Gonzalo Hervás: “The more daily rituals of enjoyment we have, the better”
MAPFRE is firmly committed to people’s health and well-being, which are closely linked to happiness, which we’re commemorating today on the International Day of Happiness established by the United Nations in 2012. We interviewed Gonzalo Hervás, Professor of Psychology at the Complutense University of Madrid and the former president of the Spanish Society of Positive Psychology, to discuss the search for this universal value and attitudes for working on an optimistic outlook.
What is positive psychology?
Positive psychology is a field that focuses on everything that works well: on our psychological strengths, human strengths and self-strength, on well-being, based on all the processes and qualities that encourage more radiant behaviors that are more positive for society.
Which behaviors are you referring to?
We all know people who stand out in a particular field or behavior: some due to their sense of humor, others due to their strong leadership qualities, others due to their honesty or ability to solve complex problems. These are qualities that grab our attention, that we value greatly, but the workings of which are often little understood. Many people have great strengths that, unfortunately, they don’t put into practice, sometimes because they don’t even know they have them.
What role does mindfulness play in this approach?
It is an attitude to which much closer attention has been paid in recent years, as it reveals many key aspects of how we work psychologically. It basically consists of paying attention to our breathing, to the sensations of our own bodies, to our own mental processes and to being present. All of the above should be approached in a warm and open spirit, free from judgment. One of its advantages is that it can improve mood and increase the well-being of people who are on good form and prevent negative attitudes developing in those who are experiencing difficulties. It can help people to grow, learn more about themselves and how to cope with stress. With practice, in the medium- and long-term, other advantages appear in terms of personality, of empowering “beneficial” traits, such as gratitude or altruism, as well as self-awareness, knowing what one needs and how to make better decisions in life.
“It’s important to be active, to seek solutions to problems and to be prepared so that one problem doesn’t become an even bigger one”
Is there any particular quality that you consider essential for tackling uncertainty?
Interpersonal contact is probably essential to well-being and plays a vital role in adverse and traumatic situations. Relationships are like a balm that allows us to recover sooner. [Physically, as it is currently not always possible in the way we’re used to, we can rely on technology.] It’s good to have relationships in which we can communicate sincerely or discuss our concerns. This lifts a heavy weight off our shoulders, helps us to listen to one another and also to relativize what we call, in colloquial terms, “letting our imagination run wild.” In technical terms the loop or feedback effect between negative affection and distorted thoughts is a well-known phenomenon. We should try to avoid it, for example, by not thinking in bed or by reducing the time we spend isolated at home, or alone. Relationships encourage us to get out and about [going for a walk to get some fresh air, spending the afternoon at a park, etc.] and not to brood over things.
It’s important to be active, to seek solutions to problems and to be prepared so that one problem doesn’t become an even bigger one. Activity greatly facilitates adaptation in situations that, as we are seeing with the pandemic, are constantly changing. We have lived through very different situations, some of which have been dangerous or uncertain, because we needed to remain active. At other times, we have been better protected, but very isolated. Each situation is different, taking away certain things and forcing us to adapt. If we try to experience every situation in the same old way, with the same attitude or using the same inner strategies, it’s only to be expected that things won’t work out for us. It’s good to take a step back, without brooding, and ask what it is that I need, how else can I organize and manage my day-to-day routine, and to try to find a new balance. Of course, there are certain situations that are very complicated and mean that we must seek support.
How is positive psychology different from hyper-positive approaches that reject the existence of emotions such as sadness or anger?
There are times when positive thinking is confused with positive psychology, yet they are two completely different concepts. For example, having a bad day or a few bad days in a row, feelings of sadness, anger or injustice are normal reactions that are justifiable and need to be expressed. It’s true that there are ways of communicating that can be harmful both to ourselves and to others. We need to find the healthiest ways to express ourselves. This is not incompatible with feeling more pleasant emotions: we can feel unhappy but also encourage other kinds of feelings through specific experiences such as making a delicious meal, going for a walk on a sunny day, starting something new and, of course, valuing relationships and moments of contact. It’s a matter of giving space to both aspects.
What we must try to do is not let ourselves be overcome with sadness or hopelessness, because if such emotions overwhelm us for several days in a row, it’s easy to create an emotional miasma that ends up by distorting our thinking. What we perceive appears more threatening than it really is and we see fewer solutions. We feel more tired, weighed down by more difficulties, with less initiative and less chance of finding solutions. And, logically, this comes to dominate our state of mind. We need to pay attention to warning signs such as not sleeping well or having other people tell us that we are a little pessimistic.
