As we emerge from lockdown, maximizing the potential of our summer freedom is top of mind. We are all looking to squeeze as much joy out of the summer as possible.
Making the best of ourselves through all of life’s ups and downs is the goal of The Awesome Project, Louisa Jewell’s new Canadian Audible Original Podcast, available on Audible.ca. Her aim is to help you take your life from good to awesome, and each episode tackles an aspect of how to maximize our well-being, including the role of exercise in well-being, the value of goal-setting, how to cope with difficult people, and how to overcome loneliness. Louisa Jewell is the Founder and President of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association, and she shares the research and science behind the proven strategies that maximize our well-being. I really enjoyed listening to the series, and I so enjoyed talking to her about her new series.
NF: Your podcast felt similar to a Master Class. I walked away with tools and knowledge about each of the episode’s themes. How did you choose the topics? Was it hard to narrow it down?
LJ: I wanted to choose the topics that I thought were the most relevant to well-being, so a lot of those topics are what’s at the heart of well-being. They are also relevant for this time, during the pandemic. I could have added 100 more!
Each episode includes an expert guest as well as a guest with a question to pose or a challenge to face. How did you shape the structure of the episodes?
Audible liked the idea of a guest with an expert. It brought a kind of immediate relevance to the show. Ordinary people who are not immersed in the science of well-being just brought their everyday problems to the show, and we were able to talk about different tools and strategies within the science of well-being and positive psychology to help them. And I loved that the experts were able to hone in on certain strategies right away that were relevant to that guest.
Yes. There was something tangible for the guest, something tangible for the listener, and it kept the format dynamic. One of the things I really admire is that you do use technical language, you do quote research, you don’t talk down to the audience.
There is a lot of science and research that backs up these strategies. We want to give everybody an opportunity to learn and to have this information so that they can be more in control and be more powerful in their ability to manage their own mental health.
I heard a great definition of mental health recently from Dr. Lisa Damour: it is the right feeling at the right time and the resources to cope with the emotion. It is not about feeling happy all the time. Stressful circumstances will cause discomfort. It’s how we cope with emotion that measures our mental health.
I love that definition. I think a lot of what we hear is that we should have a stiff upper lip, and be happy all the time, that you shouldn’t let things shouldn’t bother you. I really disagree. I think that we need to honour our emotions. Have the emotion, honour the emotion, process the emotion, but don’t get stuck there.
What we find in positive psychology is that human beings are propelled by the future, that when we can see a positive future, we are hopeful and motivated to move towards it.
What are some of the mental health challenges that most affect women in midlife?
We do know from the research that happiness levels fluctuate throughout our lives. In general, we are very happy in early childhood, then happiness starts to decline over the years, and it bottoms out at 47.
Happiness research shows that around midlife people are reassessing their lives. They’re now facing their mortality. In your twenties, you’re still thinking you can do everything. When you’re 47 you’re thinking, “If I haven’t done it yet, it’s never going to happen.” I disagree, I think you can start anything at any time, but this is part of what people question as they age.
Happiness starts to rise again after midlife. In our 70s and 80s we’re once again the happiest that we’ve ever been. Some research shows that women have tailored their friend community and weeded out the toxic relationships at that point. They’re surrounding themselves with the best people to bolster their well being.
Women in midlife also become empty nesters. Part of their purpose was wrapped up in raising children, and now the children are gone, and a lot of women who were mothers will ask, “What is my purpose now?”
Divorce is also a factor in midlife, and in one of the episodes, we look at how to grieve the lost future self who was still married.
Women are also twice as likely as men to become depressed. One reason for this gap is that women are more likely to engage in rumination, when you think about something and then you think about it over and over and over again. Overthinking and rethinking. Rumination is one of the top contributors to female depression.
There are many, many techniques that can help stop rumination, and I have a course on my website. I was a gold medalist in rumination, and it really was destroying my life. I did the research and applied all the tools of the science of well-being: practicing self-compassion, understanding self-esteem, understanding how physical activity contributes to wellness, shifting mindset, there are so many tools to help stop ruminating.
There is a great phrase in a Jia Tolentino essay: “always be optimizing.” It suggests that optimizing happiness itself becomes another item on the to do list. How do you resist this kind of productivity imperative in your practice?
Once you learn about the techniques for optimizing well being, they become a process that then becomes habit. When self-compassion becomes the default rather than self-blame, then what happens is that you automatically go to self-compassion and avoid days of ruminating about an event.
There is research that shows that people who focus on being happy all the time are less happy! They’re caught up in asking, “Am I happy? Why not? What’s wrong with me?” They think about it too much. Happiness is just one component of well-being, and if you learn the practices and habits of well-being, they become automatic.
Once you learn the science and learn the practices, you learn to incorporate them into your life without effort. That’s the goal.
There was an essay in the New York Times by Adam Grant that recently went viral about “languishing” during Covid lockdown. He put his finger on something many were feeling.
When we take a look at the research on well-being, in fact many people are languishing. A lot of our focus in psychology has been on mental illness, to help people who are mentally ill, but that’s a smaller percentage of the population. Most of the population is healthy, but when we take look at that healthy population, just because they’re not mentally ill, does not mean that they’re flourishing. A lot of people sit in that languishing zone without knowing how to raise their level of flourishing.
One of the research studies that Adam Grant references suggests that people who went into Covid at higher levels of flourishing actually did not fall into post-traumatic stress disorders. They were buffered against mental illness.
If there’s anything we can learn from this, it’s that learning new techniques and tools and strategies can be an important step for the prevention of certain kinds of mental illness like anxiety and uni-polar depression.
It’s hopeful and empowering to think that we actually can do something to have an effect on our overall health.
As we emerge from lockdown, what comes next?
What I’m hearing is that people don’t want to go back to the way things were. There are a lot of people who do not want to go back to the workplace, and they’ve made it clear to their employers that they can successfully work from home. We found that for some people, their well-being levels actually rose during the pandemic. They didn’t have to commute, they could throw in a load of laundry between zoom calls, which freed up more time on the weekend.
We have the idea of post-traumatic growth: how do you actually grow from an experience? People have identified what they want from their lives, and it’s not necessarily the rat race that we were used to.
I think we will emerge with a greater appreciation for the small things that were taken away.
I think that some people will emerge better than before.
To learn about how to make your own lives better than before, check out the series on Audible.ca.