When I first took a closer look at my life I realised that the easiest way to achieve positive change was to divide life into several categories – those that were essential to designing a happy and healthy life. Using an approach of looking at life in categories has the advantage that I could quickly see where I was doing well, and where I needed to focus on. It also helped me to create a life vision – and where I wanted to be vs where I was.
Coming from an academic background, my first step was, of course, to start reading what others had written about this. Unfortunately that wasn’t an easy task, as many people seem to have written about it – claiming some sort of research base – but often never seemed to have gone through rigorous testing, let alone peer-review. There is a whole bunch of different types of “happy life” ideas out there – some more meaningful then others to me. For example, “positive psychologists” developed a threefold idea of happiness: pleasant, engaged and meaningful happiness. This is no doubt a useful way to categorise different types of happiness, but as a concept it didn’t allow me to to analyse my current state, identify areas of my life that needed improving and then define objectives to work on improving my life in those categories.
Other books and articles seemed to focus almost exclusively on a single aspect of life and highlighted that as a source for happiness: e.g. social life, some suggested intellectual development – and yet some others had a mixture of different areas, often combining two or three areas. The approach of looking at clusters appeared to be more useful to me, but most of the books and articles that I found appeared to strongly argue for just single areas (or sometimes even simply single actions), identifying them as the absolute “must haves” and working with the assumption that once those are “fixed”, all else will be ok. I can understand the logic there… but in the end felt it was a bit like building a house on a foundation- made out of a single stone (and hoping the house would fit around it). So, I felt that this “pick and mix” approach did not give ma a holistic “starter toolkit” to develop a comprehensive overview nor try and develop a real personal vision. Rather, it hastily skipped the really important part of any planning process: analysing where you are at this moment in time – and comparing this to where I wanted to be.
In the end I decided to stop looking and start combining various categories in order to develop a framework that would be helpful for me. I can’t claim that I have extensively tested this on anyone else other than me (sorry to my metananlytic friends…). What I did was simply write down all the different suggested areas I could find and then combine them into logical categories which would help me to analyse my here and now. The result is a mix of six “areas” framework. Of course, the framework is what, in the end, worked for me. I hope you find it useful if you want to take stock of your life or start making positive changes. But please feel free to add categories (or even take some out, but be careful with that).
Social – This area covers more immediate friends and family as well as the wider community: basically combining social interactions in different areas.
Work – A fairly self explanatory area – basically covering aspects of the professional life. Note that “work” doesn’t necessarily only mean working for money… it can also include voluntary work or things that are “work-like” but are not immediately for profit. It is, basically, the opposite of the social area.
Intellectual – This area is what you do to grow or stimulate yourself intellectually. As with the other areas, it can be a wide variety of things that fall under this category for you: from learning a new language to reading books. Or maybe even going on seminars for your job… if it stimulates your brain and makes you grow – it belongs in here.
Physical – This area is all about physical environment and growth: fitness, nutrition, healthy living and the environment in which you life come under this header.
Emotional – This is the area in which everything connected to the heart falls: relationships, love… and sex of course.
Spiritual – Finally the area of spiritual growth and balance: This can be loosely spiritual (like yoga or meditation) – or it could be as part of organised religion. Whatever it means to you, it belongs into this area.
I decided not to attribute importance to any of the categories: I felt in the end it was about personal choice. For example, some people may find spirituality especially important, others would be quite happy with few attention to social connections. For me this was more the other way round, so I didn’t want to discard any category, as I felt certain categories can be truly meaningful when you think about them. It may not mean that you take action on them immediately or that they will become immensely important, but it is good to keep them in mind. Equally, some categories may be more important than others for you,: If you are trying to adopt this, you may find you have different priorities – or that priorities change over time. For me, certainly things seemed to change during the last year, based on a combination of different factors: importance, ability to achieve change in a reasonable amount of time, confidence in achieving change etc.
Ultimately, this is intended as a loose framework: Clearly the categories are not mutually exclusive and wile some actions fall fairly neatly into one category, most actions will affect different categories: For instance, joining a local yoga group may lead to spiritual growth, but also affects physical growth and social life. I found this important to bear in mind for later, when trying to find optimal strategies to address problem areas: many may affect several areas in one go, so can be hugely beneficial. While others are more limited, or might largely contribute in areas in which you are already very happy. For instance, if you join a yoga group, but you’re already overstretched with your social life, it would be better to look for something that would affect areas where you feel you are missing out.