WHAT makes you happy, and more importantly, would you like to be happier?
Generally speaking, these are difficult questions to ask, and had you approached Ivan Zwart for his own insights some 15-years-ago the answers would not have come easily or quickly.
Having struggled with bouts of chronic fatigue, anxiety and depression for almost half of his adult life, Ivan has spent a lot of his time learning how to become happier.
“Losing both of my parents to terminal illness just after my 35th birthday took a huge toll on me and my family,” Ivan said.
“It was incredibly painful to watch mum and dad suffer for more than a decade. I was completely unprepared which left me feeling hopeless and defeated … it was a really miserable time.
“But sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can rebuild and see the new path ahead of you.”
The proof is in the pudding for this Hobart-based multi-tasker, who has discovered that it can be possible to radically transform your thoughts – and life – by simply learning to retrain your brain to focus on the positives.
“As a natural-born pessimist, it is a huge deal for me to sit here and say that I am really and truly happy,” Ivan said.
“Of course, it’s taken 20-years of working on myself to reach this point, but I was lucky in the sense that I had a reason to feel better, which pushed me to learn – I knew what it was like to feel terrible and I knew I didn’t want to feel like that anymore.”
In 2013 Ivan created, with the help of his business partner and now-wife, Danielle, the “Happy Ground” program, a 10-week structured wellness program designed to make people feel happier, more peaceful and less stressed.
Fuelled by a shared desire to “help people and make a difference in the world”, the couple wrote the course while juggling their full-time jobs.
They then spent the best part of two-years “test driving” their product before it was officially launched in Hobart in May 2016.
Today, the Happy Ground program is just one of a suite of training programs delivered under the Happy Ground umbrella, with complementary services including individual coaching, a workplace wellbeing program (“Positive Choices”), a meditation course and Tranquil Point retreats.
Ivan, who resigned from his job three-months-ago to focus his energies solely on the business, also offers public speaking services covering topics such as happiness, meditation and mindfulness, and mental health and illness.
“We started Happy Ground with the simple aim of bringing tools and techniques into people’s lives to help them live a more mindful, joyful and peaceful life,” Ivan said.
“Danielle has a psychology degree and I completed my PhD in political science – my 2003 doctorate examined group psychology, so we both shared a real interest in people and understanding what makes them tick.”
“I knew I was ready to share some of what I had learnt through my difficult experiences and from all the literature I had read and personal development courses I had undertaken.”
Broadly based on the principles of positive psychology, the Happy Ground program is delivered face-to-face in Hobart in a group setting of up to 16 people.
In Ivan’s words, it encourages participants to “learn from their past, explore a better future and develop the tools to get there”.
“Importantly, it is backed up by research which we know works,” he said.
“Our pilot programs, which we ran during the past two years, ended with really impressive results.
“Those who participated in the courses were all happier at the end, and there were other beneficial outcomes for people including reduced stress levels, greater feelings of peace, increased enjoyment of work and improved relationships.”
Despite what people might think, learning how to become happier is not rocket science – at least, that’s what Ivan believes.
“When we look at people who flourish in society – those who are consistently ‘happy’ (approximately 20 per cent of the population), there are distinctive qualities and behaviours they have in common,” he said.
“For instance, they are grateful for what they’ve got in life, they forgive themselves and others easily, they learn that sometimes in life there are things they can’t control and they’re OK with that.
“They learn to live in the present moment, rather than the future or past, and they can handle negative situations well.
“It doesn’t matter who you are or what your circumstances are, if you consistently apply the principles of positive psychology, which is what the Happy Ground program teaches, you can effectively re-wire your brain.
“By consistently exercising these skills, you will strengthen your brain’s positive neural pathways, which means that over time, you will naturally become happier.”
The Happy Ground program also involves exercises centred on mindfulness, meditation and visualisation.
“Our approach to mindfulness and meditation is both mainstream and slightly abstract, but the main goal is to make these practices accessible to everyone,” Ivan said.
For this reason, Ivan teaches a variety of different practices, ranging from breathing exercises to mantras, visualisation and walking meditation.
“Meditation can involve just a few moments of relative stillness or longer periods of sitting,” he said.
“Each session is tailored to the individual or group and is based on their aims of undertaking the program.”
According to Ivan, anyone who has a busy mind, is a little stressed or anxious or simply wishes for a slower, easier life, could benefit from the Happy Ground services.
“When we are feeling happier and in a better mood, our perspective on the world changes,” he said.
“Feeling good mentally is good for us physically as well. And people who are happier are proven to perform better at work and are more creative, not to mention that a happier workplace is also a productive one.
“Obviously, we can’t change the fact that illnesses like anxiety and depression have a biological component.
“But if you can remove the stress, incorporate things like gratitude into your life and meditate regularly, you can open yourself up to a brand new world.”
For more information about Happy Ground and the training programs available, visit www.happyground.com.au or phone 6231 8125.
Caption: Creators and facilitators of the Happy Ground program, Danielle and Ivan Zwart, of Hobart.