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Afterglow, Altruism and Adventure

09 May 2011 | Dr Chris Johnstone

Afterglow is the type of happiness you experience after having done something you feel good about. It is more durable than pleasure, which tends to wear off soon after stopping, or having too much of, whatever it is you enjoy. When you've done something especially important to you, like succeeding in an area you've been struggling with, helping a friend in a way that really makes a difference or dealing well with a difficult situation, this can leave a warm inner glow of contentment still felt months, or even years, later. My top tip for happiness is to understand about afterglow and then find ways to seek it out.

In his book Authentic Happiness, positive psychologist Martin Seligman describes setting his students two pieces of homework.  The first was to engage in a pleasurable activity and then write about this afterwards. The second was to perform an act of kindness, an altruistic act that helped someone or something else, and then write about this too. For some of Seligman's students, the experience of this simple pair of assignments was life changing. While the pleasurable activities did feel good, their effects were short-lived. In contrast, after altruistic acts students often felt their whole day went better. Their experience of afterglow led them to question their assumptions about what happiness is based on.

A common assumption powerfully reinforced by advertising is that happiness is based on having the right things in our lives. 'If only I had … ,  then I'd be happy', so the thinking goes, with our picture of happiness linked to the key items we long for. Yet we can probably all think of people who had a full house of the things people often want, like success, good looks, talent, money and fame, yet who ended up feeling completely miserable. Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson are two examples. They remind us that having what we want is not nearly as important as wanting what we have. What's interesting about afterglow though is that it isn't much linked to what we have. It grows more strongly out of what we give.

One group of people who consistently score highly on happiness scales are those volunteer for causes they have their heart in. When people give their time, energy and focussed attention to others, they receive the benefits of improved relationships and a strengthening of the feeling that life is worthwhile. When we contribute to something larger than ourselves, it places our lives in a larger landscape of meaning. It is through inhabiting stories bigger than the quest for personal gain that we discover the richness of purpose in life. And it is through contributing to the purposes we're most moved by that we generate the strongest forms of afterglow.

There's a problem though when we're aware of areas where we'd love to make a difference, but we can't see how or it seems beyond our power. Having a desire to contribute but no pathway to fulfil this can seem like a blind alley leading only to frustration. The repeated experience of wanting to do something but not being able to drains enthusiasm and lowers mood. Yet while powerlessness is a known risk factor for depression, it is possible to learn ways to turn this feeling around. What helps here is something I call 'the journey approach to change'.

Nearly all great adventure stories begin by presenting the central characters with what seems like an impossible challenge. Whatever the task, whatever the need identified, success doesn't seem likely. But what makes the story is the way our central characters aren't put off. They rise to the challenge, and in doing so, find strengths previously hidden from view. These kind of stories have been told for thousands of years, not just for entertainment, but also because they teach us valuable lessons about how to face difficulties and find satisfaction in life. A theme that recurs again and again is that if the challenge seems too much to face, don't give up; instead begin the journey of looking for a way.

The journey approach to change sees each challenge as a starting point, the beginning of an adventure. If it seems too difficult, a useful principle of creativity is 'first what, then how'. First we decide what to aim for, then we look for how to move that way. If no way is visible, we begin the journey of looking for one. We can think of this as 'the preparation stage of change', where we seek out allies, skills, resources and insights that help us move forward. 

What we're mapping out here is a sequence that leads to afterglow. First we identify a need, an issue that calls for our response. Then we rise to the occasion, we face the challenge. Doing this absorbs our attention and draws out our strengths. When we're struggling, it is helpful to remember that the deepest satisfactions tend not to be those that come most easily. There's often a journey involved that travels through periods of frustration, disappointment and difficulty. But if we think of the times in our lives we feel most satisfied with, they are nearly always the product of perseverance and determination.

What helps us stick with these journeys and not give up? A learnable skill is appreciative gaze, where we look back at each day and identity the steps we've taken that we feel good about. If we can't find any, plan some. What we do today or tomorrow will soon be yesterday. And if we approach each day with the question 'what step can I take today that I'll feel good about tomorrow?', we generate memories that add to the warmth of afterglow.

As a society we've taken a massive wrong turn by seeking personal gain and short-term pleasure in ways that create a disaster for us all in the long-term. What I love about Action for Happiness is that it looks at how we can flourish in ways that can last. That's why I'm pleased to join.



Dr Chris Johnstone is a specialist in the psychology of resilience, happiness and positive change. He is author of Find Your Power - a toolkit for resilience and positive change (2nd Ed, Permanent Publications, 2010) and co-presenter of The Happiness Training Plan CD. www.chrisjohnstone.info


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