The SPIRE Model of Happiness: How to Enhance Your Wellbeing

For the past six months, I have been studying the science of happiness in an amazing certificate program at the Happiness Studies Academy (HSA).  The founder of the program is Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. Tal is an internationally renowned teacher, best-selling author, and consultant in the fields of happiness and leadership who taught two of the most popular courses in Harvard’s history: Positive Psychology and The Psychology of Leadership.  He has created a model known as SPIRE based on the latest research on happiness.

I first heard of Tal when I read his book, Happier, over 10 years ago.  His wisdom and insights have inspired my own teaching, coaching, and writing by offering research-based strategies for how to maximize your potential for leading a good life.

HSA’s mission is to promote the SPIRE model by educating leaders who are themselves dedicated to personal, interpersonal, and communal flourishing. The goal is nothing short of creating and spreading the happiness revolution.  Let’s examine the SPIRE model and see how you can apply it to your life.

The SPIRE Model of Happiness

SPIRE is comprised of the following five elements:

S: spiritual wellbeing
P: physical wellbeing
I: intellectual wellbeing
R: relational wellbeing
E: emotional wellbeing

Happiness is thus multi-dimensional. When we cultivate each of the five SPIRE elements, we reach our highest potential. All are essential.  Some parts of SPIRE will resonate more powerfully with you than others.  So take a moment to reflect on which ones are the most important to you!

Happiness Breeds Success

I have long been fascinated by the relationship between happiness and success.  In fact, I have blogged and spoken about the idea that happiness breeds success. This notion also lies at the heart of my book, Creative Success Now. Here’s why:

Some people think that they will be happy once they achieve success (when I get married or make a million dollars or become CEO or concertmaster). However, the research from psychologists like Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky instead shows that happiness breeds success.  That’s because being happy and having positive emotions enable you to cultivate the mindset and behaviors that give rise to greater success and fulfillment.  In other words, success flows from happiness.

Happy individuals experience success in their relationships, careers, income, and work performance, and enjoy greater physical, mental, and emotional health.

Happiness at work translates into leaders and employees who are motivated, productive, and engaged. They show up to work with better attendance, they have better relationships, and they tend to get promoted and make more money. And their organizations benefit because they have a more engaged workforce, greater employee retention, AND greater profitability.

So happiness makes sense!

Here’s how to incorporate more happiness into your life through the five SPIRE elements.  The key is to start with and commit to a small change that will have a big impact on the rest of your life.

The SPIRE Elements

  1. The “S” of SPIRE: Spiritual Wellbeing

There are two principles underlying Spiritual Wellbeing:

  • Having a sense of purpose to which you commit; and
  • Being mindful and experiencing life in the present moment.

Sense of Purpose:

Your sense of purpose can come from your work, your relationships, your service to others, and anything else that feels meaningful and fulfilling.  One of the reasons I love coaching and training in non-profit arts space is that the leaders I meet find a deep sense of purpose in the work of bringing art into the world.  Where do you find your sense of purpose?


We experience spiritual wellbeing when we pay attention to our present moment awareness. Formal meditation is one way to be mindful.  So is engaging in mini-meditation sessions throughout the day or simply focusing on what you are doing.  Yet another way is through flow, the present-moment experience where you are entirely focused and performing at your optimal best.

The research on mindfulness shows that mindfulness promotes:

  • An enhanced feeling of well-being;
  • Better physical health; and
  • Better mental health.

What small change can you make to incorporate more mindfulness into your life?

  1. The “P” of SPIRE: Physical Wellbeing

 The “P” of SPIRE stands for physical wellbeing, with these two principles:

  • The mind/body connection; and
  • The 4-part wonder drug of physical and mental well-being.

Mind/Body Connection

Our attitudes and perceptions can affect our physical health.  A great example is how we perceive stress.

 Historically, a relationship with stress has been a negative one.  When you ask people what they think about stress, you are likely to hear one or more of the following:

  • Stress triggers anxiety and depression.
  • Stress leads to chronic disease.
  • Stress leads to death.
  • Stress it leads to suboptimal performance.

However, there is more and more research showing that stress, when properly managed, is actually good for us.   It is how we perceive stress that matters.

Psychologist Kelly McGonigal in her TED Talk on stress explains the benefits of stress:

  1. Stress is a way to energize your body and your mind to meet a challenge.
  2. The stress hormone, oxytocin, motivates you to seek support, tell someone how you feel, and be surrounded by people who care about you. This, in turn, leads to greater social support which is another important element of wholebeing happiness.
  3. When you see stress as a way to meet a challenge, you are more resilient.