“The problem is not having pessimistic thoughts, which can lead to greater protection, but also to having harmful, distorted and pessimistic thoughts that prolong the upset”
Should we take pleasure in small everyday things?
Happiness or psychological well-being is rather complex. It can come from many different sources, such as personal relationships, work, achievements, activities that give meaning to our lives, or enjoyment from leisure activities and how they make us feel like we are learning or evolving. These elements are common to everybody. And then there are others that help us to find better solutions to problems and that give us energy to achieve our goals. Among them, I would highlight daily experiences of enjoyment, which are almost always available to us. Like Amélie in the film (highly recommended!), try enjoying the small things in life: touching the smooth surface of a fabric, or skimming stones along a river and watching how they ricochet. For example, some people really enjoy eating the cheese that gets stuck to pizza boxes. The more rituals of enjoyment we have, the better. Listening to music, looking out of the window, observing a plant, or breathing in the scent of perfume as it spreads over our bodies. There are creative experiences: one person told me that they place their suitcase in their bedroom anything up to a week before leaving for a trip (which is itself a great luxury at the present time!). Every time they enter and leave the room, they remember that they are about to get away and start to relish the experience.
These small moments of enjoyment, just like in the classic TV commercial, are like a drop of detergent that eliminates grease. And they allow you to see things with a bit more distance and objectivity. The problem is not having pessimistic thoughts, which can lead to greater protection, but also to having harmful, distorted and pessimistic thoughts that prolong the upset.
You have created a happiness index. What does it measure and how do you expect it to be used?
The Pemberton Happiness Index is a well-being indicator that aims to bring together all the knowledge we have gathered over the past two decades. We have general indicators (satisfaction in our lives, satisfaction with certain needs that are important to us, well-being in our relationships, a sense of competence or that we are able to solve most of our day-to-day challenges, etc.), but because we are a little like “sponges” and we care about the people around us and our environment, we also include these variables.
What can we expect from both individual and collective efforts, from public authorities and from our leaders so as to become a stronger society?
I believe that everyone in their different responsibilities has their share of influence. Many people do this very well. Children are a great example. I think they show much more responsibility, flexibility and adaptability than adults. They are aware of the importance of the greater good, of following rules, etc. If every person acted in their field more or less like a normal child does, we would see that everything works better. But we prioritize the short-term, following tactics in terms of public opinion, and so on, and acting in a partisan way. We are all witnessing the failure of our political system. Some fields are doing extraordinarily well, such as the health sector. In hospitals or healthcare centers, not only doctors and nurses, but many other professionals are doing a magnificent job in terms of devotion, commitment, responsibility, sacrifice, risk and containment. We can look to these groups and try to emulate them, to make them our role models and, even though we may falter at times, to retain our sense of awareness.
What makes for a healthy organization? How important is positive leadership?
Healthy organizations show how they have invested in terms of effort and resources, on the part of their own managers and executive committees, in order to foster certain attitudes, frameworks and cultures. Now you can see the results. Those who were more protected before the pandemic have been able to weather the storm much better and have been able to tackle its challenges by protecting the well-being of their workforces, knowing how to adapt, lending a hand and maintaining health throughout the company. Of course, this depends on its leaders, those who have been better able to understand and handle the malaise, push forward, keep morale high and project confidence. At an organizational level, more factors are involved: the shared culture and foundation that has gradually been built and is based on trust, horizontal and vertical communication, transparency and clarity in terms of standards, policies and objectives. The care shown by people manifests in countless details and aspects of day-to-day life. Obviously, it’s impossible to be perfect, just like in a family, not everything is all hunky-dory.
How can we help people to overcome a traumatic experience? Can saying “you’ll get over it in the end, time heals all,” and downplaying the problem be counterproductive?
The answer is not very straightforward. Trying to console people can sometimes have the opposite effect. We must ensure that the person suffering feels supported, without resorting to empty phrases that don’t mean anything. Being supportive means being there for the other person and giving them space to talk. Our mission is also to make it as easy as possible for you to enjoy moments of distraction, of course, but when you tell us how you feel, we shouldn’t be nervous or want to run away because we’re beginning to feel your pain. Sometimes we must understand that the other person’s pain has to stay a while, and that is completely natural and inevitable.