectively just by practice and training.

Adrian: All right. So I love that that CHOOSE acronym that you've used, and I think I'll just summarise it. So it's just the C is for clarity. So I suppose if practitioners are listening, when I'm working with my clients, am I working on clarity in terms of direction and life purpose? H is for healthy living, which definitely, our practitioners are really working towards, and from exercise, diet, nutrition, sleep point of view. O is for optimism. What am I doing to help enhance optimism? Others is the relationship, S is for strengths. Are we building on people's strengths and helping them identify those strengths? And then E is the enjoying in the moment. 
So I think it's a really great way for practitioners to look at, when they're working with clients, thinking about that CHOOSE approach and then going, "Okay, which bits am I, maybe need to concentrate a bit more on, or particularly need to work on with a particular client? Which bit am I neglecting?" And really helping them to guide their interventions accordingly. So it's great. Thanks for that.

Timothy: Yeah. And just to add to that at a slightly different level, I've used, and I encourage people to use that within the therapy context itself. For example, one of the things that I started to do more and more towards the latter part of my career, I suppose, was to try and make therapy fun and enjoyable.

Adrian: Yeah.

Timothy: Now, that might sound a bit strange in a way, because often people are coming in significantly depressed or anxious and, again, it is a serious endeavour and I don't want to detract from that at all. But we know that people learn better when they're in a fun environment. People learn better if it's enjoyable, if we can make it playful. So, again, without detracting from the seriousness of what many of the listeners are doing, and it is serious work, if you can make it fun or if you can find a way to integrate fun or play into the therapeutic strategies, that's only going to enhance the strategies and hopefully enhance the benefits.

Adrian: All right. Well, Tim, we could go forever. I mean, this has been a great conversation. Certainly, thank you for being with us to talk about happiness and positive psychology. Certainly, happiness can sometimes be a bit elusive, especially when we have that mindset of, “When I accomplish this or when I do that, then I'll be happy.” But as you reminded us today, happiness seems like it really comes down to being able to identify and appreciate the things that make life worth living. And that's going to be very different for all of us. 

So I think this discussion we've had today is really helpful, not only for our personal lives, for people in terms of applying to them personally, but also in their practices as well. And since natural health practitioners care for the whole person, not just what they're eating or how much sleep they're getting, it fits really well. Thank you very much for our conversation today.

Timothy: Oh, thanks for having me. And, yeah, like I said, I do hope the listeners have found it helpful in some small way.

Adrian: All right. So, thanks, everyone, for listening today. Don't forget that you can find all the show notes, transcripts, and other resources from today's episode on the FX Medicine website. I'm Dr. Adrian Lopresti, and thanks for joining us. We'll see you next time.


About Dr. Tim Sharp

Dr. Sharp has three degrees in psychology (including a Ph.D.) and an impressive record as an academic, clinician and coach. He established and ran one of Sydney’s most respected clinical psychology practices, a highly regarded Executive Coaching practice, and is the founder & CHO (Chief Happiness Officer) of The Happiness Institute, Australia’s first organisation devoted solely to enhancing happiness in individuals, families and organisations. He’s taught at all the major universities in NSW and has been an Adjunct Professor (in Positive Psychology) within the School of Management, Faculty of Business at UTS as well as an Adjunct Professor in the School of Health Sciences, RMIT. His primary area of interest is enhancing happiness at work including building positive cultures, developing positive leadership and boosting resilience, optimism and positive working relationships.

Dr. Sharp is also a best-selling author (of, among other things, “The Happiness Handbook”, “100 Ways to Happiness: a guide for busy people” and “100 Ways to Happy Children: a guide for busy parents”) and a sought after public speaker. He’s appeared in several nationally screened prime-time TV shows & he continues to make frequent appearances in the local and international media (including Sunrise, Today, The Morning Show, The Daily Edition, Prevention Magazine, the Herald Sun, Women’s Health, the SMH and the AFR).


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The information provided on FX Medicine is for educational and informational purposes only. The information provided on this site is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional advice or care. Please seek the advice of a qualified health care professional in the event something you have read here raises questions or concerns regarding your health.

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Dr Adrian Lopresti

Dr. Adrian Lopresti is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice and senior researcher at Murdoch University, Western Australia. He has over 20 years of clinical experience working with children and adults suffering from a range of mental health conditions.

Dr. Lopresti has experience in a range of psychological therapies and has received extensive training in nutritional and lifestyle treatments for mental-health disorders. Dr. Lopresti regularly publishes in peer-reviewed and high-impact journals on the effects of diet, nutraceuticals, sleep, and exercise for the treatment and prevention of depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and bipolar disorder. He has completed several clinical trials investigating the effects of curcumin, saffron, and ashwagandha for the treatment of anxiety and depression in children and adults. Dr. Lopresti is also the founder of Personalised Integrative Therapy, and regularly conducts educational workshops both nationally and internationally.