The pursuit of happiness just for the sake of happiness is a game you can’t win. If all you care about is being happy and you evaluate everything with that goal in mind, chances are you will become more depressed. You get too busy to enjoy the small wins and small joys in life and instead ruminate about why you are not super happy. You focus on the peak moments, on some significant events that are supposed to make you super happy, instead of enjoying the small daily moments that can make you a bit happy. Most importantly, your pursuit of happiness ignores the fact that most of the well-being and satisfaction in life comes from meaning and purpose, not from happiness.
How do you measure happiness?
Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, talks about the theory of authentic happiness. It consists of three elements: positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. Each of them is much easier to define and measure than happiness. Positive emotion is things we feel like pleasure, warmth, comfort. Engagement is about flow and living in the moment to truly experience what we do. When you are engaged, it is like being in the flow. You are oblivious to time and effort, even to your feelings. The last one, meaning, is based on the idea of having a reason for being that is bigger than us, and it makes us feel good. It is about serving others and about belonging to a tribe.
In Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman suggests that it is not only positive feelings we want but positive feelings we have to work on. We want to feel that we deserve the joy and happiness. That is why you don’t get happy just sitting in front of the TV, doing drugs, or eating chocolate. They bring you a short-term increase in dopamine, and you feel temporarily good, but you don’t experience happiness. Compare that with satisfaction and joy after winning a race for which you had to train hard. It is an entirely different level of emotions. Short-cuts to happiness don’t work. We need to exercise our strengths to feel genuine happiness. Seligman suggests that only positive feelings from exercising our strengths lead to real, authentic happiness.
Seligman proposes the happiness formula: H = S + C + V, where H is the enduring level of happiness, S is your set range, C is your circumstances, and V are the factors under your voluntary control.
Set range of happiness is what you get from genetics and early childhood. We all experience every now and then a sudden burst of happiness. Still, in the long-term, we tend to oscillate around an average value regardless of what happens to us. If you get promoted at work, you may be overjoyed for a couple of days, but then you settle back into your standard level of happiness. It is known as the hedonic treadmill, and you can see it in highly developed countries. Even though the standard of living keeps increasing, you don’t have much poverty, and people are wealthier, healthier, more educated than the generations before, they are not happier.
Some of your life circumstances can, not surprisingly, add or detract from your overall happiness level. For example, it is better to be rich than poor. Even though money won’t buy you happiness, it gives you more opportunities to live the life you want. Marriage, social life, health, education, religion, and age all impact our happiness levels.
The voluntary variable is what you have under your control and can significantly improve your overall level of happiness. Or drag it down. When it comes to what you genuinely have under your control, you will realize that it is all in your mind. You can’t choose what happens to you, but you can choose how you want to feel about it and how you respond. You can choose to have a positive view of the world, about the past, present, and the future.
If you dwell on the past, you let it decide your future. Because of some past mistakes or failures, you concluded that you would also fail in the future, and so you are less confident or don’t even try. If you don’t try, you can’t fail, but you can’t succeed either. You let your past define your future. However, your past doesn’t need to define your future. That is your decision. Your past only defines your present. What you have done in the past brought you to this point. It is your decisions and actions that you are taking right now that will define the future. If you choose to forget the past and not let it impact your current thinking and actions, you have a shot at having a better future.
To decouple from any negative past, consider what you are grateful for. Gratitude is a powerful antidote to past misery. Consider what the things you are thankful for are. Gratitude amplifies all the good that happened and is happening to you and sets you to a better mindset regarding the future. You become less bitter, less negative about the past, and more open to a positive future.
Life is not about happiness. It is about well-being.
The problem he found with the authentic happiness theory its ultimate measure is life satisfaction. And life satisfaction is not easily measured as it is a self-reported value based on how we feel in a particular moment. It is the same as measuring happiness. The second problem with authentic happiness is that it drags into it engagement and meaning, which sort of muddy what happiness means. Happiness is about positive feelings, while engagement is not about feelings at all. It creates a messy definition of happiness.
So here comes Seligman’s evolution of authentic happiness, the well-being theory. Well-being or eudaimonia consists of five things which he summarized in the PERMA model: Positive emotion (feeling good), Engagement (finding flow), Relationships (authentic connections), Meaning (purposeful existence), and Achievement (a sense of accomplishment).
Each of the five elements contributes to the overall well-being. It adds accomplishments and positive relationships as additional elements on top of those defined in authentic happiness theory. It is okay to have purpose and meaning in life, but you need to see that you are making progress. You need to see results. That’s where accomplishments come in. They keep us motivated to keep going. Authentic relationships then are here to put the meaning into context. It is the people around us we live for, they help us when we feel down, and we help them.
Putting it all together
While the goal of the authentic happiness theory is to increase the amount of happiness, the well-being theory’s goal is to increase the amount of flourishing in your own life and the lives of others. To flourish, you need to experience positive emotions, engagement, meaning, achievement, and authentic relationships. You need to have self-esteem, optimism, resilience, vitality, self-determination, and positive relationships. Then you can live up to your potential.
What is your take on the topic? Do you believe it is more important to be happy or to flourish and have a meaningful life? What are the things that make you happy? Do they last? Do you see purpose and meaning in your life?
Photo: JillWellington / Pixabay.com
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