In Tal’s words,

 “ If we see stress as potentially enhancing, it can help us become more resilient and energized, more productive and focused, as well as healthier.”

So here’s the thing: stress is not the problem. Lack of recovery is the problem. Our 24/7 work culture, constant availability on our devices, and being continually plugged in means that we don’t give ourselves the time to recover.  This leads me to the next principle of physical wellbeing.

  • The 4-Part Wonder Drug

You can enhance your physical well-being by incorporating these four elements into your life:

Recovery: getting enough sleep
Exercise: moving your body and getting some physical exercise
Nutrition: eating as much non-processed food as possible
Touch: aim for 5 hugs a day!

This four-part wonder drug affects how to think and feel because of the mind-body connection. How we think about our lives can affect how we feel physically. And how we feel impacts the rest of our lives.

The benefits of taking this safe, free, and legal drug are:

  • Feel better mentally and physically
  • Boosts your energy and self-esteem
  • Sharper Thinking
  • Enhanced creativity
  • Better relationships

Where can you start to incorporate greater physical well-being into your life?

  1. The “I” of SPIRE: Intellectual Wellbeing

 Let’s now explore Intellectual Wellbeing.  This means

  • Being curious, being open to new experiences and
  • engaging in deep learning.

If you have a value around life-long learning (one of my top values!), challenge, excitement and/or discovery, you are probably enjoying the benefits of intellectual wellbeing.  Otherwise, think about subjects that fascinate you, skills you want to build, or areas that you are curious about.  Read, listen to a podcast, take a webinar or seek out mentors or experts from whom you can learn more.

  1. The “R” of SPIRE: Relational Wellbeing

The fourth part of SPIRE turns on your relationships, with these two principles:

  • Cultivating meaningful relationships with others; and
  • Having a healthy relationship with oneself.

Relationships with others:

Research from author and popular psychologist Shawn Achor tells us that having strong relationships and social support is the single best predicter of wellbeing.  In fact, in a Gallup survey of employee engagement, one question stood out from the rest:

“Do you have a best friend at work?”

Those who said “yes” to this question were reported to be more engaged and productive than those who said no.

It’s about quality, not quantity. So scan your world for the relationships that matter to you!

Relationship with oneself:

Do you feel “selfish” when you take time off to exercise, nap, or get a massage or a manicure?

In fact, nurturing yourself is important because not only does it enhance your personal well-being but it also contributes to having healthy relationships with others.

The key is to be generous.

Generosity creates a self-reinforcing loop:  the more generous we are to others, the better we feel and the better we feel, the more likely we are to be generous to others!  Moreover, generosity creates an upward spiral.  When you are generous to someone, that person feels good. That person, in turn, is more likely to be generous to someone else.  And person number three can spread even more generosity.  That’s why Tal says that the happiness revolution can happen one person at a time.

  1. The “E” of SPIRE: Emotional Wellbeing

Emotional wellbeing-the fifth SPIRE element- sums up the four other SPIRE elements. It encapsulates how we feel about ourselves and our lives.

Emotional wellbeing accepts all emotions. It gives us permission to be human.

A happy life is not about feeling great all the time. It is not a life devoid of painful emotions. Instead, a happy life is the ability to experience all emotions and then to take actions that lead to a more helpful way of looking at life.  Pleasurable emotions broaden our perspective and help us build resources.  They contribute to our physical health and can actually make us live longer.

One way to enhance your emotional well-being is through gratitude.

The research on gratitude shows that gratitude makes us more generous. It helps us to deal with adversity and it even strengthens our immune system. Thus, expressing gratitude regularly increases happiness and optimism, helps us achieve more and even strengthens our immune system.

You can start a gratitude practice by finding five things every day for which you are grateful.  To deepen your practice, visualize each person, experience, or another factor for which you are grateful.

The SPIRE Check-in

A great way to  incorporate the SPIRE elements into your life is to do a weekly SPIRE check-in. There are three steps:

  1. Rate yourself on each of the SPIRE elements on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being “not at all” to 10 being “completely”.
  2. For each rating, describe what you mean.
  3. Select an action step that can help you to improve that area.

Once you have rated yourself on all five of the SPIRE elements, select the one area that will make a difference to your overall wellbeing.  Commit to one action this week.  Then observe how you feel. Regularly using and applying the SPIRE check-in can help you to track your progress.

Enjoy the enhanced feeling of happiness by incorporating the SPIRE elements and committing to the actions that will lead you to achieve your potential for wellbeing!