Happiness–a term notoriously difficult to define. What exactly is happiness? A short-term experience? A longer-term state of mind? Are people born happy or is it something that can be cultivated?
It’s a hard-enough question to consider even among the neurotypical population. What might make one person very happy (going to a football match, for example) might make another very unhappy. The final result of the match is likely to make fans of the winning team very happy but induce a state of some despair in supporters of their opponents. And what makes some people more prone to unhappiness than others?
Their previous life experiences? Their current situation? Genetics? Upbringing? Or what about their health, wealth, relationships, or social status? Happiness is a topic that philosophers have been debating for centuries without coming to any definite conclusions. Research often suggests that common ‘happiness factors’ include: a sense of connection/community, relationships with others, resilience, exercise, learning new things, having goals, experiencing positive emotions and accepting oneself.
One thing that seems clear is that there is a higher likelihood of individuals on the autism spectrum experiencing unhappiness, worry or depression than their neurotypical counterparts (Hudson, Hall and Harkness 2018, Van Heijst and Guerts 2014). But why? A number of inter-related factors are likely to contribute and could include:
Individuals on the autism spectrum:
- Experiencing feelings of isolation or loneliness due to difficulties maintaining friendships and relationships.
- Feeling ‘different,’ ‘odd’ or not fitting in.
- Having low self-worth as a result of prior negative experiences.
- Feeling misunderstood.
- Misunderstanding others’ intentions.
- Experiencing difficulties in communicating their needs and perspectives clearly and coherently.
- Having difficulties understanding and expressing their emotions.
- Having to try hard at things that seem to come so easily to peers.
- Being told there is something ‘wrong’ with them and that their feelings, perspectives, and preferences are not as valid as neurotypical values.
- Having a history of educational or employment failure, meaning they are not working in roles matching their ability.
- Being more vulnerable to bullying, discrimination, or prejudice.
- Experiencing anxiety when in public places, due to sensory overload.
- Finding socializing difficult or exhausting.
- Experiencing general anxiety about everyday events, especially changes to routine.
- Not having their differences recognized by others.
- Not received a diagnosis or support post-diagnosis to help them understand their differences.
- Lacking a solid sense of self-identity.
- Lacking self-confidence.
The broader social and cultural context also can’t be ignored. Individuals on the autism spectrum are less likely to see their values and preferences reflected in the mainstream media. Language used which terms autism as a ‘disorder’ or ‘disability’ gives the impression that individuals on the autism spectrum need somehow to be ‘fixed’ or ‘treated’–that they are not good enough how they are.
Stereotypes and misconceptions about autism can also increase difficulties–for example, highly intelligent individuals with Asperger’s syndrome could be treated as though they have learning difficulties and therefore not be given the opportunity to reach their potential. Living in a society which has been predominantly designed for neurotypicals can be exhausting and demoralizing.
It’s perfectly possible for those on the autism spectrum to experience happiness just as much as anybody else. Many successful autistic individuals consider themselves to be very happy with many reporting their happiness increased once they stopped comparing themselves to others, cultivated a more suitable environment around them and began to feel ‘comfortable in their own skin.’
It’s important not to force a neurotypical view of happiness on autistic individuals. An example would be for school staff to assume what will make all children happy is to spend social times on the playground with a large group of friends and join in games. Some autistic students, however, might be far happier by themselves reading a book or simply having time to recover from the social interaction already required during the rest of the day.
Equally important to remember is that autistic individuals are just that – individuals. What makes one happy might not make another happy.
And paradoxically, focussing too much on ‘being happier’ as an outcome is also not necessarily useful. Research generally shows the more people worry about becoming happier; the less happy they become (Blyth 2013). When working with adults or children on the autism spectrum, it can be more beneficial to begin by supporting individuals to increase their self-awareness, confidence, and resilience.
