Happiness. Fulfillment. Well-being. Flourishing. A lot of thought has gone into parsing these words and their siblings. But, regardless of which term is best term and the relative strengths of each, they all point to the idea of feeling good about our lives. For some of us, exuberance is easy, as simple as waking up in the morning. For others, it seems like an impossible dream, a fleeting miracle rather than an achievable state. But wherever we lie on that spectrum, it seems self-evident that we want that good feeling. We want to be satisfied with our lives.
The topic of seeking happiness is particularly in vogue these days, but it has been a central element of the philosophical discourse for thousands of years. Aristotle argued that happiness was actually the purpose of human life. “Happiness,” he said, “is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action,” by which he meant that we seek happiness for its own sake. All of our undertakings, according to Aristotle, regardless of the initial reason we give for them, are, at their base level, about trying to increase our happiness (1). So, for example, while we may want both to make more money and to be happy, we want to make more money because we believe it will make us happy. No one, however, seeks happiness in order to make more money (A). Thus, happiness is either the chief aim of human existence as Aristotle argues, or, at the very least, one of the chief aims.
In the last couple of decades, the question of happiness has moved from the philosophical and spiritual realms to the scientific realm. Positive Psychology is the study of feeling good about our lives. This is in contrast to traditional psychology which is about the workings of the mind and which has tended to focus on how to avoid dysfunction rather than deliberately seek optimal functioning.
Some clear findings have emerged from this research that have pushed our understanding of happiness to a new level:
- “Contrary to what most of us believe, happiness does not simply happen to us. It’s something that we make happen. (2)”
- We are confused about what happiness is. (See this post for the “paradox of work” example).
Thus, if we can better understand what happiness is and how it can actually be achieved, we’ll have a better shot at pulling it off.
Martin Seligman, called the “Father of Positive Psychology,” argues that there are three key elements that result in a high degree of life satisfaction: Mood, Meaning and Engagement (B)(3).
Mood (Your Mood: Use It, Don’t Let It Use You): The quality of your feelings. Do you have frequent experiences of positive emotion like happiness, pleasure, excitement and comfort? Do you infrequently experience negative emotions like unhappiness, stress, anxiety and boredom? Many people who stumble while seeking fulfillment make the mistake of only seeking to maximize their mood.
Meaning (Making Meaning): The meaning you prescribe to your experiences. Do you feel like you are a part of something bigger and more important than yourself, like your family, a company or organization, a religious group or a culture? Are you working towards any goals that intrinsically matter to you?
Engagement (A Flow Primer): The quality of your conscious experience. How often do you experience flow or feel like you’re in the zone? Flow is the state where you get completely absorbed by what you are doing. Your notion of time abstracts, your actions feel automatic and the self-critical voice in your head quiets down. Many people experience this state while reading, playing a favorite sport, creating art or during certain tasks while working. Flow is about using your strengths against a comparable challenge.
One of the central ideas behind this project is to better understand and share the path toward greater happiness. If you’re interested in reading more, please sign up for the newsletter.
(A) Although it doesn’t make sense to pursue happiness in order to make more money, there is evidence that such a crazy strategy might work. People who report being happier at 16, 19 and 22 earn higher incomes at 29 according to one study.
(B) Seligman later updated his theory to include Relationships and Achievement. While I do not discount the importance of both, I believe they can be captured within the concepts of mood, meaning and engagement and thus are redundant.
Title photo credit: Marina Del Castell, “Joy”, adapted