I had the opportunity to ask Pierre Blockelet, a French psychologist based in Normandie, some questions about happiness, more precisely positive psychology.
Q: How would you describe happiness?
P.B: Well, happiness depends on each individual. It’s different for each one of us. There isn’t a precise and concrete definition to it. It’s diverse and personal. We also have different happiness depending on our age. Even for an individual the definition of happiness changes along with time. I would say that happiness is individual and temporal.
Q: As you point out, a general definition of happiness may not be the most relevant. However, as we notice with positive psychology, the question of happiness is a point of concern for many.
P.B: Yes and that’s an interesting observation. Actually people have the freedom to ponder about what is happiness because they already have their physiological needs met. I refer here to Maslow’s pyramid which suggests that our basic needs are satisfied, people don’t have to worry about starvation, thirst or lack of sleep. But then, whether we are aware of it or not, we are still expecting something else to reach a higher state of wellbeing. At the same time, I don’t want to say that expectation of change is negative. I’m currently working with eldery people who don’t have many hopes for the future. The few years they have left does little to raise their expectations of any improvement in their situations. They don’t have future perspectives. For students and younger generations this is generally different. Their lives can get better and knowing this alone can improve levels of happiness.
Q: Do you think happiness is connected with being hopeful?
P.B: We could say that happiness is the possibility to hope for a state of improvement. However to come back to my first point, we tend to keep waiting. And the younger we are, the more we are waiting for something, for love, for a life change, for a material improvement or something else. So happiness and hope go together and at the same time acceptance is necessary in finding balance.
Q: Let’s talk more precisely about positive psychology. It’s a field which seems to have emerged quite recently, isn’t it?
P.B: Yes, when I studied psychology we didn’t talk much about it. In psychology like in medecine, the urgency is to first treat what is ill, what is severe. Then we can think about wellbeing. Even though, people looking for this can aslo have an abnormal behavior. For instance they may fear that their state of happiness won’t last long and constantly feel anxious. In this case it may be a form of General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) where a background stress is permanent which is abnormal and unhealthy. However, it’s not as serious as some other mental disorders.
Q: Could you explain what is positive psychology about exactly?
P.B: It’s about helping people to have a satisfactory life. Being more content with what they have. You have everything to be happy but you may not be aware of it. Happiness is relative. Someone else in your shoes would probably tell you that he would be really fulfilled. Dissatisfaction is complicated when we think of it as depending on living conditions. But the end of the day it’s more of an internal factor, a way of seeing.
Q: Do you have some advice to improve our wellbeing?
P.B: Get to know yourself. It will help you to be more satisfied and appreciate your life. And thinking ‘I’m not happy because I don’t see what I already have‘ instead of thinking ‘I’m not happy because I miss this’.
Q: I would like to come back to living conditions and the insecurity that comes with life. It’s something that generates stress, fear and un-ease. How could we cope with that insecurity?
P.B: There is a theory that illustrates well this insecure aspect of our lives which is the “cork theory”. Like a cork in the ocean, we can’t control everything, hazard is simply part of our future. To appreciate life we should be like this cork following the movements of the waves. It is accepting this part of uncertainty. There is a nice proverb, Buddhist I think, saying ”If your problem has a solution, then why worry about it? If your problem doesn’t have a solution, then why worry about it? You won’t find one’‘. In my work with elderly people this phrase makes so much sense. Either they accept that their time is limited or they remain dissatisfied, fighting against life’s process. Well, I have an other example. If you think about a ginger-haired guy who doesn’t accept his hair colour he may dye it. He’s hiding his issue but the dissatisfaction remains. A more helpful behavior would be to just accept it.
Q: However when we think about injustices in life, acceptance may not always be the best solution. As a final question, I would like to ask you what do you think about this.
P.B: Yes I agree, acceptance doesn’t mean inhibiting our actions. It’s also important to look for improvements otherwise we would never evolve. We can work on things but without confining ourselves to utopia. If we are too far removed from reality, we will end up being disappointed and dissatisfied. I hope this answers your question.
Q: Yes, it does. Thank you very much. It has been a pleasure to discuss with you. It was a really interesting discussion.
P.B: You’re welcome. It has been a pleasure as well.
Get in contact: Pierre Blockelet