Breadcrumbs

At the University of Waikato the serious business of happiness and wellbeing is thriving in teaching and research.

It is following an international trend that saw Harvard’s Positive Psychology paper become the University’s most popular course of all time. In New Zealand you know when the Treasury gets involved things have become quite serious indeed, so the work to define wellbeing measures this year has been pivotal. The happiness of the nation is being gauged, ahead of the Government’s Budget 2019, with its wellbeing focus.

Waikato’s Associate Professor Robert Isler says positive psychology is a new pathway, and perceptions are changing. “Happiness was considered shallow, and people believed that real research should be on deficits and negative emotions, such as anxiety and depression. But now we’re moving to strength and flourishing, and not just in clinical populations.”

Dr Robert Isler.

His Positive Psychology paper has gone from about 30 students last year, to more than 90 students this year. The course is flourishing and helping to develop the happiness and wellbeing field across the wider University. Dr Isler is very clear the subject should not be dumped in with the money-making industry where it is so very easy to sell things like ‘5 Steps To Happiness’. “The science of wellbeing and how to achieve it is becoming very precise. We’re looking at flourishing mental states, and concrete measures of wellbeing and resilience.” A positive equivalent of the traditional Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), which describes and categorizes mental disorders, is being developed.

The science of wellbeing and how to achieve it is very thorough and precise. We’re looking at the question what makes life worth living,  flourishing mental states, and concrete measures of wellbeing and resilience.


In another part of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences a collegial critique is happening. Dr Dan Weijers describes himself as a fan of positive psychology, but as a philosopher it is his role to pull theories apart and, with his students, investigate their origins and implications. He’s teaching  Happiness and Wellbeing, another course that has drawn a lot of interest.  Dr Weijers says that enrollments were high straight away, relative to other philosophy courses. “When I talk to people and say I’m a philosopher, they usually turn to leave. But when I said wait, I work on happiness, they come right back. Lots of people are very interested. Why wouldn’t they be?”

Dr Dan Weijers.

Defining happiness, Dr Weijers opts for the simplest version: happiness is feeling good and not feeling bad.  The first thing he does in his paper is try to differentiate between happiness and wellbeing. The words are used in a myriad of ways, often interchangeably. “Wellbeing I take to mean the good life for the one living it. It is really the ultimate thing that people should want for themselves, if they care about themselves.”

Other philosophers will often define the ‘good life’ as a morally good life, or a meaningful life, or knowing the truth, having friends and appreciating beauty. Dr Weijers is asking his students to think very carefully about these ideas, and consider how they define the good life for themselves. The next challenge is to ask whether that is the same for everyone. “I give students the tools and opportunity to critique different theories, and test out various positive psychological interventions, designed to help people flourish. At the same time I get them to think critically about how positive psychology works, or is supposed to work, and the implications for the wider society.”

Back to the happiness industry, and Dr Weijers is aware of the weaknesses in positive psychology, and cautious about it being wielded in a clumsy way. ”I  think we should be careful. Self-help books may be useful for some people, but now we have effectively got a science of happiness it would be a real shame if those books weren’t based on the science. Sometimes authors think they don’t need science and can just rely on magical secrets. At it’s best we can use the science of positive psychology to dispel myths, and start to more clearly define and pursue happiness and a good life.”


Dr Jordan Waiti riding a wave.

For Dr Jordan Waiti happiness is embodied in surfing. He is very connected to the physical world, and is taking his students in Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Health and Wellbeing out of the classroom and into nature with him. One of the key things he wanted to it introduce to the course was a practical component. “So we’re not just doing theory for the whole semester, we’re putting some of that theory into practice outside. We spend a day or two out at Raglan doing various activities, surfing, planting trees, organic gardening, and really getting out into the environment.”

