Do you have a nagging feeling that you are not fulfilling your potential? That you have much more to offer but are unable to find out how to do this? That you have a sense of what matters to you but cannot express this? That you are torn between where you are and where you want to be?
You are not alone.
I've felt like this for much of my employed life. Even after making significant changes - doing (yet another) degree, joining (yet another) programme, and switching careers - I haven't entirely been able to get rid of this feeling. But it doesn't disturb me as much now because I've found a way of understanding and managing it.
I recognised that these feelings and questions were born inside me. So changing external factors alone was not a sustainable solution, these questions could still come back (and they do!). I also realised these were not entirely about finding success; they were actually about finding happiness. They were about being a better colleague, better manager, better mother, spouse, friend and daughter. They were about being a better and balanced version of myself. So I decided to devote more time to understanding the pattern of my thoughts.
Step 1: becoming aware of the nature and importance of wellbeing
A few years ago I came across this TED talk, in which biochemist turned Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard says, "…somehow, consciously or not, directly or indirectly, in the short or the long term, whatever we do, whatever we hope, whatever we dream -- somehow, is related to a deep, profound desire for wellbeing or happiness." He also makes an important distinction of happiness (which is lasting) from pleasure (which is fleeting).
Professor Martin Seligman, a world-leading researcher in positive psychology, "the scientific study of what makes life most worth living", suggests in his book, Flourish, that we can increase our wellbeing by developing practices that increase the following:
Positive emotion: by developing the ability to view the past, present and future optimistically.
Engagement: by finding activities that utilise our strengths and create a state of 'flow.'
Relationships: by nurturing strong and positive connections.
Meaning: by having a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves.
Accomplishment: by having the belief and developing the ability to achieve goals that matter to us.
This model is widely known as the PERMA model.
Step 2: understanding my current state of wellbeing
I came across Michelle McQuaid's brilliant site packed full of free useful resources on the PERMA model. Here are some of the practical steps I took:
I did the PERMA workplace survey to give me a sense of where I was on these five different aspects. The survey results report had several actionable, evidence-based suggestions for what I could do to improve on specific aspects.
The VIA character strengths survey helped me reflect on my strengths and how I could use them more.
Step 3: making time for deliberate practice
I decided to focus on practices to improve the quality of Positive emotion, Engagement and Relationships in my life and committed to doing them regularly.
Positive emotion - increasing positive emotion by keeping a gratitude diary: at the end of the day I jot down three things I'm grateful for. I have been doing this regularly for a while now, and I find it helps re-centre myself, gives me perspective and a good night's sleep!
Engagement - finding opportunities to use my strength of Creativity: At work, I block out regular thinking-time in my calendar for longer-term projects on a weekly basis. At home, I set my self the goal of learning a new piano piece from Youtube over three months.
Relationships - practising active listening with my son: I noticed that after I picked up my son from the afterschool club and got home in the evenings, I tended to cut short his sentences because I was too pre-occupied with getting him to do his homework, eat dinner, bathe and get ready for bed by 8 pm! This caused him a lot of frustration. I now make an effort to actively listen to what he has to say. I've let go of my perceived need to have him in bed 8 pm. Bedtime is later now, but we are both happier as a result!
Finding time to be present - I spend 10 minutes a day in the morning meditating using the app Headspace. My app tells me that I've clocked 8,000 minutes of mediation over two years. It's not about the hours though, but the quality of the time put in. I have had several days where I've missed a session. When this happens I remind myself that what matters is not that I missed a day, it is that I show up again the next morning.
I still have times when I worry. But these practices provide anchors for me to view life as a whole. They help me clarify what is important, and recognise that while I cannot control everything that happens to me, I can positively influence how I deal with them.
If, like me, you've felt unfulfilled or stretched in multiple directions, think: what is your next step going to be?
I would love to hear about your experiences as you experiment with this approach. Please feel free to share your thoughts and stories with me (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Vijaya is passionate about helping others achieve their potential, which has stoked her interest in positive psychology and its applications. For Onpartu, she designed and delivers a highly praised workshop on Stress Management. Vijaya currently works as Business Planning Manager for an education social enterprise called Mathematics Mastery. Before this she worked for eight years in technology consulting. She is a fellow of the OnPurpose Leadership programme, holds an MBA from the Cranfield School of Management and an undergraduate degree in Electrical and Electronics engineering.