Recognizing and using our character strengths has been shown to increase happiness, optimism, and confidence (Boniwell 2008). Individuals on the autism spectrum typically have lower self-esteem and self-worth than their neurotypical counterparts (Jamison and Schuttler 2015) and can lack a secure sense of self-identity (Simone 2015). Support individuals on the autism spectrum to recognize and identify their positive qualities.
Depending on the age of individuals you are working with, you could:
- Ask group members to identify five or six of their top strengths (see list below). When have they used these? Can they seek out further opportunities to work to these strengths?
- Suggest group members ask trusted friends or relatives to help them identify their strengths.
- ‘Collect’ strengths over a given period. Ask group members to note down each day what went well and which strengths they demonstrated or developed.
- Keep a scrapbook or photo journal helping group members to identify and record strengths they have been using or developing.
- Create superheroes and make comic strips or write stories in which these characters use various strengths.
List of strengths:
Adaptability, Appreciation of beauty, Authenticity, Bravery, Creativity, Critical thinking, Curiosity, Emotional intelligence, Enthusiasm, Equality, Fairness, Forgiveness, Generosity, Gratitude, Honesty, Hope, Humour, Integrity, Justice, Kindness, Leadership, Love of learning, Loving, Modesty, Open-mindedness, Optimism, Organisation, Originality, Patience, Perseverance, Perspective, Prudence, Relationships, Responsibility, Self-awareness, Self-control, Social intelligence, Spirituality, Teamwork, Vitality, Wisdom.
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2. What makes you happy?
Help individuals discover what brings them happiness, joy, or inspiration. You might consider:
- Hobbies and interests
- Favorite places
- People they enjoy being with
- Things that bring them smiles and laughter
- Times they’ve felt alive, excited or curious
- Small things that bring joy
- Times they’ve felt loved and valued
- Past experiences they’ve enjoyed
- Times they’ve totally engaged with an activity or experience
Help individuals to record these suitably. How could they add more of these into their weekly routine?
School-aged children might like to design a happiness survey to help them understand that different things make different people happy. Students create a number of responses (e.g., being with friends, doing sports, reading a book, feeling healthy…) and ask the class or group to each pick their top three happiness factors.
It can be easy to focus on the negatives, even if a day or event had many positive aspects. The following activity can help to achieve a more balanced view of events:
- Split the day, week or event up into smaller parts (e.g., journey to work, team meeting, shelf-stacking, lunch break, work on the tills, journey home, going swimming, chatting to a friend, watching television).
- Color code each event. Use one color for things that went well, another for things that were okay and a third for things that were not so good. This should help to gain a more balanced perspective.
- For each element that did not go so well, consider why. What have you learned from the experience, and what could you do differently next time? For each element that went well, consider what you did to help this and how you could do more of the same in the future.
Activities adapted from A Practical Guide to Adults on the Autism Spectrum, JKP, 2019.
Blyth, L., (2013) The Secrets of Happiness: How to Love Life, Laugh More and Live Longer. London: CICO books.
Boniwell, I. (2008) Positive Psychology in a Nutshell (Second Edition). London: PWBC.
Hudson, C., Hall, L., Harkness, K., (2018) Prevalence of Depressive Disorders in Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorder: A meta-analysis, Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. Published online 01 March 2018 [ https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-018-0402-1]
Jamison, T.R. and Schuttler, J.O. (2015) Examining Social Competence, Self-Perception, Quality of Life and Internalizing and Externalizing Symptoms in Adolescent Females With and Without Autism Spectrum Disorders: a Quantitative Design Including Between-Groups and Correlational Analyses, Molecular Autism, September 2015, 17, pp6 -53.
Simone, R. (2010) Aspergirls: Empowering Females with Asperger Syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Van Heijst, B., Geurts, H., (2014) Quality of Life In Autism Across the Lifespan: a Meta-Analysis, Autism, February 2015, 19 (2), pp158-167
This article was featured in Issue 91 – Great Back-to-School Strategies