Dr Waiti says a lot of the western philosophical and psychological approaches apply to Māori, but there are added layers. In Te Ao Māori happiness is also about having the opportunity to reaffirm identity through participating in cultural activities, and accessing areas of cultural significance. “Like walking up your own mountain. It reaffirms our links to those landmarks. For some Māori, especially those living away from their tribal boundaries, heading home to their tūrangawaewae at the weekend promotes positive feelings, going back to reaffirm your links with your family. Being a kanohi kitea is important - having your face seen back in your tribal area.” And spirituality is a big element of Māori happiness and wellbeing. “Making opportunities to experience that sense of indigenous spirituality. So again, going back to our tūrangawaewae gives us a connection to our ancestors, our Māori gods, and opportunities to reaffirm our cultural customs.”

Is there a difference between Māori and western wellbeing and happiness?

I think the main difference is probably the strong emphasis on reaffirming and reclaiming our identity as Māori, which involves a number of cultural concepts. Our identity in terms of our iwi, our people, and those who have passed on.


Most people spend more hours at work every day than they do with friends or family, or even sleeping. There is growth in the older workforce, with more people 75+ staying on in jobs. So if you start working when you are about 25 years old, and finish at 75, you will spend 50 years of your life at work. Dr Maree Roche is looking at how that can be a happier experience, and how to foster positive organisations and leaders.

If you’re spending your day at work thinking ‘gee I can’t wait to get home’ you’re actually wasting your life.

Dr Maree Roche.

We tend to think that our default state is happiness. But it is not that simple. Actually we are more psychologically wired for fight or flight, says Dr Roche. Our default state is the opposite of positive. Therefore to flourish at work, we have to work much harder to be positive. “There needs to be a number of changes in the workforce. Firstly, it is about enhancing the wellbeing and mindsets of workers themselves. Flourishing at work is not just about the individual - work is also a social environment. The biggest influencers are organisational leaders." According to Dr Roche it is not just about how people create their own positivity, the focus also needs to be leaders. "Not because they’re special, but because a leader's mood is contagious throughout an organisation. Leaders negative moods and bad behaviour are even more contagious, because bad is stronger than good. So, to focus on positive leadership is not about focusing on something that feels nice and special and is not important. It is actually central for the organisation that leaders themselves have the right mindset to encourage positivity throughout the organisation.”

University of Waikato - a beautiful work environment can contribute to happiness.

Research shows happy workers are 12% more productive, and there are a slew or other statics that indicate wellbeing makes a concrete difference to organisations' bottom lines. There is a business case for positivity at work, which companies and governments internationally are increasingly acknowledging. And the trickle down theory really is in action. But research shows leaders sleep less, have greater family conflict and depression, greater interactions with things like phones out of work, greater stress. Not a pretty picture if you’re the boss. But Dr Roche says leaders are generally not resourced to flourish.

Anything we do with leaders that is positive is powerful because they are providing the context and the culture in which we work.


Dr Barbour and students.

Ask an artist what happiness is and a key component is likely to be taking part in the art form they love. In Theatre Studies and Dance, Associate Professor Karen Barbour is putting happiness into practice. She says in teaching dance, wellbeing is always an underlying theme. “It is inherent in the way the arts allow us to express personal and cultural identity, experience a sense of community, find our own voices and build confidence.”

In her Community Dance paper happiness and wellbeing are explicit as well as implicit.  Dr Barbour and her students are quite deliberately working with themes of holistic health, inclusion and community, and respect for diversity.  She says the idea also applies to people who play sport, run or walk together, and enjoy having family time together. “That’s the real joy of people moving together. And of course it stimulates your endorphins, helps balance hormones, and is a very real physiological experience. In this sense, happiness can certainly be found through dance and movement.”


For some performers the joy of dance can also be tortuous; going to extreme lengths to gain and maintain physical and aesthetic ideals. Dr Barbour says in Community Dance the process and the experience of working with other people is more important. “There are quite a lot of harrowing experiences that people have in the professional world, producing shows for audiences who never know about what has gone on behind the scenes. I care that the overall experience for dancers is positive, and does no harm.”

When Dr Barbour teaches she dances with her students, and when she talks about the subject she loves, her body has a subtle movement that complements her words.  “Wellbeing is about having some kind of flow, a kind of dynamic balance for me, and dance is the best way of experiencing that. When I am feeling well, I am physically active, emotionally receptive, intellectually challenged, and  spiritually aware. Moving with other people is the definition of happiness for me.”


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